Agile spreads beyond IT: How IT benefits "non-tech" enterprise departments
By mid-April 2020 most teams transitioned to fully remote work. This new work environment presented challenges that convinced many teams to adopt agile practices, tools, and frameworks.
State of Agile 2021:Past, present and future
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As a result of COVID-19 forcing worldwide office closures, by mid-April 2020 most teams transitioned to fully remote work. This new work environment presented challenges that convinced many teams to adopt agile practices, tools, and frameworks.
According to the most recent State of Agile Report, agile use among software development teams more than doubled from 37% to 86% in 2020. But agile adoptions weren't just seen where they traditionally are: in tech-related departments like software development or operations. In addition to these areas, enterprise agile adoption as a whole soared: 17% of marketing and security departments, 16% of human relations (HR) departments, 11% of sales teams, and 10% of finance departments surveyed claimed to have adopted agile over the course of 2020.
The current rate of enterprise agile adoption among non-tech teams may not seem overwhelming, but it's significant growth compared to years before. Looking at the 14th State of Agile Report published in May 2020, just 7% of marketing, 6% of HR, and 5% of sales departments made use of agile techniques and tools at the time.
The trend we're seeing is that teams across the organization are looking for a way to set objectives, channel efforts, and align teams towards specific goal outcomes without a high level of micromanagement needed. Agile methodologies are a readily available tool to fit these criteria because they
- Set clear goals with feedback loops and reviews/retrospectives to monitor progress
- Allow for self-determination and self-organization
- Take an iterative approach to discover the best methods of achieving goals, while also making it responsive to a dynamic (and unpredictable) business environment
These benefits allowed for a high level of productivity among remote teams during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they can continue to empower on-premise teams and hybrid remote/on-site environments.
Agile brings clarity through tools like Kanban and sprint planning
Many organizational objectives are taken for granted, meaning that there are no specific directives communicated in plain English beyond the scope of everyday work. Even within departments like sales that may have quotas and targets, long-term goals and vision are not regularly communicated from organizational leaders nor from other departments.
Enterprise agile adoption presents the opportunity to "set a destination" for the outcomes of daily work while providing clarity about expectations. Offering a shared vision can unify teams and drive direction, especially for departments not traditionally used to hard-and-fast goals, like HR.
Agile forces organizations to give their teams clear objectives
Agile objectives are determined based on the desired outcome. As an example, an enterprise HR department may set the goal to spend less time per employee review, reducing the costs and timetable for reviews while improving worker satisfaction with the process. Another possible goal could be to achieve higher revenues per sale, allowing the firm to reinvest profits into innovation to become a leader in their vertical.
Progress towards objectives can be tracked using a readily available tool or reference point. A Kanan board program, for example, can track individual team member task progression as well as overall progress towards completion of a specific milestone. Performance can also be measured using metrics, such as the lead time for certain stages in the workflow, and represented through a dashboard accessible by the entire team.
Small goals and targets should be aligned with larger organizational goals, what McKinsey refers to as an agile organization's "North Star". As many goals as possible should involve measurable targets, and qualitative goals should have a "definition of success" to be reached. Importantly, goals are set according to short-frame timetables. While long-term goals are allowed (especially when they reinforce an overarching vision outcome), they should be broken down into smaller milestones. There must also be room to revise timetables and adjust the scope of work as needed, which will occur at the completion of a "sprint" and subsequent sprint retrospective/review.
Agile goal setting and sprint monitoring helped remote teams manage work autonomously
During the peak of remote work, agile adoptions for particular tools and practices allowed teams to keep track of work progress while sharing objectives across teams. Team members were given self-service repositories for tasks and metrics monitoring to guide their own daily work without needing direct input from a supervisor.
Reviewing data and performance for the most recent "sprint" allows teams to experiment, try new methods, and arrive at an improved performance point through continuous improvements. For example, if a sprint resulted in lower metrics than expected, the team is not chastised but invited to source ideas to improve performance. In some cases, a new workflow or policy, or tool can bring performance closer to targets. In others, performance targets are simply revised to be more realistic.
Backlog and portfolio management plays a strong part in this process. Prior to a sprint being set, the team can look at work not-yet-performed or goals not-yet-achieved and prioritize which ones to seek to accomplish in the next sprint. This level of planning and organization helps teams chart their course, set priorities on a rolling 7-14 day basis, and strive towards bigger goals that result in improved company functioning and better support of value delivery systems.
Agile allows for self-organization to avoid micromanaging
Scrupulously managing hundreds of employees in an office setting is an exhausting task. Doing it over remote is impossible. By the summer of 2020, many teams found themselves stuck in a loop of all-day Zoom meetings just to implement a strategy or provide satisfactory proof-of-work. Some of these efforts represented the need to transition to the "new normal", but others represented holdout approaches to direct management of every work aspect.
Adopting agile in an organization presents a huge opportunity to do away with micromanagement while still allowing teams to pursue a specific objective.
"Self-organisation is a core practice within the agile way of working," says the Consulting.eu firm. "In self-organization, the strategy and objectives of the organization are translated to goals on a team-level. The team can decide for themselves how to reach this goal. It requires the team to make their own decisions, actively experiment, learn from failures and continuously adapt. And if done correctly, it can lead to motivated people because they gain mastery, autonomy, and purpose. This, in turn, will drive productivity."
During remote work, teams were often presented with a goal or challenge to accomplish. They were invited to self-determine the best way to accomplish it, including the possibility of collaborating. Cross-functional teams could be improvisationally formed and dynamic. Multiple talents or knowledge disciplines could then collaborate to achieve specific goals, one by one.
Agile improvisation breeds discovery and creates success models for other teams
In the office environment as well as remotely, self-forming teams can allow individuals to tackle creative problem solving more capably than they could on their own. They also provide the opportunity for spontaneous, serendipitous discovery or sharing of knowledge — what Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh calls "collisions". Essentially, by interacting, self-forming teams enable themselves to discover more optimal workflows or to overcome current challenges, often with far more efficiency compared to a top-level manager determining the optimal solutions and attempting to solve them by edict, in the classic "waterfall" management style.
Wins achieved in small agile teams acting dynamically can model how agile methods can spread to others, as has been seen at companies like Levi Strauss & Co.
"Nothing convinces skeptical executives like teams of their own employees having a verifiable impact through agile working," noted McKinsey in a 2019 agile report. "For example, one oil and gas company launched a series of agile pilots through which cross-functional teams managed to design wells in 50 to 75 percent less time than the historical average."
Agile helps teams and organizations "roll with the punches" and respond to unpredictable environments
Starting in late March 2020, the situation on work and closures and business disruptions evolved unpredictably, often literally changing on a daily basis. There was no way to implement a "master plan" capable of carrying teams through to the end of the pandemic — an end that has yet to fully materialize. The situation presented a problem one Digital.ai client compared to "building an airplane while it's in mid-flight."
Agile builds in flexibility by focusing on short-term progress towards an adaptable long-term vision. Iterative agile cycles allowed for changes to be implemented, tested and tweaked over time in response to data feedback.
For example, many teams cycled through multiple tools to find the one that best facilitated communication, transitioning from Skype to Zoom to Slack and Discord. Experimentation allowed for teams to dynamically determine the best-fit workflow and tools for the situation
Using an older example, Harvard Business Review illustrates how agile can give teams the freedom to select their own working methods and adjust those methods in response to performance data:
"In keeping with agile principles, however, the leadership team doesn’t plan every detail in advance. Leaders recognize that they do not yet know how many agile teams they will require, how quickly they should add them, and how they can address bureaucratic constraints without throwing the organization into chaos. So they typically launch an initial wave of agile teams, gather data on the value those teams create and the constraints they face, and then decide whether, when, and how to take the next step."
The key is that agile methods allow organizations and teams to discover needs dynamically. This capability is important because the best solutions must often evolve organically. Further, setting one approach in stone can mean that sudden changes — like a global pandemic — can upend the best-laid plans and spur immediate demands for new ones.
Sudden need for remote work changed the way we work… likely forever
Even amidst new waves of COVID-19 variants, the business and office environment is much more stable compared to a year ago. Yet, according to the 15th State of Agile Report data, few teams will return to fully in-office work: 56% indicated they would transition to hybrid office/remote; just 3% said they will go back to office full-time, and 25% say they expect to stay fully remote for the foreseeable future.
In the meantime, respondents to the State of Agile survey state that agile adoptions have brought benefits to teams such as:
- Enhanced our ability to manage changing priorities — 64% of respondents
- Increased team productivity — 47%
- Improved business and IT alignment — 47%
- Improved project visibility — 40%
- Reduced project risk — 39%
- Allowed us to better respond to volatile market conditions — 39%
- Improved team morale — 35%
Agile is not one-size-fits-all, nor is it an instant panacea. Adopting agile in an organization should be done in iterative cycles, too, with room for reflection, adjustment, and strategic revisions. Agile can also struggle to adapt to unfamiliar situations, at least at first. In a September 2020 Gallup poll, teams that had used agile prior to the pandemic reported that they struggled with many aspects of remote work.
But, despite the growing pains that can come from enterprise agile adoption, agile work appears as if it is here to stay. Adopting agile in the organization across multiple departments will likely become the norm — especially as more people choose to work from home rather than in the office full-time and find themselves in need of a methodology that allows for clarity, autonomy, flexibility, and above all else adaptability.
Discover more about how agile work culture has changed and spread among organizations over the past year in our recently published 15th State of Agile Report.