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Agile outside IT?

Close to every software company has adopted agile ways of working over the past decade. And software development is not confined to vendors - most large organisations have internal development. It represents a fundamental change to how work is organised, how organisations get closer to their customers, and how focus is shifting from outputs to outcomes.

The agile movement largely started from the bottom up and caught the attention of executives because the teams were more productive. This particular reason for scaling agile ways of working, or for those companies new to the party to start an "agile transformation" with efficiency at scale as the purpose, is of course missing the point. Agile ways of working chiefly enables organisations to grapple with change, wherever it may come from, while minimising the amount wasted work in the process. That is the reason some organisations need to undergo a second, or even third, transformation to move their agility forward.

As part of learning that agile ways of working involves simplification of processes and downscaling structures and governance to achieve the responsiveness required to stay competitive, organisations begin to discover that agility is not relevant only to software development. It's been called the world's best kept business secret, because while the benefits are obvious across almost all knowledge-based domains, there has been a tendency to identify agile with IT. That is a huge mistake.

The good news is that we have an opportunity to adopt agile ways of working outside IT without taking some of the false steps, but it requires an honest and open approach. The reason is that leadership teams may have superficial knowledge of agile (and why it works) without realising it. This leads to strange and arbitrary definitions of agile, such as "the ability to have many balls in the air" or "we can turn on a dime on a daily basis". Consequentially, leaders and employees outside IT may need to take a step back.

One of the recurring experiences we have at Unlikly when working with leadership teams is their surprise over how disciplined agile ways of working really is. Discipline is not to be confused with rigidity - that is a dangerous trap to fall into, especially with superficial knowledge of agile. Think of discipline as a set of really simple and demonstrably effective standards. It sometimes, fairly, takes a bit of practice to convince the skeptics.

So where does agile ways of working make sense outside IT? The answer is anywhere in your organisation where you are constantly faced with challenges that don't have obvious solutions. Examples are HR, product management, financial services, procurement, marketing - the list goes on. What's not on the list? Probably areas such as service operations, payroll and other administrative support functions, and even construction - because those have a relatively (sometimes extremely) high degree of documentation and data, and any problem that might arise can be classified, and a solution already exists.

Two approaches exist, one local and one truly silo-breaking

  1. LOCAL A marketing team, say, is able to change to agile ways of working by organising differently as a team, sharing responsibility for the work ahead, and introducing feedback loops. That brings the same benefits as we have seen teams reap in IT: Getting closer to customers, taking better risk, learning from mistakes, making faster and better decisions, and creating more value faster. In this example, the team shares a lot of general marketing knowledge but can still be considered cross-functional since their competencies can vary a lot.

  2. SILO_BREAKING For an even more radical approach, organisations can choose to organise around the customer experience. This breaks away from the functional organisation and makes teams accountable for executing and improving a particular part of the value proposition. In practice, this means assembling teams with true cross-functional composition - for example, a mix of product people, commercial people, technical people, and legal people might own the pre-sales area inside a consumer electronics company. As a team.

We're seeing quite a few companies experimenting with local transformations within their departments, where they quickly get experience and create value for internal and external stakeholders. And we predict that we will increasingly see attempts to experiment with breaking down silos using the customer centricity as the organising principle in the coming years.

• Thanks for your interest.

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