Agile Is Everywhere – Or Should Be: Use Cases and Best Practices for Leaders Across the Business

Published June 27, 2018
What a difference a few decades make! When it was launched in 2001 with a manifesto, Agile was considered an alternative way to develop software. I was there in the middle of it, working for an innovative consulting firm that delivered custom software using Agile when our clients had never heard of it. In less than 20 years, it’s become the central management philosophy for many of the world’s largest and best companies. The recent cover story in Harvard Business Review asked whether “whole segments of the business learn to operate in this manner?” and “Would scaling up Agile improve corporate performance as much as Agile methods improve individual team performance?” Based on my experience leading Agile innovation, these are definitely some of the right questions. The truth is, Agile works as much as a management principle or cultural mindset as a framework for software development. The original manifesto is correctly focused on values and behaviors – such as “customer collaboration” and “responding to change” – rather than specific processes or technology. These concepts can be applied to all types of business functions. I am currently working with my colleagues across Infinitive to embed Agile in everything we do. The value results from the emphasis on what’s most important, incremental progress, and the ability to be introspective and learn. These attributes and ways of working offer clear advantages over traditional modes that featured strict procedure, hierarchical decision making and excessive planning.

Why Adopt Agile? To Go Faster and Get More Customer-Focused

Current business realities have also sparked the rise of Agile. In order to remain competitive, organizations have gotten closer to their customers, become more responsive and continually evolved and adapted. Massive transformation programs have been replaced by product-focused teams developing deep knowledge and continually delivering against needs of the greatest value. And Agile makes a great deal of sense in a world of rapid prototyping, minimally viable products and test-and-learn models. Looking beyond Agile’s traditional home in IT, how can leaders in other parts of the business apply its principles to meaningful effect? Operations: For operations teams, consider the constant pressures to evolve business processes to become more efficient, cost-effective and productive.  Process improvement is well suited to Agile, whether cost, efficiency, quality or other drivers are your primary target; incremental improvement allows you to test if changes have the desired impact or even an unexpected adverse impact. And better yet, it keeps the needs of your customer, whether internal or external, front and center. Agile can also be applied to strategic planning and portfolio management, especially relative to building business cases, prioritizing steps and improving outputs from the value chain. That’s especially important for processes or workstreams that cut across functional, departmental or business unit lines. It may seem counterintuitive, but decreasing the time to value and reducing individual value targets for individual initiatives may make it easier to build momentum toward strategic goals. Marketing: Marketers typically “think Agile.” So it’s no surprise they have been early adopters. For example, A/B testing of creative materials and/or campaign structures is a form of Agile, as is incorporating newly available data into decision making. Marketing groups have ample opportunity to formalize their use of Agile. They can conduct sprints to better understand certain customer segments or geographies, and then refine campaigns and offers accordingly. They can also more methodically adopt martech and third-party data sets (e.g., adding data sets in sequence across a defined time period). Sales and business development: These functions have not been historically fertile ground for Agile, especially in those industries where selling is primarily relationship-based. However, within sales operations and management, an Agile approach could improve communication, contact management, forecasting and reporting processes. Standardizing assets and tools and enhancing data quality within key systems could help sales organizations become more data-driven; that’s a challenging goal for sales leaders in many industries, but certainly one which Agile could help them achieve faster and with less resistance. Human resources: Agile has come to the HR world, too. As an HBR piece had it: “In an Agile organization, HR needs to provide the same services it’s always provided — hiring, professional development, performance management — but in ways that are responsive to the ongoing changes in the culture and work style of the organization.” Embracing Agile means HR leaders orient on the needs of their internal customers and view their services as products. Further, it can help them understand the unique talents and mindsets are necessary for organizations to adopt Agile at greater scale. Early adopters in HR have used “retrospectives” to ensure internal customers are satisfied with new hires and to incrementally improve interview questions and formats and onboarding processes. Finance: And finally, in finance, Agile offers distinct value to finance leaders who are seeking to reposition as strategic advisors to the business, rather than just financial scorekeepers. Increasing the speed with which decisions are made and standardizing the data sets that are used to make decisions are two Agile techniques that finance can adopt.

The Agile Value Proposition: Cutting Planning and Execution Cycles from Weeks to Hours

At Infinitive, we help enable and activate the principles and techniques within our clients’ operations. Using Agile in our data-driven marketing engagements to fantastic results. At a top 10 U.S. bank, we reduced the time it took to plan and execute marketing campaigns from weeks to hours. For a global oil and gas company, we helped transform the marketing function into a data-driven, Agile-enabled operation. Through a global programmatic advertising strategy and Agile enablement, the team was able to incrementally improve campaign design and execution much more efficiently than in the past. At a global credit card firm, we established Agile-based process improvement strategies, again helping establish data-driven thinking and Agile action as a “way of life” for the marketing group.

How to Make the Move to Agile

To get Agile, leaders in these functions should turn to proven techniques for starting what will be a long-term journey. Instilling Agile as a core principle and cultural attribute takes work but is a necessary foundational step. The organizational mindset must shift to products and outputs, not processes and projects. Establishing a fully committed and highly collaborative team for the first Agile initiatives can help demonstrate its value. Ideally, those teams should be cross-functional and include a range of stakeholders. Engage IT and/or partners and vendors with Agile knowledge and experience to build a network that can share toolsets, lessons learned and proven techniques. This is the context where Agile works best. The bottom line: While some skeptics believe that Agile is diluted when it leaves the realm of IT, I believe that the mindset and principles offer great value to leaders across the organization. I appreciate that Agile does not fit everywhere in an organization. However, for leaders that want to get closer to their customers, foster greater accountability and collaboration in teams, and make measurable improvements in their organizations, the time to try Agile is now. As the pressure to produce and pace of change will only increase, there is no need that Agile should remain just an “IT thing!”