March 4, 2020
Amid continued economic and political uncertainty, following the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU), the adoption of agile practices will be more important than ever for businesses to survive and adapt to market change. But when we talk about agility in a business context, what do we really mean?
Whilst an agile approach might seem like an obvious solution during these times, the hype surrounding this buzzword in recent years has also proven to be counter-intuitive. A common result is that everyone now has their definition of what agility means to businesses. Business leaders often use it in the wrong way, causing many true business agility advocates to shy away from the term. More recently the term ‘business agility’ has been coined in order to overcome this confusion. However, with any ‘trend’, businesses must begin by asking themselves ‘why they need to be agile’.
Once a business has a clearly defined purpose, business leaders can only then set out on a path to achieving business agility and identify the components needed to make that journey a success.
So, what does ‘business agility’ actually mean?
Agility is the ability to move quickly and easily. To be able to do so, businesses must optimise themselves for learning. This should impact a variety of different functions within a company – from how the company thinks about innovation and product development, to technical architecture and product releases, all the way through to the company culture. In today’s rapidly evolving marketplace, the pace of change will only get faster, and those who are constantly learning and adapting will be best placed to respond quickly and flexibly to evolving customer needs.
Whilst many organisations claim to be agile – this is not always the case. A lack of clarity and misunderstanding around the term can cause businesses to face a number of stumbling blocks when pursuing true business agility. Common misconceptions include:
1.“My business uses new technology – so it must be agile”
Some organisations believe that they are agile simply because they use new technology to test and release code to production, i.e. continuous development pipelines. But if you stick to running projects as the company has always done and/or have a product management team that doesn’t make decisions with an agile methodology in mind, an organisation can’t be agile in its true sense.
2. “To have business agility is the same as having agile methods and processes”
When pursuing ‘business agility’, many businesses can confuse agility with agile methods and processes, losing sight of why the organisation needs to be agile – introducing agile frameworks and methods becomes the goal in itself.
Organisations often stick to long-term plans and iterate within the plan, usually with the help of Scrum or Kanban tools, without factoring in time to review, evaluate and learn during execution. Without experimenting and putting aside time for reflection, an organisation cannot claim to be truly agile. Being effective and fast doesn’t mean you will deliver the best value to customers.
A lot of companies will also keep the traditional project model and try to be agile in the software part of the project. The ultimate benefits of being agile will likely never be fully realised since the mindset is too different from the ways of addressing the task. There will inevitably be a clash between the project manager, who tries to follow-up on budget and milestones, and the development team, which tries to define one or two sprints ahead to maximise learning.
3. “Business agility is all about being reactive”
Some businesses believe agility is all about being reactive and navigating as the market changes, but it is really more about steering the market and adapting projects in line with live feedback. Organisations can’t do that if they stick to traditional big projects with project budgets (having a specific project budget is like saying you know exactly what to build based on the cost), with project plans and requirements defined upfront. Traditional projects tend to focus more on delivering according to the initial plan rather than factoring in an ongoing review of what the customer wants, or doesn’t want.
To overcome the hype of ‘business agility’ and truly put agility into practice, learning is key. Companies must continue to experiment with products and services, enabling a streamlined channel of communication with both customers and stakeholders, to gather feedback. Simply put – let end-users try out products and find out what they think. This, in turn, will reduce the delivery times and overheads associated with early product versions, whilst allowing businesses to stay ahead of the competition.
Let end-users try out products and find out what they think
For this concept to be effective, companies must also look to minimise the impact when products don’t deliver the expected results. For example, whilst new software may never be completely free of bugs, by releasing small updates to just a few beta customers at a time the impact of these bugs can be reduced before the product goes to market.
Most importantly, teams must be educated to clearly understand the agile ways of working and must also include employees in the process of creating an agile culture. Many large companies tend to just go as far as adopting agile processes and tools, but the company culture remains the same. The challenge large non-agile companies face is changing the mindset of employees, where the traditional way of working has been engrained into the company architecture. As always, it’s all about the people in the end – individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
The most forward-looking, brilliant people tend to want to work in truly agile environments, so maintaining agility is a must to attract future talent. Companies that achieve true agility will be or will stay, competitive in a rapidly evolving world.
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