Achieving management agility requires leaders to change

Shyam Salona and Scott Fletcher, of REI Systems, explain how agencies can make the leap from agile for software development to agile for managing an organizatio...

The buzz around using agile methodologies to manage an organization led Gartner to list “Business Agile” on its Hype Cycle in 2016 and move it from an “emerging” to an “adolescent” project and portfolio management trend in 2017.

At REI Systems we launched our business agility transformation in 2015, forming agile teams around accounting, contracts, human resources, business development, facilities and infrastructure as well as our core custom software delivery and advisory services teams. This journey hasn’t been easy, nor is it complete. However, we have begun to see results with our customers, our employees, and our business performance each seeing substantial improvement. Now, having learned what works and what doesn’t, we felt that government agencies and other companies would benefit by learning from REI’s experience.

Applying agile to your organization: Is it a good idea?

The agile approach for software development relies on small, self-organizing, self-managing teams. Team members have “T-shaped” skills, meaning they are deep in one area but broad enough to contribute to others.  The cross-functional structure helps agile teams adjust quickly to ever changing circumstances, including feedback from customers. Agile is a radical change from traditional command/control hierarchies, and from functionally specialized work units used in most companies and government agencies.

Like many organizations, REI has historically tried to address future uncertainty with detailed planning. However, none of our plans ever went “as planned,” and rework was a constant. The agile approach has instead encouraged us to set a general direction, with planning that is less intense, though more frequent. Rather than doing long-term planning at a detailed level – where there are so many unknowns – our agile teams focus more on the near-term tactics – what we can do now in the context of the longer-term direction.

Should your agency or company adopt business agility?

If you answer “Yes” to these questions, then you may be ready:

  1. Must your agency address significant, unexpected change on a regular basis?
  2. Do you want your business to be able to move more quickly in its decision making?
  3. Is your organization’s culture built on trust, especially in its senior leaders?
  4. Can your organization and its leaders commit to a multi-year, sometimes challenging process, before seeing results?

Changing management style: Impact on leaders

We knew the decision to embrace business agility would require our senior leaders to change their management style. But our trust in our people gave us confidence. Still, we experienced challenges. Here are some changes your management team will experience and need to adapt to.

  • With business agility, multiple channels of communication move up, down and across the organization – which can be disconcerting to managers used to top-down communications flow.
  • The manager is no longer the center of attention or a sole source of information, which can make them question their value to the organization.
  • Decision making happens at many levels, shifting the balance of power from few to many.
  • Some managers’ discomfort from a loss of control tends to cause them to revert to old habits.

One approach that worked well in the face of these challenges was to ask managers to assume the role of a coach, where their primary responsibility was to help teams make choices. The result? We have expanded our organization’s capabilities and no longer depend so much on a few individuals. Furthermore, we have reorganized how our teams are structured, ensuring cross-functionality versus specialization, and reducing dependencies and handoffs between teams. This also has broadened team members’ skillsets as they absorb knowledge from adjacent functions. We engaged an agile coach to facilitate this learning and culture change.

Meetings, meetings, meetings

As we started, a big complaint was the number of meetings – sprint planning, daily stand-ups, bi-weekly sprint retrospectives, etc.  People on multiple teams felt that they had no time to do “real work.” Our advice is to stick with it. Over time, we got better at conducting these meetings. Our stand-ups now last 15 minutes or less. Rather than sending emails that get no response, people bring up issues during the stand-up meeting and generally they are quickly resolved. The velocity of our decision-making has increased, eliminating problems from delayed decisions. Finally, the fact that people commit to do something, and must then meet peers the next day with it done (or not), has had a dramatic positive effect on accountability and follow through.

Results of business agility

REI has seen significant positive results that we attribute in substantial part to our adoption of  business agility. We see heightened customer satisfaction – customers rated us at 94 out of 100 regarding “Ease of doing business with REI,” and gave us a 97 out of 100 rating for the “Customer Support received from REI.”

Second, REI’s profitability also increased, moving us into the top quartile of IT service providers that primarily support the government. Finally, REI Systems has been named a “Top Place to Work” by the Washington Post. We believe three mechanisms are at work:

  1. As teams are empowered, team members are more satisfied. They focus on figuring out how to get things done and delivering value to our customers.
  2. Our customers are intimately involved in the process, seeing our work and providing feedback in shorter intervals. They see continuous progress, offer guidance en-route, and are happier with the results.
  3. The agile mindset is strengthening our execution overall. We focus on value throughout the project schedule, not just at completion.

This is a journey, during which we continue to learn lessons and improve. For example, we are currently revising our budgeting and performance management processes to support business agility. However, initial results seem to show that we have made the right decision.

Is now the time for your organization to take the leap to business agility?

Shyam Salona is CEO of REI Systems, which he co-founded in 1989, and Scott Fletcher is the vice president and chief operating officer of REI Systems.

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