Agile practices have been around for close to three decades. They started in the IT industry, but are now a key skillset used in marketing, HR, R&D and even in the boardroom. A new term is being coined called business agility, or the ability of a business to respond rapidly to market forces and new technologies to thrive and survive. But why the new term? This has been the hallmark of successful commerce tracing all the way back to the markets of ancient Mesopotamia. Private enterprises have always had to respond to market forces to survive. What is new now? It’s the pace of change! Enterprises must reinvent themselves to keep up.
Digital technology: a prerequisite for business agility
To be an agile business today one must, first and foremost, master digital technologies. This will not be enough, though. A business must also shed its old hierarchical silos and top-heavy decision-making processes. Employees must become generalists and experts and thrive on constant change and challenges. They must base their operating models on small teams who can be both efficient at mass production and effective at mass customization. To help you visualize what this looks like I am going to take you back to what we did in 2001 to be an agile business.
A real-world example of being an agile business before business agility
I remember well the agile manifesto published that year, well sort of; I did not become an agile practitioner and advocate until 2005 but I do recall well what I was doing in 2001.
The operational challenge
I was the Program manager of an enterprise critical platform for a multi-national manufacturing conglomerate. I led a team of teams responsible for “The Edge” platform that supported all our electrical control and distribution equipment sales. This equipment was highly engineered, only electrical engineers were hired for the sales role and it took them two years before they were allowed to work directly with the client. We had over a dozen distinct products from medium voltage switchgear and motor control centers to busway, load centers and transfer switches. Every construction job had to be custom designed to meet the distribution, control and electrical quality and safety requirements for that facility.
Prior to “The Edge”, these sales engineers would design this equipment from manuals that took up 3 ft. of shelf space providing all the pricing and design notes needed to engineer and price these products. They would produce ring binders of product specs, price lists and sketches as part of the sales package. When they won the order, they would ship all this information to the five or six plants where the equipment was manufactured. At the plant, another team of a dozen or more engineers would verify that all the designs were done correctly and then prepare manufacturing Bills of Material and drawings for the shop floor.
First things first: adopting digital
Essentially, we used an expert rules engine to digitize this whole process with millions of rules and dozens of configuration apps. Through these custom-built apps a salesperson could enter all the pertinent information for a product, get a price list, a drawing, and the ability to push a button to send an order directly to the plant floor where an equivalent plant side configuration app would generate the manufacturing BOM and drawings. This completely revolutionized our business and took market share away from our largest competitors. We were so successful one of our competitors poached half our core IT team to try to do the same thing. Yet they were unable to replicate what we had done.
Being agile, not doing agile: baking-in an agile operational model
What was the difference? We were organized and operated as an agile business unit. It started with our president who recognized the critical advantage of this tool. He participated in weekly rollout meetings making sure the sales teams committed to using the tool and providing us feedback on the issues they were having. I organized my team to work directly with the plant engineers to build these apps. We didn’t worry about robust documentation and change orders to release the latest version. Our finance officers created an errors fund to cover any errors in our pricing or design logic. This was critical for we were releasing updates monthly and patches weekly. Even after the initial rollout, this core DevOps capability was foundational as these products are constantly being updated and revised to stay current with the market. This required constant communication not just with our release team and IT support desk but with our entire user community. We had over 300 customer service reps 600 field salespeople, another 200 plant users and 2,000 distributors all working on a platform that was changing on them constantly.
Breaking down old siloes
All the cross functional silos were broken down. I was doing quarterly half-day portfolio prioritization sessions with senior managers from the plants, engineering, sales, customer service, operations and marketing. Our product line managers set the priorities for their configuration apps weekly. We were doing Lean Portfolio Management a dozen years before LPM was even a concept. The business funded the entire program from a single wallet, no start and stop as we waited for the next project. We were doing lean budgeting by funding this entire development value stream. These are just some of the practices of an agile business that drove our competitive advantage through the roof.
The journey to maturity for today’s agile business
It’s important to understand what it looks like to be a mature agile business. If you don’t know where to go, you cannot begin the journey. Business agility maturity assessments can help you get started. They are not so much to tell you where you are, but to help you see where you need to go. The process actually is more valuable than the end result. Yes, you get some nice charts and a helpful list of improvements to begin the journey but the best result is the conversations and alignment that happens with your team. You get to a collective understanding of your goals and what your end state should look like and how this will impact your organization. This is invaluable, for without alignment on direction you will never get there.
It is not difficult to look for these markers and assess where you are in your business agility maturity. CGI uses a fishbowl approach over nine sessions to measure your current maturity across 21 dimensions collaboratively. From this, we then look at 14 golden threads to evaluate the intersections of these dimensions. Transforming to an agile business requires a systematic approach across the enterprise. You cannot just change the IT delivery without also addressing your customer centricity and organizational change leadership. You cannot put in a continuous delivery platform without a simple, self-documenting platform that is architected for releasability. You need a continuous learning culture to take advantage of innovation. You must have lean flow and alignment across all silos to have a sustainable process and fulfilling workplace.
Becoming a digitally enabled agile business is not an option today, it is a requirement for survival. In 2001 we were ahead of our time and that had huge benefits. The impact today is even more profound.