4 ways to fail at agile working

Everyone's talking about agile, but most organisations are doing it wrong, says PA Consulting's agile expert Sam Bunting.

by Sam Bunting
Last Updated: 29 Nov 2018

When businesses succeed at agile, they thrive. Our research shows that the top 10 per cent of firms by financial performance are a third more likely to have agile characteristics. That’s good news. Except that less than one in five (17 per cent) of the business leaders we spoke to said that their organisations were actually embracing it.

It’s not surprising. This is a quantum leap in business thinking. It’s also a leap into the unknown. Agile can be threatening for managers who’ve spent years developing a function, and employees who worry they might not have the right skills to work in this way. Organisations’ efforts end up half-hearted, lacklustre or just plain wrong-headed.

Here are the common pitfalls from our experience, and what you can do to avoid them.

Forget about your customer

If you want to fail at agile, put your organisational needs first. Focus on following internal processes and delivering new widgets, without paying any attention to what it all means for the people who actually buy your products or services. Don’t bother with customer research, just get started and see what happens.

Or, if you want to succeed, you could: listen to your customer. A listening culture isn’t just about finding out what customers want. It also finds ways to give them things they didn’t know they wanted. Take Netflix.  Its customer profiles are famously specific. They don’t just gather data on what people watch, they can see how tastes map out across genres and styles. That informs their entire commissioning strategy.

Centralise and stick to silos

Make sure there’s a bottleneck in your decision making, with a strict hierarchy and everyone in their place. Keep different skills in different places – there’s no reason for HR or finance people to get involved on the front line. Make work as one dimensional as possible.

Or, if you want to succeed, you could: design for simplicity. ING is one of the best examples of a non-tech business making the most of agile. Like Spotify, it has created small, self-organising teams that come together to work on specific customer journeys or processes. Squads with similar missions are grouped into tribes of up to 150 people. This allows ING to design ways of working around customer problems, instead of putting people into siloed functions. And this has helped them speed up – getting products to market more quickly with greater innovation.

Stick to what you know

Don’t look ahead and don’t jeopardise today’s income streams to get ready for the future. Short term thinking is fine. Rename your meetings ‘scrums’, talk about iterative working in every email, but don’t actually think or do anything differently. 

Or, if you want to succeed, you could build to evolve. Data, analytics and AI give more opportunities than ever before to look ahead and make informed predictions. Of course, technology and tools work best alongside a clear vision of the big picture. Blockbuster failed because it saw itself as a video store, rather than an entertainment business, and it couldn’t reinvent when digital competitors came calling. By contrast, Amazon is the most obvious example of a business that’s gone way beyond its original starting point as an online bookstore. 

Profits, not people

People are resources, so focus on how much you can get from them, not how much they can give. Don’t tell them about the benefits of agile working, just adopt it as a process, and expect everyone to get on board. Ideally, start using agile in some parts of the business but not others, so it’s impossible to join things up.

Or, if you want to succeed, you could give your people freedom to succeed.  Australian software company Atlassian gives their people days on-the-clock to work on anything they want, as long as it’s not part of their regular job. It’s a chance to solve problems, try new things, and assemble a team with anyone they like across the company. This kind of approach, where people can work across functions, using their complementary skills, is at the heart of agile. It makes for an inspiring, dynamic place to work. And it means treating employees more like customers than resources, delighting them with opportunities to grow.

Sam Bunting is an agile expert at PA Consulting

Image credit: aluxum/Gettyimages

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