We are used to business leaders recognising that they must “become agile” (with or without a capital A). This often follows a realisation that nimble rivals are reducing the company’s market share, whether those rivals are Amazon or a fledgling tech startup snapping at your organisation's heels.
Almost invariably this means some kind of digital transformation programme, which for the purposes of this article we will take to mean all technology capability combined, as an enabler for organisational and behavioural change. Often 'given' to IT by default, such a transformation is always disruptive to those within IT, and usually ends with the IT Department being more performant than it was before, while those outside IT may see their role as merely looking on from afar and tolerating the noise.
But, in the later stages of the transformation journey frustration can set in. This might come from the executive level, when the board realises Amazon is still taking market share, or the nimble startup has now worked its way up and is now biting at their shins. To those that care to look, there is also often some discontent among the IT staff: “We’ve become so much more capable, and now the rest of the organisation is holding us back from realising our full potential”.
All this frustration is legitimate. Agile doesn’t need to stop at the boundaries of the IT Department. In fact, if a company doesn’t want to leave money on the table as it emerges from its (IT) digital transformation, it needs to ramp up that transformation and run it more widely.
There are several reasons for this.
Being humble about customer evidence
In a world that moves much faster than it did a couple of decades ago, bad product and service decisions are punished much more quickly. Customers can find alternatives and migrate elsewhere with incredible ease. Agile disciplines have simple and effective techniques to enable “discovery” before planning and implementation, to ensure that users’ needs are correctly understood and addressed, and the right thing gets built. Perhaps there is no better example of this than within the UK public sector, where no digital project can progress beyond a few weeks without demonstrating objective user research. By contrast, in most companies this is often very difficult to accept among non-technical executives. They are used to “telling” the IT Department what to build; they say they “know” what their customers want. But that executive experience is not the same as objective, dispassionate interviews, distinguishing what people say they want from uncovering what they actually need. It is hard to be humble enough to put aside that executive confidence, and instead be prepared to listen to and accept cold evidence. This is not market research. This is user research that effective, modern technology functions excel at, and can be critical to corporate success.
Technologists as partners
Agile methods thrive on collaboration. Technology teams find they can deliver better solutions when they put a greater emphasis on conversation and collaboration, whereas earlier methods leaned more on arms-length contract-like agreements and formal sign-offs with the business. And so it is outside the IT Department. Most executives understand they can achieve more in a genuine partnership than through a strict transactional relationship. In a digital world, solutions are more numerous but less obvious than before. Treating the IT Department as a genuine partner brings all the speed and efficiency one might hope for, and in the later stages of an IT-enabled digital transformation the IT Department will be able to play their part well. Technologists will typically thrive on meeting customers, understanding their situations, seeing how other parts of the business work, and seeing what pressures their non-IT peers face. They will welcome owning the problem and take pride in shaping a solution that results in happy customers and users. To do this means lowering the barriers between departments and respecting each others’ expertise. The result is more creative solutions delivered faster.
Speeding up the value chain
A successful transformation will see the IT Department delivering faster than before, whether that’s developing product features, deploying updates, or delivering services internally. But no department lives in a bubble, and the IT Department, like all others, is part of a value chain, if not part of multiple value chains. So faster technologists will rarely result in correspondingly a faster business if the other links in that chain are not keeping up. A wise executive board will be prepared for changes outside IT before the bottlenecks reveal themselves.
More precise steering
One cultural challenge that becomes apparent very quickly in an IT department in transformation is that more people have to pay attention more frequently. Because the technology teams are more nimble, more (but smaller) decisions need to be made each day and each week to maintain the pace of delivery. That demands more time from those non-IT stakeholders who usually act as points of contact with IT. And as the IT Department’s success becomes greater and more obvious this starts to touch others, too, including those who are more senior. It is no longer sufficient for executives to drop into monthly steering boards; self-directing teams still need small but important decisions to be made weekly. If executives cannot make the time, and cannot trust their deputies sufficiently to delegate, then the whole business fails to capitalise on gain made within IT.
Whole company agile
This, then, is the next major challenge for the executive function: did it expect to have to broaden the transformation from IT into other areas, and (either way) is it prepared to do so? Many agile practices from the IT world can be transplanted into the non-IT world quite readily, even if the cultural change is significant. But more significantly, a focus on delivering value incrementally is a win for the entire business, if it chooses to transform itself more widely. Following any success from a transformation in IT, choosing to limit that transformation is just leaving money on the table.