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The first step to an agile transformation
Agile operating models have generated a lot of buzz in the business world in recent years, particularly in markets that rely on technology to deliver products and services. The unfortunate side effect of that buzz is a growing number of companies that decide to “go agile” without any clear goals of how they would like to change financially or operationally. Just “Doing” or “Being agile” is not a good goal – “Cutting time-to-market from idea to product sales by 50%” is.

Like any major business initiative, agile principles need to be targeted to benefit an organization. Choosing a primary market advantage or business goal should always be the first step when implementing an agile operating model. Basically, you need to answer the question of “Why should we change?” and “What will the economic benefits be?” If that first step is done correctly, the cultural shift toward a more effective development and a customer-centric approach to products or services will follow.

The key role of a company or consultant hired to implement an agile operating model is to help an organization identify the primary market advantage it’ll gain with agile principles. Without that competitive advantage in mind, the desired outcomes aren’t likely to truly add value to the organization. If your company is considering agile, start by working with a consultant to define three or four business processes that fundamentally make a difference to your business, and use those as an instrument to drive all changes. That level of focus will be visible all the way to the top level of the organization.

Perhaps even more importantly, it’ll help executive sponsors be clearer when explaining the “why” in implementing agile to their teams. If the people driving the implementation of an agile operating model aren’t able to clearly explain how the company will be different (for the better, of course) at the end of the process, they’re at a serious disadvantage in terms of winning the hearts and minds of their people. Success is even more likely if the primary business goal is tied to economics. For instance, the Internet has radically altered the economics for companies to connect with customers to receive feedback. It has also shortened the time expected to get fixes and responses. So, if your future business model relies on doing business online, then the length of time to develop and improve the products and services needs to radically change to capitalize on the opportunity.

Once the executive sponsors have identified their primary goals and the market advantage they intend to achieve, they need to prepare by keeping in mind not just the technical details of the agile implementation, but the holistic business processes that should be addressed across the organization. They should not, however, tell everyone the “answers” to how and why processes should change, and then micromanage everything.

The whole point of implementing agile is to get people comfortable with change, and even more comfortable with failure, even if that seems counterintuitive. After all, failure — followed by refining products and services to improve their market reception — is critical in creating a quicker path to deciding which investments are worth pursuing. The sooner executive sponsors learn to communicate their strategic objectives and why those objectives add value to the organization, the sooner an agile operating model will create a fundamental shift in company culture toward a customer-centric approach to product and service development.

Agile is fundamentally a change in mindset and principles, not just practices. To make sure the agile operating model is implemented successfully, project leaders should lay the foundation with clear education about what agile is and why it matters. Keep it simple — there are numerous examples where organizations have tried to implement radical new processes that failed because they were rejected by the company culture. Build an understanding of what you aim to achieve within your company culture instead of trying to force major changes with off-the-shelf frameworks and methodologies. By creating a deeper understanding of the why, organizations design better operating models that are more effective in their own marketplace and for their culture.

An agile operating model implemented correctly should lend itself to measurable results. Be very deliberate about establishing metrics for the project, have a clear timeline for reviewing outcomes and be consistent about checking in on progress so resources can be redirected as necessary.

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