What is business agility, and how can it be enabled? Why do organisations that create the conditions which allow their Agile delivery teams to thrive, fare much better?
Organisations need to constantly adapt in order to succeed – I believe that (top down) organisations need to understand their customers evolving needs, and invest in the development and delivery of products and services that best meet those needs.
I also believe that (bottom-up) delivery teams using user-centred agile approaches are best placed to understand users’ needs and to develop and deliver the right products and services to meet those needs.
In this article I’ll outline what I mean by business agility, and consider how business agility is enabled by organisations who create the conditions which allow agile delivery teams to thrive. I’ll also begin to explore the dimensions to be considered by organisations who want to be truly agile, from the perspective of the people involved.
The case for adaptive organisations
In our view, business agility is about the ability of an organisation to adapt in a fast-changing world. Agile is a well-used term in the development of software products and digital services, and agile approaches can help organisations to deliver better products and services to meet customer needs.
Regardless of the methodology used, in order to reap the full benefits from agile approaches, organisations need to create the conditions for agile teams to succeed and thrive. As digital becomes more prevalent, and new technologies transform the way organisations engage with their end-users, customers expect to have more influence over how they interact with organisations.
They expect their feedback to be valued, and that providers will react to that feedback through rapid improvements in products and services. When their feedback is ignored, customers will move to another provider.
Today’s successful organisations are those that are most capable of responding to the needs of their customers (or the citizens they serve) and the marketplace they operate in. We call these ‘adaptive organisations’. It is the adaptive organisation that will retain and grow its customer base.
Adaptive organisations have the ability to take constant feedback (from clients, citizens, suppliers, the wider marketplace etc.) and improve their products and services in response to that feedback.
In order to be adaptive, we believe organisations need to create the conditions which enable their people to execute rapid cycles of learning and adapting: seeking user feedback, making adjustments to products and services, and delivering those to market in a meaningful timeframe.
The dimensions of organisational agility
In order to create the conditions to allow their people to enable business agility, adaptive organisations will need to transform and continuously improve the following dimensions:
Product and service delivery:
- The push for agility is often driven from here, as delivery teams (software developers, testers, user researchers, designers, delivery managers, product owners etc.) use agile methods to put the user at the centre of product and service development, and apply new technologies and DevOps approaches to improve speed to market.
Governance (and management):
- As delivery teams start doing things differently, learning to fail fast and iterating based on proper research and user feedback, ways of governing and assuring are challenged to remain fit for purpose
- Governance processes need to be effective enough to allow accountable stakeholders sufficient transparency to ensure that they are making the right investments and delivering them well, but efficient enough to allow the delivery teams to get on with responding to user feedback and delivering value.
Organisational structure and culture:
- Adaptive organisations need to empower their people, trusting them to deliver customer value because they are closest to users and most familiar with their needs. They need to allow time and space for people to innovate, to try things out, take feedback, adjust products and services
- Adaptive organisations need to be structured around the delivery of services to customers, and not around the traditional organisation silos (finance, HR, operations) – yes these functions need to exist, but their primary focus should be on enabling their people to support the delivery of customer value.
How this impacts on people
Your perspective on the adaptive organisation, and how you can assist in, and benefit from, the implementation of a user / citizen / customer value focus, will be influenced by your role.
Those of you in delivery teams using agile approaches to build products and services, will often feel frustrated, hamstrung by the mechanisms and structures that delay your progress. You should realise that the leaders in your organisation want the same thing as you – delivery of value early and often in response to customer and market need.
They just want to protect their investment, and they look for assurance about that.
You can help by explaining how, by putting users at the centre of your product or service development initiatives, and spending appropriate time to understand their needs, you can ensure that you are delivering the right thing.
You can outline how iterative and incremental delivery, with frequent demonstration (and delivery) of product, protects the organisation’s investment. Providing easy access to your information radiators, and inviting them to visit you often will help with this.
Those of you in leadership positions want your organisations to be agile and adaptive, to react to the forces of change – better informed customer and citizen needs, reduced budgets and changing legislation.
You may be frustrated by the slow pace and high cost of change. You will be concerned about the risk of wasted investment, and the consequences of that in terms of investor, regulator and media scrutiny.
So, you look for assurance and appropriate governance to safeguard your investment. If you have good agile delivery teams, their very approach to developing and delivering products and services will be safeguarding your investment.
They will ask you to empower your best, most visionary people to work with them to deliver what you really need. They will ask for time to explore, make mistakes, learn.
They will ask for your patience – don’t expect the false certainty of a two-year plan – let them know your desired outcome, give them space to figure it out, help them by removing obstacles and blockers that get in their way. Visit them as often as you can – they’ll welcome you.
Those of you responsible for governing and assuring are caught in the middle of this drive for agility and adaptability. You are expected to be the brokers between the sponsors and the delivery teams, facilitating the means for ensuring that money is invested appropriately, and is being used effectively to meet real user needs.
You will need to create the conditions whereby leaders can:
- Make decisions about the most important things to do
- Allocate skilled, knowledgeable and empowered people to the delivery teams
- Come and see the progress for themselves.
Delivery teams will expect that the information they generate as they work should be sufficient to demonstrate progress and control. And everyone will expect you to ensure that governance approaches add value and don’t slow down delivery.
The potential for agile to enable organisational transformation can only be fully realised when leaders, managers and delivery teams align behaviours, and organisations mature beyond focusing on the delivery dimension (using agile practices to deliver a specific product or service) through to the organisation dimension, harnessing the agile mindset and values to create a learning, evolving, adaptive organisation.