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Leadership’s Role in Business Agility

While the term “business agility” has come into vogue, many leaders still don’t comprehend what it exactly entails. This article explores a definition of business agility from the leader’s perspective, and shares some patterns based on real-world stories of dozens of companies who have attempted to become Agile from end to end.

Defining Business Agility
Business agility is the ability to measure how your products and services are performing and use this information to improve them frequently and painlessly. This sounds simple, but most organizations are constructed in a way that makes it much harder than necessary. There are four factors which drive business agility:

1. Flexibility - Being able to rapidly start, stop and redirect initiatives.
2. Focus - Prioritizing so that teams can attend to one thing at a time rather than ten.
Flow - Eliminating gaps between functional silos and delivery activities.
4. Feedback - Basing decisions on real-world usage patterns rather than internal opinions.

Bringing Flexibility to the Portfolio
The way in which projects are funded and allocated to teams is perhaps the area where the greatest business impact can be realized, but it is one of the last things that most companies address. For instance, an annual budgeting process obviously constrains the ability to start, stop and redirect projects on the more frequent bases that both Agile methods and today’s chaotic world demand. Some approaches that have proven effective in making the portfolio more flexible include establishing portfolio Kanban boards to focus work in process and adopting Agile budgeting methods which align investment against desired business outcomes rather than preordained feature sets. For instance, a company might allocate $10 million to improve automated assistance services, but the specific projects and features intended to deliver that outcome would be determined more on a monthly or quarterly basis.

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Building Teams with Focus
Most leaders start by equipping teams with the basic concepts and tools of Agile delivery, a sensible proposition given that effective teams are the heart of any Agile organization. They train process leaders like Scrum masters, business representatives like product owners, and, of course, the delivery teams. Methods like Scrum and Kanban can improve engagement, collaboration, and happiness, yielding better products and teams that truly take ownership of their work. With proper mentorship, groups can start to self-manage and even coach one another, spreading competence rapidly. In addition to the portfolio-level adjustments noted above that keep teams from being inundated with too many workstreams, driving and supporting this evolution may infer changes to functions like human resources, ensuring that performance management and career progression schemes drive the right behaviors and attract the best talent.

Generating Flow Across Functions
What has to happen between a customer’s request and its final fulfillment? Development is just one part of the equation, and not necessarily the most time-consuming or problematic. A focus on team velocity alone is insufficient if you truly want speed. It isn’t uncommon for upfront business planning and funding cycles to near or even exceed the time spent in actual development, while activities like marketing and sales can also add time following delivery. Leaders must make the work flow across these activities more smoothly, which may involve reorganizing functional groups against customer experiences and journeys. This means that a customer experience like painless billing might be served by dedicated finance, marketing, and sales functions in addition to development and operations, yielding teams that own the process holistically rather than relying upon a centralized group.  These independent end-to-end value stream teams can move quickly, change direction with ease and align the strategy of each experience group to real-time, real-world results.

Enabling Meaningful Feedback 
The term “MVP” has gotten a bit of a sketchy reputation due to a common situation; products go out quickly, but they don’t improve much beyond that point, making customers feel like test subjects. The main reason this occurs is that most development teams have little connection to production; when they finish one project they just move to the next. Separate operations teams pick up the product and maintain it, but they often focus on stability over innovation. All this means that the product evolves very slowly once it’s in the wild, where the best information about how people use it is actually available. Lean UX and discovery methods help teams to learn rapidly upfront, testing hypotheses about the market, customer needs, and prospective solutions through clever prototyping, simulation, and experimental methods. Meanwhile, DevOps addresses the structural problem of improving organizational feedback loops so that iteration is based upon real-world usage patterns rather than internal opinions. 

Business Agility Requires Leadership
Agile methods have always been intended to bring business and delivery functions closer together, but only recently have companies begun to address the non-development aspects of this problem at scale. While enabling teams to function effectively on their own is critical, they will only realize their maximum potential under certain conditions. They need alignment with all the groups they rely on, a flexible portfolio of work flowing to them,  and data-based feedback to drive the continued evolution of their products. Get started by speaking to some of your peer leaders and seeing where you have the best opportunities to start on this journey; it’s a long one, but very rewarding once you arrive.

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