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Agile at scale: How to scale up agile in your company

Cecilie Buhl

Agile at scale – So, what is it really?

Agile at scale – you hear it all the time. But how do you actually do it? Agile methods have been adopted by business leaders all over the world. This development started in IT departments, but have spread into functions such as product development, procurement, and HR. Scaling up agile is the number one key to thriving in the digital age, according to a report by McKinsey


However, agile at scale is still a challenge for many organisations.
A recent Deloitte survey showed that while 94 percent of the respondents reported that “agility and collaboration” were high priorities to their organization’s success, only 6 percent said they were “highly agile today.”

 

Business leaders struggle with some important questions. What if a large-scale company is implementing agile across dozens, several hundreds, or even thousand units? Is this possible? How do you ensure that you’re doing is actually working? And how do you ensure a good organizational culture?

 

For anyone who is not familiar with agile yet, here’s a short review. Agile teams are best suited to innovation, according to Harvard Business Review. Agile teams are small and multidisciplinary. When they are confronted with a large, complex problem, they break it into smaller pieces and come up with solutions to each component. This happens through rapidly refining the company’s products or services through a feedback loop from customers.

Agile teams value adapting to changes, rather than sticking to a specific plan. When implemented successfully, they create higher team productivity and morale, faster time to market, higher quality, and lower risk than traditional approaches achieve, according to a study by Harvard Business Review.

 

How to make your company agile at scale

In today’s dynamic and ever-changing business environment, it’s not hard to make a case for why a fast-moving, adaptive agile company is highly desirable. But turning this ideal into reality can seem daunting.

 

But don’t worry. We’ve collected the best research out there on how to successfully implement agile at scale.

 

Harvard Business Review has studied the “agile at scale” of hundreds of companies, including both SMVs and large companies, such as Spotify and Netflix. Spotify and Netflix are companies that were born agile and have become more so with time, while a company like Amazon is transitioning from a traditional enterprise to an agile one.

 

Findings from Harvard Business Review and McKinsey show that agile at scale creates great benefits. Agile organizations are high-performers in terms of long-term superior financial and operational performance, they are better at responding to market trends, and their employees are more motivated and better aligned around the company’s strategy and values.

 

However, agile should be implemented to smaller and greater extents in the different departments of the organization. For example, IT benefits greatly from agile, while routine operations such as plant maintenance, purchasing, and accounting benefit less, according to Harvard Business Review. Once you go agile at scale though, you can’t just leave parts of the company undone. If the newly agile units are constantly met by bureaucracy or lack of cooperation, problems and poor performance will arise from organizational friction.

 

Changes are necessary to ensure that the functions that don’t operate as agile as others support the ones that do.

 

It all starts with the leaders

Agile teams work differently from traditional teams. They are largely self-governing. Leaders tell them where to innovate, but not how. They work in close collaboration with customers. This reduces layers of control and approval, and frees the teams to work more innovatively. Team members are also more motivated by this form of management, according to the study by Harvard Business Review.

 

If leaders aren’t agile themselves, they may try to scale up agile through top-down plans and directives. This approach doesn’t work. Rather, leaders should see the different parts of the organization as their customers – people with different needs, competencies, and desires – and give them more control. Agile leaders define priorities and opportunities to improve those customers’ experiences and increase their success. They help solve problems and remove hurdles rather than delegate work.

 

Create a taxonomy of teams and sequence the transition

According to Harvard Business Review, companies that have successfully become agile begin by creating a full taxonomy of opportunities. This is similar to how agile teams create a backlog of work to be done in the future. Organizations that scale up agile successfully usually do the same, by breaking their organization into several team-components. Usually, these three taxonomies:

  • Customer Experience Teams:  Customer Experience Teams look at all the components that could affect customer decisions, behaviors, and satisfaction.
  • Business Process Teams: The Business Process teams look at the relationships between these experiences and important business processes. The goal is to reduce overlaps between responsibilities and increase collaboration between process teams and customer experience teams.
  • Technology systems teams: Technology Systems Teams look at developing technology systems to improve the processes that will support customer experience teams.

Large scale companies break down their organization into an even bigger number of small teams. Then, they start integrating these taxonomies into the organization. Leaders start setting priorities and schedule initiatives. They consider multiple different criterias, such as strategic importance, budgets, labor capability and capacity, ROI, risk levels, and interdependencies among teams.

 

They have to create a balance, so that the pain-point felt by customers and employees on the one hand and the organization’s capabilities and constraints on the other is viable, according to Harvard Business Review. This is crucial for determining the pace for how many teams the organization can make agile simultaneously.

 

You might think this process seems complex. Not only does the process of actually implementing several agile seem daunting, but most leaders also fear the resistance of their employees. Most people don’t like change and will fiercely defend the status quo. But the value of creating taxonomies is that it aligns people on the vision of being on a transformational journey, and it also breaks down the process into small steps that can be paused, accelerated, or discarded at any time. Once leaders have identified the teams, they look at the sorts of people needed to staff them. They ask: Do we have those people?

 

If those people are not already in the staff, they can be hired through traditional means, or by tapping into the liquid labor force to hire independent professionals to do the job. When the task at hand is project and time dependent, this makes more sense. For HR leaders, this means looking at the hiring process as being about access to the best talent, not ownership. Read more about agile HR in this blogpost Agile HR: From Ownership to Access. Luckily, there’s plenty of qualified fish in the sea. The freelance-worker segment is the largest growing segment the EU, read about it in here.

 

Whatever the pace your company’s agile transformation happens in, results should begin showing up quickly, according to Harvard Business Review. While the financial side can take a while, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, argues that Amazon is experiencing positive changes in customer behavior and team problem solving skills are worth the wait.

 

If you still feel like the process to agile at scale is daunting, we’ve compiled a checklist from Harvard Business Review on how to do it.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is my company focused on seeing this as a major business opportunity with a lot at stake?
  • Is the agile at scale transition supported by senior executives who will address challenges and drive the company’s adoption?
  • Is my company ready to take responsibility for specific outcomes?
  • Do we believe that teams can work autonomously, by being guided by executives and being properly resourced?
  • Do we have the right people who are passionate about this opportunity? If not, can we find them by tapping into the liquid labor force?
  • Are we committed to applying agile values, principles, and practices?
  • Are we empowered to collaborate closely with customers?
  • Do we have the ability to create rapid prototypes and fast feedback loops?

If your answer to all of these questions was yes, you’re good to go. If not, start working your way down the list.


 


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