Going All-In On Agile

Carl Martin, Chief Technology Officer, Travel Experiences, Collinson

Carl Martin, Chief Technology Officer, Travel Experiences, Collinson

A gile has morphed from the methodology challenging the establishment into the establishment itself, with industries from pharma to banking boasting new agile ways of working. That’s no surprise. Many Agile organisations report huge benefits–from greater productivity and exponential innovation to increased employee satisfaction.

Agile puts people and collaboration above processes and tools, but when established organisations trial it, they often gravitate first to its features and vocabulary, putting Scrum before the attendant cultural changes that Agile requires. If there’s a mismatch of assumptions, expectations and definition of Agile between the C-suite and the shop floor, the cracks appear. Many will question if Agile is working before asking if their culture is.

Cultural transformation is an undertaking— one that needs to be championed from the C-suite to the shop floor. I know because, in my role at Collinson, I bridge those two domains. I have seen what happens when Agile culture is lived from top to bottom, so allow me to share a few learning with you. 

Be Human

Let’s start by grounding ourselves in the notion that humans are inherently Agile. Consider a previous holiday. To plan the trip, you sought diverse opinions and crafted an itinerary with loose objectives – perhaps to see the sights. Upon arrival, with some local insight, your plans evolved. Then, you got back home, posted photos and advised others where to go. Should you ever return to the same destination, you will be wiser, maybe bolder, and you’ll have a better outcome.

Collaboration. Iterative learning. Sharing and communication. That’s human, and that’s Agile. The problem is that we invented artificial constraints about work. Think about it. Before COVID-19, many managers associated presenteeism and fixed schedules with ‘work’ – but did those behaviours produce more value? In my team alone, where, by embracing new ways of working we actually saw an increase in productivity, we’d say no. So, to be Agile, we must first unlearn false practices and find our way back to humanity. 

Trust, empower and respect  

While many senior leaders achieved their positions through drive and self-belief, they can find it harder to believe in others. Additionally, high-pressure environments can lead to finger-pointing. The best Agile leaders know they can’t let emotion get the best of them. To be ‘in it together’ starts with respect and the ability to trust others; believing they are telling the truth, that no one is trying to undermine collective success, and that, while the action or decision taken may not always be the correct one, it was done for the right reasons.

Redefine failure

Blame culture is fuelled by this fear of failure, still common despite a burgeoning awareness that failure comes with experimentation. As a former yachtsman, I often say, ‘show me the yachtsman who’s never run aground, and I’ll show you a yachtsman who’s never been anywhere. ’Organisations must embrace failure or risk stagnation and irrelevance. 

Know that the more you fail, the more you learn to succeed. Examine failures with teams, while re-framing them more positively as outcomes that did not go as expected. We live this at Collinson, where a recent employee engagement survey of our Travel Engagement team showed 81 percent of people feel that we learn from failure.

"Agile cultures typically reflect ‘real’ life in that they are flexible, informal and recognise that the best idea can come from anyone, regardless of title, background, dress-sense or office hours"

Be real 

Agile cultures typically reflect ‘real’ life in that they are flexible, informal and recognise that the best idea can come from anyone, regardless of title, background, dress-sense or office hours. When we stop worrying about all the things that limit our ability to contribute as our true selves, we get to the important task of unlocking individual and group creativity – and that will be reflected in the bottom line. 

We see this at Collinson, where 81 percent of the employees in the survey above agreed they have a good work/life balance, and 84 percent say they understand the role they play in achieving company objectives. Also interesting is that a third of my team has worked with at least one other colleague, if not three to four, in previous roles at other companies, showing the power of authentic relationships in attracting and retaining talent.

Cross the line

Realism is also key to bridging communication differences. The C-suite desires headlines about delivery and performance while the shop floor deals in overwhelming detail. And just as the C-suite can’t be rigid and ‘waterfall’ about their expectations, the shop floor can’t use Agile as an excuse for vague information or poor performance. At Collinson, we have ‘no job title meetings’ where minds meet. The shop floor distils the intricacy of their work into key metrics, while the C-suite immerses themselves in new complexities.

We also know that revenue, profit and related data are inescapable, so we are transparent about them. After all, software engineers are clever; if we hide a challenge from them, we can’t expect them to understand it, let alone solve it. In our evolving journey, we’ll blur the lines so much that we won’t be able to tell a software developer from a member of the finance team. With greater understanding from both sides about what is realistic and achievable, possibility blooms. 

Foster diversity, practice empathy

When organisations become heterogeneous, it becomes easier to unearth problems, tackle them or challenge received wisdom. This means that diversity and inclusion are not just societal imperatives, but also commercial ones. And in the world of customer-centricity, they aren’t strictly internal goals either. To be inclusive is to be empathetic, so looking at problems through the eyes of others allows for a greater understanding of external partners, and co-creation can open new doors.

As much as Agile can do for an organisation, no methodology is perfect forever. Some enterprising consultant is probably inventing the next trend right now. Still, the core principles of Agile—our desire to see and be seen, and to share our experiences with others—are so innately human that we can’t put the Agile genie back in the bottle. Instead of looking around corners, let’s embrace its benefits wholly in the here and now. 

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