Seven best practices for Agile working according to BCG Platinion

21 March 2018 11 min. read

With start-ups nipping at the heels of major corporations, leveraging innovative ways of working to deliver value and eat into the market shares of established market incumbents, Agility is becoming more important to large organisations than ever before. However, these organisations also find it hardest to actually implement Agile working techniques. According to BCG Platinion, there are seven best practices which can greatly improve the chances of organisations to succeed in this process.

Agile working is booming across multiple industries, giving organisations of all shapes and sizes a new way to innovate their services, operations and team practices. The method has emerged out of a growing dissatisfaction with the slow approaches previously utilised by businesses. Agile techniques were birthed as an attempt to improve on how traditional software development methods were implemented in large organisations. Since then, a mass of Agile approaches has been created, with the deluge demonstrating a growing demand for such methods.

Today, values of Agile software development are widely embraced in world of business and IT. However, while it works well within start-ups, larger organisations often find it harder to implement, according to experts from BCG Platinion. At start-ups, values and principles of Agility are more easily adopted as the development team is at the heart of the business, with buy-in, sustained commitment, and collaboration coming fairly naturally. In comparison, traditional enterprises have evolved in having separate groups conceive, design, build, test, put into operation, and maintain software, with each group waiting for the preceding group to complete its work. The advent of technology and the transition to digital has made software development an integral part of business rendering traditional methods less efficient by comparison. A strategic overhaul could yield a far more effective, holistic implementation of Agile. As it stands, in many cases, participants spend more time sitting in meetings and managing handoffs across organisational boundaries, than actually writing and testing code.

Explaining this juxtaposition, Norbert Faure, Managing Director at BCG Platinion (a subsidiary of The Boston Consulting Group) said, “Putting the Agile set of beliefs into practice can be difficult in large companies, given layers of processes and structures, such as HR, finance, and legal functions.” He added that for companies to be successful with Agile working, rather than viewing the method as yet another new process, they should instead take a more holistic approach. “Agile values need to be deeply rooted into organisation and culture, and be supported by a process of continuous learning, which allows for modifications when necessary, of course in an Agile manner,” Norbert stated.

Agile transformations take time

Based on BCG Platinion’s experience in Agile working, Norbert and his team at the consultancy have crafted a list of best practices for organisations to get the most out of the development method.

1. Create cross-functional teams

To begin with, organisations should create cross-functional teams of approximately five to ten employees each – small enough to collaborate closely but large enough to possess the necessary skills to execute successfully. These Agile teams perform a given process from beginning to end, batching tasks to increase productivity and parallel processing to maintain forward momentum.

Individual employees handle multiple steps to reduce overall work time and avoid the delays that come from excessive context switching. With brief, regular interactions, the teams resolve questions quickly rather than throwing issues back over the wall.

2. Leaders should lead by example

In order to be realised seamlessly, transformative change must receive support from the top of an organisation. Senior leaders should lead by example, taking an active role in fundamental decisions about the business purpose of going Agile. Their broad portfolios are essential to keeping the bigger picture in mind, and addressing cultural barriers that might stand in the way of success.

“Without this commitment, legacy approaches to, for example, capital allocation, HR processes, and portfolio management will doom Agile,” Norbert elaborated. He added that that is one of the key reasons why business leaders, not just IT leaders, must be accountable for the transition to an Agile way of working.

Leadership support is also needed for leaders themselves though, something that is often forgotten. “Most attention goes to the top-down support and commitment, yet when undergoing something so radically new as Agile, the vertical aspect for support is evenly important,” Norbert expanded, adding, “The fast pace and cross-functionality of Agile can put many executives out of their comfort zone. Without strong and steady support from the top, many executives and team members revert to the norm.”

3. Pilot approach for experience and success

In large organisations, Agile pilots are necessary in order to determine whether the method will work there, and whether the organisation will accept Agile principles, before committing larger resources to a long-term transformation. “Pilots are critical to test the company’s ability to making the necessary adaptations to Agile, as plans are gradually refined and up-scaled until a company is ready for a wider roll-out. Only when the blueprint is fully tried and tested, should a company proceed beyond this tipping point. That is when the transition navigates from a small, controlled environment to a large scale operation,” said Norbert.

He added, “Staged rollouts in waves create momentum by building relevant capabilities and ensure that Agile principles and culture are embedded across the organisation.”

Benefits of Agile ways of working

4. Adopt – and tailor – standard Agile methodologies

BCG Platinion’s advice also suggests that one of the most valuable benefits of agile is the ability to encourage teams to do away with strict plans, and think on their feet, iterating quickly, learning from feedback, and shifting course as needed to reach goals. That is the name of the game, as far as Agile is concerned. A number of methods can be used to reinforce these behaviors, and maintain strong forward momentum in an organisation’s workforce.

First, Agile ceremonies, like stand-ups (a form of daily meetings), sprints (brief intensive work efforts designed to deliver a minimum viable product), and retrospectives (reflections on prior sprints) allow teams to self-evaluate and identify critical customer needs, brainstorm solutions to challenges, and target areas for improvement. Added to this, organisations can also leverage Agile backlogs and dashboards, in order to organise work and track progress, enabling teams to prioritise tasks, eliminate bottlenecks, and locate and exploit automation opportunities, potentially making efficiency savings. Methodologies that can help validated learning, such as A/B testing and a test-and-learn approach, can also be used to push teams to analyse user data, while focusing their priorities accordingly.

The ceremonies hat associated with most Agile methodologies alone will not make an organisation Agile, but they can certainly help encourage the improved behaviors on a daily basis. Norbert: “Applied well, the combination of these best practices can help staff to adjust their thought process, so that considering the customer’s priorities becomes second nature. This can dramatically accelerate the pace at which marketing organisations innovate.”

5. Manage the scaling of Agile methodologies

Another key success factor is recognising the tipping point for adopting Agile methodologies. Once organisations start to expand Agile ways of working from small teams or departments, to a more corporate wide approach, this is when senior leadership is most crucial, and when the transformation should be run like a large scale transformation program. Yet this process of change is what Norbert calls the most challenging, as up-scaling is difficult, and real technology and organiational concerns may block these attempts.

For example, HR processes, such as performance management, may at present be poorly set up to handle the establishment of cross-functional teams. An organisation’s IT infrastructure may not be geared toward accommodating continual integration and deployment, thanks to lengthy provisioning times. Once implementation grows, then a transformation officer is needed to monitor planning and rollout, including developments and training of employees.

According to Norbert, to avoid this, “Executives must actively manage the integration, and the enterprise almost certainly will have to invest in training and development to encourage the right culture and behaviors.”

Keys to success in Agile

6. Measure the Return on Investment

The ultimate goal of developing your products in an Agile way is to improve the keystone processes of a business – the ultimate measure of an Agile transformation’s success should therefore relate to business performance. Because Agility is about self-organisation and teams being trained to work autonomously in the long-term, the key is actually to look at output and deliverables of the collective, rather than individuals. This does not occur to executives as common sense, as it is a departure from the current way of working, where managers are inclined to measure what people are doing daily. Stepping away from this kind of micromanagement is central to Agile, however.

The role of digital is important here, as well, in enabling managers to step away from this. Software measurement tools allow companies to demonstrate empirically the productivity and quality improvement of Agile development, and the overall performance of Agile teams, rather than individualised feedback. Automating this process can further boost insights relating to performance, as digitisation not only reduces the overall volume of work that needs to be completed, but can allow teams to become more productive, freeing up capacity for more innovative endeavors.

7. Implement systems for continuous improvement

Further to this, BCG Platinion’s analysis contends that Agile development is an exercise of continuous improvement. Methods enabling self-evaluation and team performance analysis should help illustrate to staff and leaders alike that it is not a one-off exercise. Agile requires constant monitoring to ensure proper functioning.

Companies need to take steps to bake the Agile principles into the organisation, so that teams are constantly identifying ways to become more productive by tweaking and tuning their environment and the way they work. Often, this leads teams to continue with significantly boosting their productivity for as long as five years after going through the initial agile transformation.

Reaping the benefits

With these practices in place, organisations have a significantly higher chance of making their Agile adoption more successful. If they get it right, the research suggests that the results can be stunning. Productivity can be improved by a factor of three, while employee engagement, measured in quantitative surveys, can be seen to increase dramatically as well. Above all, though, as the name suggests, production can be made exponentially quicker, with new product features being released within weeks or months, rather than quarters or years. According to one case examined by BCG Platinion, in the first year after going Agile, the development team of a bank which implemented Agile techniques increased the value delivered per dollar spent by 50%.

Norbert concluded, “In the digital era, every aspect of business needs to move faster than ever before. Companies need to accelerate implementation of initiatives, eliminate costly delays, and continually improve the customer experience. Agile has a proven track record in all these crucial areas.”