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Interview: The 6 pillars of business agile (Includes interview)

Senior PM Analyst, Rachel Burger discusses how the shift of business agile will require businesses to change tactics. This is centered on her findings in relation to the six “Pillars of Business Agile”.

Rachel is Senior Project Management Analyst for Capterra, a free online resource that matches businesses to their software needs.

Digital Journal: What are the main threats facing businesses today?

Rachel Burger: In a recent Gartner survey that analyzed a cross section of small and medium-sized businesses in the United States, the plurality of companies identified “advances in technology” as the top external factor affecting their business, ahead of “competition in their industry” and “availability of skilled workers.” The same survey found that one in five (21 percent) of those businesses view “using the right technologies” as their “biggest challenge to achieving their business goals,” followed closely by “hiring the right people” (20 percent).

In other words: most U.S. businesses are worried about the speed of progress and getting the right people on their team to handle a rapidly changing marketplace. This trend is true across industries, from communications and services to transportation and manufacturing. Fear of a changing marketplace and expiring talent specialization is no longer a problem quarantined to the technology industry.

DJ: How would you define an Agile business?

Burger: There isn’t a strict, specific process that makes a business “Agile.” Think instead of Agile as a business philosophy, one in which leadership prioritizes their employees’ relationships, speed to market, rigorous adherence to customer demands, and ability/willingness to respond to change instead of established processes and tools, extensive documentation, internal customer-focused goals, and staying the course. These values stem from the Agile Manifesto, which was established by a group of software engineers in 2001 to streamline software production.

A common misconception is that the application of a specific form of Agile—like “Scrum” or “Lean”—to business operations makes that business Agile. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Remember: Agile businesses prioritize how their employees prefer to work alone and together over any scripted method. An Agile business is one that stems from the business’ culture, and how that culture bleeds into the business process itself.

DJ: How important is it that businesses become Agile?

Burger: Agile is an ideal; all businesses fall on a spectrum between “Agile” and “Not Agile,” much like all businesses fall on a spectrum of “flexible” and “inflexible.” Businesses should be more Agile than not to continue to thrive. The rapid change rate of technology, communication, and individualization of the market requires that service- or product-providing organizations become quicker and more adaptive, which means removing as many barriers to success as possible (such as unnecessary documentation, hiring for a specific skill over the ability to learn multiple functions, and onboarding and offboarding an endless chain of hires).

DJ: Can you explain the 6 Pillars of Business Agile, starting with ‘Valuable Business Outcomes’.

Burger: Think of the six pillars of business Agile like a checklist; if you want to call your business “Agile,” it needs all six. While—for the sake of clarity—each pillar is numbered, it’s more like an evenly divided circle with six parts rather than six steps ranked in order of priority.

The first pillar is “Valuable business outcomes.” Fundamentally, no business can exist without being profitable—that’s Business 101. But this doesn’t say “Valuable financial outcomes.” An Agile-focused business is not myopically focused on profit; rather, it consistently evaluates what is valuable to the business at that time, be it employee cohesion, establishing a long-standing client relationship at the cost of a short-term loss, or taking on a challenging but well-paying project. The broadened emphasis on “Return on Investment” includes both quantitative, regular, automated metrics and also adheres to less-definable qualitative goals.

View of London from above  an area of new and emerging businesses.

View of London from above, an area of new and emerging businesses.

DJ: How do you define the second: ‘Flexible and Adaptive Work Processes’?

Burger: The second pillar, “Flexible and Adaptive Work Processes,” means that a company responds to both extrinsic and intrinsic pressures, with a bias for regular reflection, bias for action, and iterative, measured changed based on those variables.

DJ: Your third pillar is ‘Shared Responsibility and Praise for Product Results’. What do companies need to do here?

Burger: The third pillar, “Shared Responsibility and Praise for Product Results,” is really code for: “Any company is made up of a large team, broken up into smaller teams.” And you know what they say about “i” in teams.

Individual metrics are far too easy to “cheat”. Savvy businesses will cap their teams at five people, and set goals for those specific teams. Reward teams regularly, individuals sparsely, and value open and honest communication above all else.

DJ: What is meant by ‘Prioritized, Regular Customer Interaction’?

Burger: Agile businesses understand that users and motivations for using their products change, often for vague or extrinsic reasons. The market persona is only a baseline. True Agile businesses expect regular change, and this applies to who their product targets as well. To stay on top of that, Agile businesses need the fourth pillar: “Prioritized, Regular Customer Interaction.”

In Being Agile: Eleven Breakthrough Techniques to Keep You from “Waterfalling Backward,” IBM authors Leslie Ekas and Scott Will offer one method that I’m particularly fond of: the “2, 2, 2, 2” technique”. The idea is that you take your two most difficult customers (the ones complaining about quality or always demanding new features) and commit to solving each of their top two problems, provided they work closely with your team.

Whether or not your organization is consumer-, business-, government-facing, or otherwise, this system keeps you close to your customer and on top of what they really want from your product.

DJ: What is ‘Creativity and Encouragement’?

Burger: The fifth pillar, “Creativity and Encouragement,” stems from a basic leadership principle: that all individuals want to contribute and be recognized, and that fear is often the greatest barrier to innovation. Using two-week cycles, it’s easy for a business to “test” new ideas. Instead of outcome-based performance measurements after a project is complete, continuous implementation and testing as a project is worked on replaces the feared “firing the one to blame” with “letting go of a test that didn’t work.”

DJ: What are ‘Situation-Specific Systems’?

Burger: The final pillar of business Agile is “Situation-Specific Systems.” Agile isn’t all change all the time; it’s recognition that one’s processes and products can always always improve—must improve—to compete in a fast-paced market. But, every process and product doesn’t need to improve all at once, and there are “best practices” that can last years without a pressing need for growth or enhancement.

One of the principles behind Agile is: “Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential.” That means that teams can organically organize “templates” for regular tasks, like serving a particular type of client, so that there aren’t new requirements for every new project.

That said, these “templates” should never be free from critique or improvement during a business reflection. Be careful to avoid the trap of “because that’s how we’ve always done it.” Stationary businesses are dead companies in this economy.

DJ: How should companies go about adopting these six pillars?

Burger: There are a lot of places to start, but I recommend the following six steps for leadership teams, all while encouraging those leaders to seek out whatever system works best for their business.

For example, host regular, scheduled retrospective meetings with each team. During those meetings, brainstorm what those participants want to start doing, stop doing, and keep doing on their team level. Read this Medium article for a more detailed overview.

Businesses can also adopt a transparent business goal model that clearly filters out to individual teams; I’m particularly fond of the OKR method, especially when limiting goals to four per team. OKRs must be revisited regularly (I recommend quarterly) and have both quantitative and qualitative goals.

Other steps include abandoning “customer” or “buyer” personas for “market personas”; starting work in two-week increments with a regular retrospective at the end of each; being open and willing to test new ideas or gut some of your favorites if they aren’t working; breaking up teams until there is one manager to, at maximum, five people; and creating “best practice” documentation and revise as needed.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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