Georgia Fendley assesses agile working practices and how, when applied successfully, this methodology can transform a business to become a beacon of innovation.

As a consultant, I am blessed (or cursed) with the opportunity to work with a huge variety of businesses and leadership teams. They all talk about innovation with passionate enthusiasm and that is often why we are invited to the table – the challenge is not the desire to change but obtaining the tools to create it.

All too often, business is held hostage to traditional methods of management. Risk-averse leadership bogged down with un-prioritised micro-management, limited cross-functional collaboration, too many meetings and repetitive planning. Traditional communication in this scenario hinders rather than helps, with formal documents failing to improve understanding and adoption.

This has always been a challenge and many organisations will recognise themselves in this description. One of the side effects can be the ghettoization of departments and, at its worst, politics which distract from productivity and increase employee turnover. With the speed of change and adaptation in business increasing, the need for agility is key. The challenge is creating a culture that is able to support it.

Agile work practices have transformed the software industry over the last 30 years, a fast-moving sector managing the conflicting requirements and limitations of the user, technology and budget. Not only can we learn from the software industry, but we increasingly need to recognise that, in one way or another, every company is now a software company.

Agility isn’t just an approach to creative thinking or iterative prototyping, it’s a really sophisticated holistic system engineered to overcome more than a dozen common barriers to successful innovation. It also works! Boston Consulting Group claims Agile has boosted average software development project success rates industry-wide, from 11 per cent to 39 per cent, a more than threefold improvement. Furthermore, it states ‘in large, complex projects, Agile’s success rate jumps to six times that of conventional methods.’

Impressive stuff, if you could improve your productivity and success rates by three or even six times you’d jump at the chance, right? Well, it’s not that simple, it requires a complete cultural shift, a revolution in your business from the inside, out.

The process sounds simple: to tackle an opportunity, an organisation creates small, focused, self-managing teams, usually made of members of a number of departments. One individual owns the objective of that team, harnessing the group’s collective intelligence, ruthlessly using design thinking to prioritise initiatives and actions to meet stated priorities. The team works together with a united understanding of value to the customer, financial impact and other identified innovation objectives.

The language used to describe the productive process is illuminating. We talk about ‘sprints’ to describe short, intense, focused work cycles with clear deliverables and deadlines. This process is transparent to everyone; meetings are brief and feedback and sharing are continuous. Testing is fast and repetitive with customer feedback quickly absorbed and addressed.

This leaves leaders free from micro-managing and departmental competition, able to focus on strategy and further cross-departmental collaboration. Better still, the ruthless focus on priorities means less wasted resource and faster delivery of the products, services and experiences customers want.

It’s interesting to note that businesses adopting this approach also report higher employee satisfaction and engagement. Doing things well, working effectively and really delivering is hard-wired to make us happy, we just need the right conditions and the right leadership to make this possible. When employees find this culture, they rarely
want to leave.

Back to Boston Consulting Group, which states ‘ratings of return-on-investment effectiveness are more than five times higher for Agile. Customer satisfaction is higher as well – in fact, many customers, including some departments of the US government, now require outside contractors to use Agile methods.’

As a creatively trained thinker, this approach comes naturally. It’s the way we have always worked in an agency, where we are constantly managing resources against conflicting agendas and where we ultimately are measured only on the success of our last project. For us, innovation is key and it’s the value we bring.

Innovation is best defined as the profitable application of creativity. In our work, we focus on two things: finding solutions to customer, brand and business problems; and developing those solutions economically and for maximum impact.

Image credit: Ehud Neuhaus