Agile ain’t no religion
July 11, 2022 Chris Sandilands
When we founded Oxbow Partners in 2016 we might have been described as “agile evangelists”. We embraced this emerging new approach to strategy development, partly inspired by Eric Ries’s ground-breaking book, The Lean Startup. (We would still recommend every corporate executive reads it.)
We wrote a blog post about how to introduce agile methodology to strategy consulting. We called our approach Agile Strategy.
We were ahead of our time in 2016. Executives found Agile Strategy a bit scary. How could you possibly start a project if you didn’t have the precise timeline scoped out on day 1? Why would you move to execution before tying up every loose end in the analysis?
It is amazing to think that in the space of six years agile has gone from being a novel concept to something of a cliché. Everything is now agile.
And so many insurance organisations are in the middle of an ‘agile transformation’.
Having spoken to several executives about their experience, our analysis is that agile has become a religion for its proponents. They preach the virtues of reorganising into scrums, tribes and chapters, and get to work turning the operating model on its head.
The objective? To be an “agile organisation”. What that means, or why that is important, is less well articulated.
Unsurprisingly, many insurers are struggling with their agile transformations. Some are a year or more into their preparation phase, whilst others feel nervous that they have unpicked an operating model that broadly worked and replaced it with something that seems to have just as many weaknesses.
Indeed, there are few case studies of successful agile transformations in large-scale financial services.
The simple fact is that agile was not invented for corporate strategy or change. It was created in the software industry for product development. The code production use case is completely different to insurance, where the vast majority of employees work in steady-state operational teams (like, say, pricing or claims) rather than being roving expert resources.
Does this mean that we no longer believe in agile? Not at all. We absolutely believe that agile is a valuable methodology for corporate executives. It provides challenge to traditional thinking, and tools for doing things differently. But it is not a religion.
Our advice for executives is to consider two things when considering whether to adopt agile methodologies: What the organisation’s motivations are for considering agile, and what mix of agile tools, ceremonies and organisational change achieve their objectives.
1. What are the organisation’s motivations for considering agile?
As with any corporate project, understanding the problem well is the key to identifying an effective solution. Are projects slow and not having the expected impact? Does the project portfolio feel too busy and lacking in direction? Are colleagues not sufficiently motivated and feel constrained in their current roles?
All of these are common frustrations for corporate executives – and have different solution options.
For example, an organisation could improve its project impact by refreshing the way it manages the portfolio – establishing a transparent governance framework from CEO to change resources which streamlines objectives and ensures the right people are working on the right things. The CEO could be supported with this endeavour by a Value Realisation Office, which sets objectives, manages the portfolio, tracks benefits and allocates resources at a group-wide level.
Connecting strategy to change
Another popular approach is an Objectives and Key Results (“OKR”) project management framework, which ensures that projects are continuously goal oriented, and do not wander off into their own worlds. This is achieved by similar means: transparent project monitoring and a robust approach to continuous reprioritisation.
In other words, there are many ways to solve change challenges and an agile transformation is just one of them.
2. What is the right mix of agile tools, ceremonies and organisational change?
Agile has evolved to be a corporate change tool since it was first launched in 2001. It can now be described as a comprehensive methodology comprising three things:
- Tools: For example goal-setting and reporting approaches
- Ceremonies: For example daily scrum meetings
- Organisational design: For example tribes, squads and chapters
Organisations are free to choose whatever combination of tools, ceremonies and organisational design principles they want. This should be aligned to their objectives.
Many have done exactly that: consider how many companies have implemented, say, OKR methodology but not undergone a full agile transformation. It is unusual to run any project these days without a daily scrum meeting – a helpful mechanism to maintain alignment and momentum in the team.
These pragmatic approaches are only possible if you keep the high priests of agile at bay. The starting point for a financial services organisation should not be an agile transformation so that it can be “more like Facebook or Google”, but an analysis of the current challenges that necessitate change, followed by tailored choices from the menu of options.
Agile transformation is just one of those options, and inarguably the most dramatic and risky to implement.
An organisation wanting to implement agile should read the agile textbook, and then consider what flavour of agile will work for them. For some it will indeed be a full agile transformation, but in our analysis most will realise huge value by selecting some agile-inspired tools and ceremonies, and refreshing their management structures and methodologies – but all within their current operating paradigm.
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