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Agile Excellence

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I was working with an organisation that excels at the agile approach to change. I cannot name them because they view this excellence (quite rightly) as their competitive advantage. I do have permission to describe key elements of their approach, which I am sharing to give you ideas for what you can do in your organisation.

I have been working with them for 8 years, so this is not a short-term activity. Over this time, they have invested in their ability to implement and adopt new processes, new products, new services and new business models via a rigorous, repeatable process. This is underpinned by a culture that celebrates how agile provides flexibility, speed of delivery and customer and commercial focus. This culture is comprised of many elements, including:

Strategic direction

There is one very clear overarching objective – in their case it is “we keep growing” but it enables everyone to ask all the time – how does this help us grow? 

Their leaders really do speak with one voice – because they all talk about growth. Of course they talk about it using their own words and phrases and they ensure their remarks are relevant to their area of the business.  This “one voice” is confirmed by their staff engagement survey which shows high scores for clarity of purpose across all staff.  

Evolving solution

The concept of an evolving solution and working iteratively is made real for everyone by the emphasis on “try and learn” there is an expectation that everything starts with small initial steps. If the feedback is good, then further steps will be taken. If the feedback is that these initial steps are not delivering what is needed, there is a review.

Even big initiatives are talked about in this way, a common expectation that we will keep reviewing the situation. Whenever they talk about objectives they talk in the present tense: This is what we’re aiming to achieve right now…

but everybody in the organisation knows that there may be tweaks to this, because there is a review of market forces every few months, comparing what is happening outside the organisation with their own plans. This ensures flexibility is baked into what the organisation is doing.

Portfolio management

This organisation has invested heavily in the process of portfolio management – 2 keywords:

  1. Portfolio
  2. Management

Portfolio

Portfolio means the index or catalogue of initiatives that are in different states of completion. The organisation has defined a deck level, below which initiatives that are very localised are managed locally within local budgets. They are not captured by this portfolio, they are viewed as “business as usual” because managers don’t just perform day to day, they are empowered to improve the day to day operations.

Where initiatives have knock effects on to other parts of the organisation or where they have significant funding requests or they utilise significant internal resource or require or require external resource then they are captured as part of that portfolio management process.

Ideas are continually refreshed because the organisation runs an ongoing innovation competition where people are encouraged to submit their ideas via a very simple process. There are explicit criteria to help people evaluate their idea as they submit it, and for transparency, to understand the criteria that senior leaders will apply when considering their innovation. For this organisation, these criteria relate to their growth objective, including growth of the customer base and levels of customer retention; growth in revenue and profit margin; growth in range of products and services; growth in number of markets served.  

Management

Management is provided via a two-step evaluation process. The first evaluates the overall end goal of the initiative, and how clearly this aligns to the growth agenda and how much of a contribution it makes to this objective. The second evaluates the proposed first step of the initiative, identifying if this creates value for the organisation. This value can be based on an assessment of its benefits, how quickly they are likely to be realised, or its value as an enabler for other things to be developed.

Timing

Timing is important, because there is an expectation that all first steps will deliver within a relatively short time. In my experience, the expectation is 3-4 months. Anything longer than that and there are questions raised about how much of a “quick win” or proof of concept this initial step actually is. That isn’t to say it will not be authorised, but this focus on time creates a sense of pace and momentum across the whole organisation.

Conclusion

As I mentioned at the start of this blog, I have been on this agile journey with this organisation for 8 years and it is at this point that I would claim that the agile culture is endemic. It really feels as if the agile way of thinking is just “how we do things around here”.

I will sum it up by saying that they think deeply, and they think broadly about everything that they do, but they stop themselves over-thinking so that there is space and time to take action and see results.

I hope this has given you some insight into how things can develop in your own organisation. For more on the subject of agile culture, read this paper or join this webinar.