Process + Strategy +

What is an agile business?

Business Agility is a culture, not a process. Discipline, good process and skill deployment can help with that cultural transformation and reap the rewards agile businesses enjoy over their less agile competitors.

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The pace of digital change is accelerating… rapidly. Customer expectations, led by new norms around digital and user experience, and generational shifts toward adoption, are putting unprecedented pressure on businesses to adapt and to transform and innovate! It is no longer feasible to build a digital product and enhance it through legacy major version releases. Competitors are delivering new features monthly, weekly, even daily.

How are these more agile firms able to do that?

Business Agility is about recognizing that traditional organizational structures and processes are just that… traditional. By design, they enable command-and-control styles of management, and may be suitable for “presiding” over a seldom-changing, status-quo business environment. But who lives in that world any longer? Competitors can pop up overnight with digital experiences and capabilities straight out-of-the-box that outpace your own.

Business Agility requires new thinking, new structures, new processes, new skills and new tools. That’s daunting, but also very achievable for any organization interested in transforming. The result is a nimble, competitive and compelling business, offering ever-increasing value to ever-demanding clients, at lower costs and faster speed-to-market than non-agile counterparts.

What Prevents Businesses from being Agile?

Businesses that are not Agile tend to exhibit the following challenges (and anecdotes from the front lines):

  • Lack of strategic alignment of digital spend to business objectives
    “Not working on the ‘right’ things; no air cover from senior management”
  • More demand than supply
    “Every project gets worked; nothing gets killed; the business just wants more”
  • No accountability
    “How come no one is held to account for benefits realization?”
  • Inability to make necessary strategic architectural improvements
    “We just keep adding technical debt; we’re not modernizing our platform“
  • Lack of transparency
    “We spend so much time creating and re-creating roadmaps and reports”

Four (4) Steps to Business Agility

There are many steps to achieving Business Agility, including cultural and mindset changes.  The steps below provide guiding principles and actionable initiatives to get you started:

  1. Think and Act Strategically

    • Plan Strategically
      • Cadence, Cadence, Cadence!
      • Plan on Cadence, and do so using Annual and Quarterly “rituals” to gain the benefit of collaboration and alignment.
      • Shed legacy funnel management and pinch-point processes that create impediments to flow; utilize event-based governance, versus funnels and process.
      • Plan the vast majority (90%+) of your demand to align with your business goals and objectives, and fend off ad hoc demand accordingly.  Work on the ‘right’ things!
    • Articulate Strategic Objectives
      • This is the hardest part; getting the business to clearly articulate Goals and measurable Objectives is a challenge for many organizations, but it’s vitally important for alignment.
      • Identify Strategies that support your measurable objectives.  These are your roadmap and funding candidates.
      • Push aside demand that doesn’t align.  Many organizations see as much as 30% of their demand fall by the wayside.
      • With clarity around objectives, “quantifying” the contribution of your roadmaps becomes possible.
    • Shape All Demand; Organize Around It
      • Once your demand is “shaped,” meaning it aligns to the value it delivers to the business, the resource complement becomes more clear (numbers of people and skills)
      • Don’t be afraid to organize around the demand, meaning agile whole teams.
      • Stand up whole teams with value-based missions, dedicate them to the task and leave them alone.
    • Establish ‘Value Streams’
      • Value Streams are funded commitments to quantifiable value to customers.
      • For truly Lean-Agile organizations, this is not a new concept, but it is for the rest of us!
      • Placing your “bets” on Value Streams is a powerful statement to the organization. It demonstrates that you’re serious about driving value, and about not allowing non-value-add demand to enter into the equation.
    • Develop Roadmaps
      • Be flexible and federate accountability, but insist upon some structure and roadmaps as the vehicle for supporting that.
      • With a good roadmap, the value of investments can be quantified, dependencies can be highlighted, progress can be demonstrated, risks can be managed.
    • Provide Visibility and Transparency
      • Support collaboration and visibility with a good roadmap management tool.
      • Select something that is simple-to-use and that supports the users (Product/Demand Owners) and those being reported to (Investors).
    • Standardize on Lean-Agile roles
      • Communicate Roles and Responsibilities broadly.
      • Establish Communities of Practice to link like-roles across the organization.
    • Implement Scaled Agile Framework ® concepts and principles
      • Start with Leader Training (Scaled Agilest) and create your roadmap for the rest.
  2. Elaborate and Mature Demand

    • Elaborate on Cadence

      • Utilize Agile principles, even for Elaboration “projects” (e.g. Backlog, Sprints, Sprint Demos, Retros)
    • Simplify Elaboration

      • Develop a “Service Catalog” to standardize and time-box elaboration steps.
        • This builds a common language between Product and Technology and puts planning tools in the hands of Product Owners.
        • This provides a means to estimate elaboration and to identify elaboration resource needs (BA, UXA, Architecture, Analytics).
      • Mature demand to be “shovel-ready” for development teams.
    • Gate through Backlogs
      • Utilize backlogs as gating mechanisms and accountability enforcers (until the organization is mature and truly Agile).
      • WIP-limit flow based on resource capacity and pull from backlogs to meter work into teams.  Don’t overload!
  3. Plan and Build using Agile

    • Ring-Fence and Dedicate Resources
      • Dedicate resources to Value Streams (or Programs or Feature Groups) to provide for schedule reliability, but also to eliminate context switching, waste and value leakage.
    • Practice Agile Principles and Lean Thinking
  4. Release on Cadence

  • Start with a Release Cadence
    • Establish a Release Calendar and align ALL processes around this cadence.
    • Gate entry to the release to reinforce accountability for “release-ready”.
  • Hone DevOps
    • Create a roadmap towards Continuous Integration / Continuous Deployment (CI/CD).
    • Appreciating the tool and process discipline needed for true CI/CD is important. Do you need to be Facebook or Netflix and deploy multiple times per day, or will your clients be satisfied with great new features every 2 weeks or months?
    • Determine the right velocity for your clients; the delta between deploying multiple times per day and even weekly is significant in terms of investment, capability and maturity.

A framework like the Scaled Agile Framework® provides a great guide for business agility. Using that guide along with the steps and principles above, any organization can become more agile, and thus enjoy growing revenue and profitability through improved innovation velocity and customer satisfaction.

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