Running our business using Agile

Agile is designed to manage complex situations where there are a large number of unknowns. It has been extremely successful in helping navigate a constantly changing environment by rapidly delivering small increments of value and using the evidence obtained to determine the next round of decision making. Given the highly competitive and rapidly changing business environment, many organisations are now asking whether Agile can be applied to running their entire organisation.

In this series I delve into how Assurity, a 200+ person consulting firm, has been running the entire company using agile techniques. As the General Manager of the second largest branch and a seasoned agile coach I am helping shape our direction. I will share our successes, our spectacular failures and some really interesting lessons in the interests of collective learning with the broader community.

3dancers

While helping companies adopt agile I have often seen other departments express interest in agile. They see the benefits of visualising work, collaborating and regularly delivering value. I remember taking Jeff Sutherland into visit one of our clients in 2010 and he looked around, quietly nodding in admiration of all the Scrum boards, and grinning said “huh – spontaneous uptake!”

The challenge with this is that it is often done without a lot of guidance. With the best of intentions, these departments pick up agile at the process level without an understanding of the agile mind-set, principles or values. Typically, the business value these teams seek goes unrealised.

We are increasingly being engaged on agile consulting work outside of IT – in HR, strategy, call centres, operations, and executive management.  For the past year and a half we have been on our own journey to run our entire business using agile techniques. In this series I aim to combine these learnings into something of value.

Firstly, what do we mean by “agile business” and why do we want to be one?

Over the past decade we have seen the rapid rise of disruptive businesses. The previous decade laid the foundations for this. One of the major outcomes of the dot com boom was millions of kilometres of data cables in the ground. Remote communities suddenly found they had the same access to the web as a downtown Manhattan executive.  Barriers to business started to topple. As Thomas Friedman said, “The World is Flat” and now anyone, anywhere with a computer and an internet connection can compete.

Smart phones and mobile networks changed the game again, making it possible to reach customers with the underlying hardware and communications infrastructure taken care of. Entire industries are now being turned on their heads by anyone with a great idea. New business models exploit technology, mimicking the creative destruction cycle of nature of as the old dies to make room for the new. All of this is now being labelled the third age of digital, or Digital Transformation.

 

The poster children of the digital revolution are Uber and Airbnb. Uber is the world’s largest taxi company and owns no cars. Airbnb is the world’s largest hotel company and owns no hotels.  These companies compete using technology, often as a brokerage platform, to connect buys and sellers using technology that already resides in customer’s pockets everywhere they go. Software is the enabler of these new business models. As Marc Andreessen said, “software is eating the world”. Competitive advantage has moved from “being the best” to “who can deliver customer value the quickest”. And, as I have written before, Agile is a key enabler of this (not strategy).

There are a number of ways you can look at this new world. You can erect more barriers in an attempt to hang on and to hold the forces of disruption at bay. You can often see this model in play in societies where the lumbering incumbent tires to use their size, power and influence to lobby for changes to laws that protect them, in an attempt to hold the disrupter at bay (think about how New York approached Uber). Like prohibition however, this model only serves to delay the inevitable. At best it buys a small window of time for the incumbent to figure out what the hell they are going to do.

 

 

Disruption is pervasive and relentless. Attack is the new defence – smart companies disrupt themselves before they are disrupted by someone else.

The rush to agile business is being fuelled by this phenomenon. Unless you have a very well established and protected monopoly/duopoly or are protected by some favourable legislation, then the ability to turn on a dime is utterly essential.

Fortunately, the software world provides us some valuable experiences from its long standing relationship with Complexity.  With some intelligent and thoughtful modification, the agile values and principles from the software world are highly applicable to today’s business challenges.

From our research, we believe the professional services industry is about to be disrupted. Assurity has always been an “ahead of the curve” company, and to remain so we need two things – to be agile and to be part of the disruption, rather than simply cope with it.

digital disruption

Forrester and IDC are forecasting by 2020, more than 30 percent of IT vendors will not exist as we know them today and that the CIO magazine being very clear – legacy style vendors face a bleak future.

So, we have established the context. Assurity needs two things; firstly be able to change course quickly and secondly to disruptive ourselves. The second point (disrupting ourselves) is an entirely separate topic, beyond the scope and intent of this series, hence I am going to focus on how, exactly, we are trying to become more agile.

We realise the scale of the journey in front of us and at first felt pretty overwhelmed as we floundered around trying to consider how we might approach this. We found the following from Ahmed Sidky really useful:

org agility

This helped us share our thinking. We realised in order to change our culture, we needed to first define what that target culture should be, then change the environment by changing our habits.

From this we developed the following rough roadmap:

  • Be clear on the case for agile
  • Define our target culture – what sort of culture were we aiming for?
  • Change our business environment by changing the habits of how we worked.
  • Change our operating process to kick-start some new habits
  • Change our leadership behaviours
  • Change how we do strategy and planning

The remainder of this series will follow this structure, each delving into what we did and are doing, and then wrap up this series in a summary sharing our key lessons and next steps.

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