This is what Agile can do for your company

Agile methods are popping up everywhere

The software industry has delivered huge advances in business productivity and communications. Could it also deliver the next great revolution in business process management?

Strolling into the Melbourne headquarters of REA Group, the team behind realestate.com.au, the vibe is more cool cafe than open-plan office. People happily buzz about, some huddled in small groups, catching up on news or discussing where the day might take them. Work boards are spotted with brightly coloured Post-it notes, mapping out the progress of projects. The vibe is energetic, optimistic and 100 per cent “Agile”. 

In the last 14 years, many high-growth start-ups have adopted the Agile approach to doing things. It’s a method that emphasises cross-pollination and collaboration across teams, highly visual work methods, fast stand-up meetings, job-sharing, and a willingness to adapt to changing circumstances.

Originating in the software industry, Agile’s methods were born when developers ditched lengthy and linear “waterfall” processes, where each phase of a project must be completed fully before the next phase can begin, in favour of the rapid creation and testing of working software. The results were immediate: greater productivity, improved communications and more flexible solutions to problem solving.

But it’s Agile’s usefulness for other service functions – and industries – that is causing excitement in management circles.

Agile methods are now popping up in the legal, marketing, finance and customer-service areas of online companies such as REA Group and the employment and training company SEEK. It’s also showing up in technology-reliant industries such as banking.

Brenton Harder, the Commonwealth Bank’s general manager of group productivity, says Agile is being used across the bank’s entire enterprise services team, including IT and operations, and in project management in its institutional and retail banking groups.

“Pretty much half of the bank is thinking, running or using some elements of Agile in the way in which we manage our projects and deliver outputs to our customers,” Harder says.

“Since we’ve been on our Agile journey, over the last year and a half, we’ve had a spill over into other spaces. We have been able to pick up elements of Agile into the way we deliver projects in our financial and legal services.

“It was just a natural response to the speed of change that we feel in any line of work across the bank,” he explains.

Expanding its possibilities

Perhaps the most extensive manifestation of Agile in Australia is at REA Group, where chief information officer Nigel Dalton says the entire organisation is using it to some extent, following its introduction in 2010. Dalton is often regarded as the “godfather of Agile” in Australia, due to his pioneering work in implementing it at travel publisher Lonely Planet a decade ago.

REA’s office walls hold work boards that list tasks [to do, in progress, done]. Each floor is peppered with break-out spaces, encouraging meetings and collaboration. People are grouped into activity-based “neighbourhoods” and have a locker instead of a desk and can work within whichever area is designated to their team.

“And that is when it started to embed, because you got non-IT people exposed to the daily rhythm of Agile,” explains Dalton.

Despite its advanced Agile status, he estimates REA is only one third of the way along the path. Significant work remains in balancing the budgeting and governance needs of a modern, publicly listed company to fit a market that is moving and changing quickly.

“Reconciling the two worlds we live in is a challenge,” he admits. “In the meantime, I’ve got lawyers using an Agile [work] board and salespeople using Agile techniques.”

Agile grows legs

One of those influenced by Dalton’s Agile work at Lonely Planet was the company’s legal counsel Chaman Sidhu. She liked its greater focus, greater transparency, more open collaboration and ability to enhance productivity while reducing stress.

Agile, and particularly its visual work methods, formed the foundation for the processes she adopted at her current employer, Melbourne-based online marketplace developer Envato.
“It allows a really busy support services division to find ways to keep focusing on the projects we need to keep doing, as well as on all the very busy operational work,” she says.

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Now, rather than forming a seemingly endless to-do list, projects are broken down into smaller tasks that are prioritised for the coming week (a “sprint”, in Agile speak, with sprints usually running for no more than four weeks) and the team is gathered into “scrums” each morning to discuss where they are at and agree on the day’s focus.

“Repeating that daily gives a huge amount of transparency and accountability, but also opportunities to support each other, collaborate, avoid duplication, and allows for mentoring as well as idea sharing,” Sidhu says.

It’s the visibility of the Agile process, she stresses, that ensures errors are corrected as they arise, rather than risking handing over a project that misses the mark. “It also gives a great amount of visibility to all your stakeholders, so you can allow for competing priorities to be agreed on across different business units,” she says.

At SEEK, the journey to Agile commenced with the realisation in 2010 that its software development cycle was not keeping pace with more nimble start-ups. What started with a single Agile software project has spread across its HR, finance, marketing and customer service areas.

Human resources manager Christian Miran says SEEK’s HR section has adopted an Agile method known as a “Kanban wall”. It is a visual representation of a project broken down into tasks, set out on colourful Post-it notes, that can be discussed and prioritised.

“There is an opportunity to collaborate and see where the blockages are, where people need help, what the challenges are, and monitor our performance,” Miran explains. He believes he’s more productive as a result.

What qualities are needed?

One by-product of this visual work method is that people now have nowhere to hide, so when assessing candidates to work at SEEK, Miran and his team look for qualities such as collaboration, motivation and the ability to prioritise.

“There are people who are really motivated by the fact that they are getting a lot of stuff done,” he says, “and then there are people who have never worked like that and have never had to share their knowledge and expertise, and it can put them in an uncomfortable environment. That is one aspect that you need to be conscious of – how do individuals cope with the change?”

5 Agile Actions

  • Switch from designated desks to adaptable areas, laptops and Wi-Fi. 
  • Initiate “scrums”, quick daily stand-up meetings. 
  • Get a work board to visualise workflow with Post-it notes.
  • Break down big projects into “sprints” of smaller weekly tasks.
  • Offer more opportunities for teams to collaborate.

This article is from the July issue of INTHEBLACK

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