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  • Writer's pictureAllison Bacher

Agile starts at the top and it's not always an IT initiative.

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

At Quantum of Value we have always been clear that for an enterprise-wide Agile transformation to work, it truly must start at the top and be a wholly owned business, not IT initiative. That's not radical after all Gartner have been preaching about Mind the Gap since 1999 so it should be a non-issue. But it still is. Inspired by the recent Forbes & Scrum Alliance report, I wanted to give our perspective.

In many organisations, Agile & Scrum are seen as IT initiatives at best, or sadly, “the IT teams standing around post-it-notes but at least it’s faster delivery”. We still have a long way to go in changing that perception and getting the business on board, but why and what can we do about it?

Well, we can stop presenting it as an IT initiative because it doesn’t have to be and with a little education they come on board pretty quickly.

Agile Was Born in IT …or was it?

OK so what we call Agile today was born in software development but let’s take a step back. Arguably it’s roots are restructuring and manufacturing – let’s look back to Deming and Toyota. In reality Agile principles and many of the practises work well when delivering complex products in complex environments, where uncertainty means learning & adapting as we go. It's about prioritising and building the right things right. I deliberately say “things” because I mean to describe the many components & tasks of product development, project & programme delivery that are non-IT. Take product marketing for instance. We need a Vision, to understand the features (& benefits) and to market test the concept and messaging. We collaborate with potential users, iterate messaging, inspect and adapt, review findings with stakeholders, iterate, release in time for the product launch. Kanban is the perfect tool for this.

Agile Outside of IT

There really are numerous other examples of Agile behaviours and techniques outside the IT department, because ultimately it’s about working collaboratively and iteratively towards common goals. Several years ago we worked with a Utility company that used Scrum to implement a pilot water treatment plant. It worked because they had a cross skilled team, liked User Stories and the Scrum Board and the daily Scrum really improved communication. No coding involved, but engineering and lots of testing.

I’m reading a lot about “Agile HR” at the moment and as an Agile practitioner looking into the HR world, it looks like many HR departments are held back by old processes and procedures. Change is in the air. Meeting HR Directors at recent events I see that many are starting to look for new responsive solutions that will bring their practices up to date and add real value to their organisations. In the tech world, implementing agile is a culture change. Successful adoptions are always dependent on the organisations’ openness and senior management “involvement”. Please note that’s different to “support”. They need to see the benefits in clear business language, see the ROI, before they buy-in. I wonder if HR will have the same challenges in their transition to Agile HR? Let's hope they learn from IT.

So back to the point – Agile starts at the Top. The recent Forbes Insights report  “The Elusive Agile Enterprise” detailed the results of a survey of over 1000 C-level executives from around the globe. Forbes found that a majority of executives at leading companies saw both improved time to market and increased innovation from their clear commitment to agility. The Forbes report also concluded that the push for organisational agility begins at the top:

 “The C-suite plays an integral role in driving adoption of agility across the enterprise. … 35% of executives view the CEO as responsible for organisational agility. A staggering 83% of executives cite an Agile mindset & flexibility as the most important characteristic of today’s C-suite — more than an ability to manage/attract talent (79%) and to be a great communicator (76%). Additionally, 87% view C-suite executives as the biggest champions of organisational agility.”

 That’s great news, isn’t it? Yes, so let's showcase it.

Leading by Example is Key to an Agile Transformation

The process of implementing Agile & Scrum is challenging as quite often problematic areas like resourcing and governance are exposed. Many Agile implementations fail because senior management underestimate the difficulty in cultural change and when it comes to the crunch they fail to support the practical application, forcing delivery back to old ways.

What does good look like? A great example of senior leadership is the Digital Transformation in Northern Ireland. It’s been a few years since we helped the Civil Service kick-start their Agile initiative so I caught up with them recently to see how it’s going. These people are delivering real change in quite challenging circumstances by embracing Agile across the business. Director of Digital Shared Services Caron Alexander was determined that Agile was never an IT initiative but a better way of delivering their public services, delivered collaboratively by the business, IT, and in many cases third parties. Back in 2014, she said, “One of the biggest changes which I’ve driven is being ‘Agile’. This is a step-change with the citizen placed firmly at the centre of service design and deployment… It’s important to break down organisational boundaries for true transformation…” Here we are in 2018 and the results speak for themselves.

Executive education is crucial. Senior executives then see Agile transformation as a project in itself – they lead by example. When they participate they experience the challenges first hand. They create and own a backlog of impediments and things to change in order to support these new practices. They can measure progress and link the change to business results. It's no longer an IT initiative, there's no gap, it's not "business" and "IT" because we're all in it together and we are aiming for a common goal - business agility. We need to be brave enough to make the case and lead the way.

Agile can start bottom-up, but it’s harder. It doesn’t have to be ring-fenced as IT, but wherever possible, it’s so much easier and better if you can start at the top.


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