3 months ago

Agile Benefits for Leaders and Executives

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At StoryPositive, we work with leaders to drive understanding of how an Agile mindset and methodology delivers large-scale businesses benefits when properly implemented, i.e. with a top-down understanding. Whilst numerous quality resources are available to train Change teams in how Agile, little exists on Agile benefits for Senior Leaders and Executives. This gap makes senior level discussions harder because people bring an a priori view of change management; that is, deduced from experience to date. Ingrained views are hard to shift as they’re often the product of years – even decades – of experience.

Until recently, it could be argued that this didn’t matter all that much (debatable, but for the sake of this article, let’s run with it). The pace of technological change was, after all, not that fast; at least, compared to the current rate of change.

But time doesn’t stand still. Each increment in technology change arrives faster than its predecessor.

In recent times, many financial firms have moved to a Cloud-First strategy. The reasons are many and compelling, but a decent two-pronged summary could be put as both cost optimisation (which may or may not manifest as cost reduction) and faster time-to-market, each of which enable earlier returns on investment (ROI).

One problem is that old methodologies don’t support new technologies well. When applied, the results tend towards blockage. That can act as a barrier to the logical recognition of the Agile benefits for Senior Leaders and Executives. Let’s consider a couple of real-world examples.

An Investment Bank we worked with refused to adopt Agile when developing a set of microservices. They’d seen the value of the technology, but focus was still fixed on Waterfall delivery because that’s what they felt comfortable with. Instead of adopting a “fail fast” mindset, a rule was created: nothing could be delivered until everything was delivered. So, although some aspects of the service offering were ready, it was impossible to get sign-off to put them live because other parts were not. This despite the different parts having discrete utility. The earlier parts were ready a full twelve months before the last parts to be delivered. By the time they were ready, the earlier ones had ‘gone stale’. In technical parlance, they were suffering from technical debt. Software, like the walls of a living cell, atrophies over time. Thus, earlier code had to be changed, which meant later delivered components, which were now ready couldn’t be deployed… And so, the cycle continued.

At a firm we worked with that developed software for clients, they had, in fact, tried to embrace Agile and, indeed, thought the had. The problem was – and this is a common issue we encounter – they had simply read a few blog posts about what Agile was and decided that all they needed to do was create a Project Manager, who could also act as SCRUM Master, and three Product Owners for the same product. Sprinkle in a distributed development team, and a liberal dose of manual testing, and the result was… Well, mayhem. Twelve planned releases – fully six months of development – were stuck because the Project Manager refused to release them (another nothing delivered until every delivered edict. The PM refused because they’d come from a Waterfall background and weren’t comfortable with the Continuous Integration / Continuous Deployment model (too risky, apparently). Because senior leadership at both the supplier and the client had received no formal Agile coaching or training, they too reverted to the Waterfall view of the world. Understandable: it was the one they already knew and were comfortable with, so it was easy to agree with the PM’s edict. To break the deadlock not only required restructuring the team and inculcating good Agile practices, but also leadership coaching for senior execs, right up to C-Level at both client and supplier. Once done, the blockage was released, and flow of delivery restored.

These cases highlight the importance of education if Agile benefits for Senior Leaders and Executives are to be realised; if they are to grasp the value that can be gained. Here’s where a cogent policy for leadership can help. Policies like this tend to require a degree of bespoke customisation, but a good place to start would be with one of the following:

  • Executive Coaching. Senior executives often don’t have time to attend half-day or all-day workshops. A dedicated 30 – 50 minute session can help to seed the concepts as well as the individual benefits for each leader firmly in the leader’s mind. This enables the leader to ask focussed questions that related to their specialist area, e.g. Fund Accounting, Transfer Agency, Depository, Procurement, or Finance, and help create context for them. Initially, try to get this in the diary once per week, but even once per fortnight is useful. Any lower frequency risks having to start again as busy executives may not retain information completely between sessions with long gaps in between them.
  • Executive Workshops. Yes, it can be difficult to free up executives for a morning or afternoon, but if you can it’s a tremendously valuable experience for them. These can be structured in many ways so be careful. Make sure to select a company that can teach Agile concepts at a level required for Senior Executives, and not one that provides workshops targeted at Change Management professionals, of which there are many. There are companies out there that do this and, of course, here at StoryPositive, we’d be very happy to help out.
  • Consultancy. This is a more hands-on, and fully engaged, form of coaching. You employ an individual or a team to come in and be available and on hand for a short period, maybe up to three months. Their job is to work with the members of the Senior Executive team. It might involve them traveling to different company offices, but the cost of their time pales in comparison to that of your executives and, besides, you want to minimise disruption whilst maximising understanding. Also, try to spend a week with the consultancy explaining the way the company is organised, who the key stakeholders are, how much, if any, understanding of, or exposure to, Agile they already have, and any other pertinent information that might increase the chances of a successful engagement outcome.
  • A combination of the above. This is the most powerful option but it may not suit all budgets or need to be used in all situations, especially for smaller, flatter structure, companies.

Whichever you choose, make sure to select a firm that is capable of explaining concepts comfortably to senior executives, not just to those at the coalface. One of the key skills leadership professionals need is the ability to abstract Agile concepts to suit the audience at the time. After all, everyone’s different: some people prefer images, some words; some people prefer detail, some want more abstract concepts; and so on.

Here, then, are some Agile benefits for Senior Leaders and Executives:

  • Accelerated delivery of change management initiatives. The value of change cannot be experienced by the user or, by extension, the firm, until the change is delivered; that is, until it is in active Production use. Long delays cost money (to understand more on how to avoid delay costs, see this article);
  • Closer alignment to current client needs. The word current is crucial here. Traditional projects suffer from scope creep, which is managed through Change Requests. Agile projects can dispense with the majority of change requests because they simply aren’t needed[^1]. Requirements are prioritised in (near) real time and delivered in small increments, which means delivery moves much closer to specification. This allows less time for requirements to become stale; past their sell by date. Also, because of the smaller timeframes, misunderstandings don’t escalate and multiply [^2].
  • Consistent cost control. This is related to the fact that using Agile we can get rid of most change requests. Because work is done in short-term fixed periods, it’s only necessary to budget for these fixed terms. If the business wishes to adjust the priority of work, it can usually do so without financial penalty – there are two caveats to this: one is that work already in progress cannot be moved out of schedule, but everything else is fair game. The second is that resource should not be moved to other tasks that are outside of the team without a recognition that this will affect the amount of work that a team can do. Thus, workload can be adjusted to suit the (changeable) priorities of the business without the business having to cough up more cash and if they do, it’s nothing like as catastrophic as it can be with Waterfall projects.
  • Talent retention. A perennial challenge for firms is not only how to attract talent, but how to retain it. Agile appeals to talented resource because they like to deliver and Agile enables quicker delivery. On many Waterfall projects that we’ve been involved in, a malaise can set in around the half to two-thirds mark. This happens for a number of reasons. One, is that delivery starts to slip. Slippage is often due to the fact that by now time has moved sufficiently far from the requirements gathering process and, as we know, requirements change over time. Thus, what’s being delivered is no longer what is required. So, we’re back to our friend the Change Request. Another is that often the traditional approach delivers large complex systems and, unsurprisingly, when tested as a whole, errors abound. This leads to a complex process of fixing and retesting which takes time and comes with its own set of attendant issues.
  • Team structures undergo a fundamental shift. Teams become cross-functional and self-organising. They also become expert on the application they’re responsible for. This makes them invaluable for identifying and resolving issues. In what is known as shift left, it pays to involve them earlier in, for example, security incidents. This can be a hard concept to get comfortable with.
  • Accounting practices may profoundly change. This is especially true if you use Cloud-based technologies. Accounting will often shift from a CAPEX to an OPEX model. Essentially you end up with a Flow Accounting Model. This can impact the way costs are written down over time (the exact method is often country specific, but can involve tax credits, for example).
  • Servant leadership. Without trying to spook the horses, leadership’s job morphs to incorporate helping teams get things done by removing blockers. That doesn’t mean the leader–worker relationship is inverted; rather, the leader does their best to ensure the success of the team. Of course, judgement calls are still needed, as is collaboration with other teams, and negotiation over resources. And these are still down to the leadership function. As is strategy setting, budget setting, and all the other great stuff that leaders do.
  • Agile benefits for Senior Leaders and Executives arise because change isn’t an event, it’s a continuous process; one without a stopping condition. You can consider it a form of Wicked Problem. Agile enables continual, usable, change; usable because it has utility at the point of delivery.

    [^1:] The majority of Change Requests aren’t needed, but some classes of Change Request may be necessary. For example, if resource are moved off of a task and onto something else that isn’t directly related to what they’re doing (like evaluating a supplier), you may want to raise a Change Request to enable a cross charge to be levied to a different budget so as not to lose budget.

    [^2:] A strange observation regarding misunderstandings is they seem to be multiplicative in their nature, not linear. The bigger the project, the exponentially worse the impact.

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