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Agile Transformation – The Challenges and The Promises

In 2001, the now-famous Agile Manifesto was published, with the aim to initiate a massive cultural transformation in the way of doing business. Signed by enthusiasts from around the globe, it became a buzzword in no time,with organizations increasingly claiming agility.

Yet, till date, many, if not most, are rather unaware of what it means to be Agile, what it takes to be Agile, and what it promises for the future of organizations. Such inadequate understanding, among other factors, has not only undermined its prospects but has also presented Agile as futile, chaotic and, basically, useless.

The reality could, however, be far from such negativities, if only we realized the true worth of Agile Transformations. Above all, it is a question of culture. And, it is from a cultural perspective that this article approaches Agile.

What is Agile?

Literally, ‘Agile’ means being ‘able to move quickly and easily’. That is, being flexible. In essence, this is indeed what agile means as related to organizations.

By definition, so to say, an organization is agile, when it holistically embodies the four ideals and twelve principles of the manifesto.

Apparently, these might sound rather trivial and easy to implement. Yet, as will be eventually clear, agility implies a lot more than a literal understanding of these values.

Agile Transformation isn’t Agile Adoption

As the name suggests, Agile adoption implies the use of agile methodologies, such as Scrum, Kanban and so on. However, agile is more about the mindset, the outlook of every member of an organization, than the processes. This holistic shift in mindset is what Agile transformation implies.

Here, the processes are merely the pathway to achieving the ideals of agility which, after all, is the ultimate goal of the agile movement. It inspires businesses to become agile as a whole,and not simply to implement agile processes.

Towards Agile Transformation

Before we delve into the whys and why nots of Agile, it’s imperative to understand the pillars upon which agility stands. Although there remain other subsidiary elements, the following are pivotal to agile transformations.

Understanding Holistic ChangeThe first step in the journey, obviously, is to understand the need for holistic agile transformations. Moreover, agility is optimum only when it is embodied by every member, every segment of an organization. Fragmented implementation often leads to conflict between the agile parts of the firm with those that aren’t.

As noted by McKinsey & Company, Agile involves pragmatic and tangible benefits for organizations, both economic and otherwise. Yet, a 2017 Deloitte survey revealed that only 10% of its 10,000-strong research base considered their firms as “truly agile”. The scenario hasn’t changed much in these two years or so.

Building a Conscious Leadership – Akin to any other cultural change, Agile transformations necessitate the need for strong leadership, which is not only aware of the values of Agile but also educated in its nuances. Time and again, studies in this field have pointed out the directly proportional relationship between the leadership’s strength, and the degree of business agility.

In this, the top management must substantially analyze its teams, identify the shortcomings in agility, and initiate a change accordingly. This also involves a recognition of the agile values which might already have percolated into the organization.

Leaders, in this context, must adhere to the three laws of Agile, namely the Law of Small Team, Law of the Customer, and The Law of the Network.

Building Agile TeamsOnce the leaders and the organization are ready for agility, they need to build an agile team, which might then inspire change in others. Agile transformation is a continuous process.

And, for achieving true agility, that is, for a change from within, such teams are indispensable as they can ensure a horizontal perpetuation of the ideas of agility among other members of the firm.

That said, the fact remains that organizations must recurringly assess the state of their agile transformations all along the journey. At times, it is also necessary to evolve and upgrade the very idea of change, with which the transformation initiated. Only then, and with rigorous testing, an organization achieves “true agility” over time.

Why we need Agile?

Having discussed the meaning and ways of achieving agility, we’re now in a position to analyze why we need it in the first place. In what follows, we look at some of the most significant promises of Agile.

Consumer Empowerment

With agility comes the ability to provide personalized, seamless and efficient customer services. In turn, this enhances the value that these brands or firms offer to their consumers, resulting in a strengthened loyalty.

In an agile work culture, human resources, economic and cultural capital, and analytics data work together to help brands become increasingly user-centric which is, in many ways, the need of the hour.

Presently, consumer experience, digital or otherwise, is a major determinant of a firm’s success. And, consumers in agile ecosystems are integral parts of the production process, ensuring greater flexibility, transparency, and higher engagement metrics. Together, these factors work together to significantly reduce to the time to market and ROI.

Quality Offerings

The principle of constant adaptation to change, and a focus on testing, are integral elements of the agile work culture. As a result, the offerings of a truly agile firm are not only of superior quality but can also be altered to suit changing needs, even as the product is in use.

Moreover, agile systems ensure optimum relevance for their products which, again, is sustained by the aforementioned quality surveillance. And, the testing processes, in themselves, are mostly automated, meaning that they have very low, or no margin for error.

Greater Control

Agile teams, and organizations focus on seamless interactions during at all levels, including production, distribution, and consumption. This allows the product owners better control over their projects, resulting in lesser wastage, among other things.

Also, being inter-disciplinary, organizations practicing an agile work culture experience reduced risks, in terms of project failure, turnaround time, and so on.

Apart from these, agile projects can be delivered, and incremented in parts, meaning that revenue generations begin even in the early phases of development. Needless to say, this results in a highly beneficial reduction in the time for ROI.

It also betters the scope for self-funding and, most importantly, at lower risks. Doing so, it works wonders in inspiring innovations with the potential to change.

Despite all, however, the domain of Agile is rife with a number of pragmatic and theoretical challenges which, in turn, undermine its potential. This is one crucial reason why Agile still isn’t the dominant culture in our industries, even with its applaudable promises.

Challenges of Agile Transformation

At the outset, we must note something. A cultural shift as massive as agility often involves the need for unlearning a majority of the existing traditions, and prejudices. This, as we know well, isn’t easy. In short, it requires both superior will and honesty for a firm to be truly agile.

So, what then, are the fundamental issues being witnessed with the present state of agility at a global scale? Let’s see.

Fake Agility

As Agility becomes increasingly significant for professional gains, the number of imposters in the industry are also on the rise. Often, organizations claim to be agile, primarily, by citing their use of agile processes, while holding on to the traditional ideals for most other parts.

Moreover, embodying the culture of agility isn’t a cakewalk, after all. It requires perseverance, honesty, will and a lot more on the part of the learner. That said, many of even those who apparently hold certificates to evidence their agility, aren’t actually agile from within. At best, their agility is a pretense which easily breaks down in the face of the tougher challenges.

At best, such firms have adopted Agile, but are never truly agile in essence. In this regard, a major determinant is that they retain their loyalty to traditional constructs such as fixed budget, scope, and deadlines for projects.

Inadequate Agility

The keen reader would remember from before that agility is something to be achieved holistically. This, however, isn’t the case with a large number of apparently agile firms.

Inspired by its ideals, or driven by a greed for its returns, firms often spend mammoth sums on implementing agile technologies into their day-to-day functioning. Yet, in terms of their work culture, they remain stringent and highly orthodox. For them, agile is more of a commodity than a cultural construct and, obviously, their agility isn’t actually rewarding in the long run.

Incompetent Leadership

This point is self-explanatory, yet significant enough to deserve a separate mention. When Agile transformations fail, it is often the case that the leadership itself isn’t adequately trained in, or conscious of, the implications of Agility. The result, as it stands, is more than obvious.

Conclusion

In the age of personalization and digital experiences, traditional brands need to rethink their work culture and undergo significant changes, in terms of their ways of interacting, both within themselves and with their clientele.

The Agile movement, with its elaborate ideals, is a forebearer of such cultural shifts, envisioning a holistic change in the mentality of the organizations, spread across its various levels. If properly realized, agility can bring tangible benefits to a business.

Yet, there’s this big ‘if’ involved, characterized by the existing and would-be hindrances to agility. In all, without the understanding of Agility as a cultural construct, and as separate from its processes and technologies, it can indeed be more harmful than rewarding.

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