Using the traditional model for business transformation (also known as the waterfall method), we start by identifying a problem or opportunity. A business case is then made to support the changes required. Then all the research is gathered, condensed and presented to decision-makers. If they approve and there’s enough funding, the project moves along to the design phase before it’s handed over to the line managers who then begin the implementation stage.
On paper, this reads like clockwork, and as Mckinsey, a management consulting firm, points out, the waterfall method was designed for structural and linear organisations operating in a stable environment.
But today’s business world is anything but stable. It’s volatile, unpredictable and ruled by rapid changes in digital technologies.
Fast times calls for agile measures. And that measure comes in the form of the aptly named Agile model.
We sat down with four leaders in the tech industry to discuss the virtues of the Agile method and how they’ve used it to drive successful change: Guillaume Renoult, PHP Developer at ELMO, Paul Farrar, Senior Software Engineer, and Matt Neville, Software Engineer at Objective, and John McKim, VP of Product & Technology at A Cloud Guru.
Why should you consider agile as a framework for transformation?
When we place the waterfall method in today’s context, its incompatibility becomes obvious.
One of the biggest issues is speed. A volatile and fast-moving business climate has only slowed down our traditional model even more due to new factors like limited resources, more layers of approval and shortened lifespans of solutions.
The transformation journey from start to finish under a waterfall method can take several years. For projects that do manage to succeed as planned, they’re often close to being obsolete right out of the gate.
Another obvious drawback is that you really only get one chance to get the whole project right. That’s a lot of eggs in one basket and a huge risk when you consider that studies have shown the success rate of business transformation is less than 30%.
The agile method has become so appealing because it allows organisations to be nimble enough to evaluate, learn and make corrections as they go along to avoid a scenario where time and effort is poured into creating a redundant solution. You could say agile is the art of maximising the amount of work NOT done.
For McKim and his team at A Cloud Guru, the choice to go agile is obvious in today’s climate: “Agile practices are better suited to an environment where there is high uncertainty or change, such as with software development. It encourages teams to be flexible and adapt to changes while maintaining a high level of transparency with stakeholders and the business”.
What does an agile approach look like?
It’s one thing to recognise that you need agile; it’s another to know where to start.
Renoult from ELMO shares three vital steps to the agile journey:
Step 1 – Ensure all team members have the right mindset for agile.
Step 2 – Ask yourself as a team what effectiveness and efficiency means.
Step 3 – Set a loop feedback so you can reply and adjust your answers when necessary.
It’s clear from Renoult’s roadmap that agile is as much about mindset as it is about practices.
One of the biggest limitations of the traditional model is the idea that things have to be perfect before it can pass through to the next stage.
Agile encourages you to change your perspective from ‘build-to-last’ to ‘good enough’ as a viable principle. Rather than promoting mediocrity, it’s a principle that recognises that today’s solutions have a very short expiry date and forces you to narrow your efforts down to what truly matters.
Overcoming challenges in agile implementation
Adopting an agile mindset is often a major hurdle for many organisations. It demands a wider cultural shift where people are willing to make trade-offs and rewire their learning through experimentation and failure rather than through meticulous research and analysis.
Farrar at Objective believes that the whole organisation needs to buy-in to the principles of Agile for it to work. For example, “If the development teamwork in an Agile way but the executive team doesn’t, then delivering frequent incremental changes may be blocked”.
Farrar’s colleague, Neville, adds that for Agile to be successful, “It needs time to establish itself within the day-to-day operations of the organisation”.
He cites several scenarios to illustrate his point: “If your manager is booking meetings that overlap with your developer stand-ups – you’re going to have a bad time. If some team members think stand-ups are optional – you’re exposing yourself to risk. If there is no feedback during your retrospective – are you sure you can’t do better? If your organisation doesn’t have a feature roadmap to success – you’re not going to have a release celebration.”
Agile best practices
To fully leverage the power of the agile method, certain best practices should be considered:
To Farrar, Agile shouldn’t be restrictive or prescriptive. He says, “There are many different approaches to agile which involve various techniques for planning and managing tasks. Teams can experiment with agile processes and find the ones that work best for them.”
Likewise, Renoult believes agile has thrived at ELMO because of how flexible the people are: “We are a team of people who constantly ask, ‘Are we doing this the right way? Is there a simpler or smarter way to find a solution to this problem?’”
Teams need to work together
While it isn’t necessary or feasible to have teams be physically next to each other, it is important that teams coordinate and keep track of each other’s responsibilities and progress to ensure work isn’t duplicated.
Lead from the top fearlessly
Success with agile requires leaders to be proactive in giving direction and to take risks by making decisions with limited information in real-time.
The best way to compress the timeframe of the transformation journey is by adopting short, focused sprints where resources are allocated much more efficiently.
Implement with a clearly defined scope
In Neville’s experience, when the scope of work is vague, the outcome tends to be mediocre at best.
His advice? “Be thorough. Be ambitious. Be precise. Always work with, and for, a purpose.”
Neville values the fact that Objective considers the developer as well as the end-user. “If we can make it better and make the end-user wait a little bit longer for a superior solution, Objective has backed itself and done just that.”
Don’t forget the retrospective
A common mistake organisations make is skipping the retrospective meeting at the end of a sprint. Retrospectives allow you to learn from your processes and evaluate what’s working and what isn’t along the way, which is the whole point of agile.
At Objective, retrospectives serve multiple purposes. Neville says, “Our retrospectives identify use-cases of existing features that we can export to the new technology. This keeps the work interesting and improves the skill base of the team, all in the same process.”
Today, the customer experience reigns supreme. In the quest to deliver the best experience, organisations are continuously transforming themselves and discovering that their success depends on agility.
Think you’re agile enough to help drive the next big organisational change? Explore job opportunities at some of Australia’s top companies.