Technological agility through agile adoption strategies
By BJ Cary, Content Marketing Specialist, LTi Technology Solutions
Agility is the ability to move quickly and easily. The older one gets, the more difficult this becomes without diligent exercise and ongoing practice. The rigidity of age not only affects the body, but it can infiltrate a business, too. Old routines become the established ways of doing things, and every new attempt at change elicits a louder groan.
But as a younger generation grows into more prominent roles, they bring new expectations and processes born out of the technology that raised them. This technology is highly flexible and advances rapidly. Many enterprise companies are not flexible enough to adapt to these changes with the legacy systems they have in place. But by using a more agile adoption strategy, organisations can increase their flexibility to adapt new technologies quickly and easily.
The equipment finance industry is notoriously cautious. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. Avoiding the pitfalls of new technology by allowing time for bugs to be worked out is smart for business. Especially ones that rely on the safety of customer data. The challenge is always figuring out when to decide to finally jump in. Jump too soon and it puts the customer, and the entire business, at risk. Wait too long to leap, and an organisation can find itself falling too far behind their competition.
As MIT principal research scientist Andrew McAfee said in an interview for the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), “Incumbent organisations, over and over again, miss disruptive change. And they find their margins eroding, they find their customers going elsewhere. They kind of sit around and go ‘what the heck happened here’.”1
Typically, what causes an organisation to miss new opportunities is an over-reliance on previous success, McAfee cautioned. They assume that what worked before should work again. So why rock the boat? But too much caution can be just as costly as too much ambition.
Bridging the incoming with the incumbent
Incoming millennials understand the risk of waiting too long and failing to adopt new technology at the right time. As the largest generation in the labour force right now (see chart below),2 they bring with them the aptitude to recognise when to embrace disruptive technology.
Millennials understand that disruption can be just what a company needs to stay relevant and grow alongside its customer’s evolving expectations. But millennials are not the only ones who recognise this. Just ask the generations before them about legacy companies like Kodak and Xerox, and where those businesses stand today. As technology disruption becomes more of the standard, leaders at every level, from every generation, are beginning to understand the need for improved adoption strategies.
Of course, the biggest challenge is bridging the flashy-and-new with the tried-and-true, and finding the right balance between agility and stability. The key to this is adopting the right company-wide mindset. “One critical prerequisite for sustaining real change,” according to McKinsey & Company, the global management consulting firm, “is putting in place the behavioural norms required for success. This is not about making cultural statements or listing company values; it is, rather, a matter of instilling the right kinds of behaviour for ’how we do things around here’.”3
That is easier said than done. For incumbent organisations, it can be hard to take on the challenge of changing old behaviours. Human beings naturally prefer routine over disruption. But the millennial generation isn’t rocking the boat for the sake of disruption alone. Rather, for them, technological change is part of their routine. It is what they know and what they are comfortable with. Because they have grown up using app-rich smartphones and cloud-based services, flexibility is simply a part of life for them.
Add to that the growing tendency to forgo asset ownership in favour of pay-as-you-need options, and this generation will continue to impact the industry, even more than it already has.
To avoid missing the “disruptive change” that Andrew McAfee talks about, organisations will need to figure out where the nexus point is between stable business structures and agile adoption strategies. The more open they are to inter-generational collaboration, the faster they will find a common ground.
How agile is bridging the gap
Agile began as a project management system focused on delivering software projects through a series of iterations. Traditionally, projects unfolded in a series of linear phases leading up to the ultimate “go-live” of the new system. One phase had to be completed before the next phase could begin.
Testing was saved till the end, often revealing significant bugs and functionality issues that caused further delays. Deadlines got pushed back as project scopes ballooned with each new request. And the client rarely interacted with the product until the project went live.
This is known as the “waterfall” approach to project management. Everything flows in one, fast-paced direction culminating in a final plunge. Blockages dam up workflows preventing progress until the issue is resolved. The full scope is defined at the very beginning, and changes are not made lightly, nor often. Because once the project is underway, there is no stopping the waterfall.
With agile project management, though, customers and vendors interact regularly. Agile teams deliver results in smaller iterations known as “sprints.” This allows the customer to test and give feedback at every step. If issues come up, agile teams can simply divert to another iteration while the blockage issue is resolved. Delivery is ongoing, instead of waiting for one final launch. Because teams work in shorter sprints, they are highly flexible and can move quickly and adapt to any changes.
Ultimately, the customer gets precisely what they need, because the product is built iteration by iteration, and is constantly tested along the way. This saves time, resources, and a lot of frustration.
Applying the agile methodology in other areas of business, organisations can set themselves up to be prepared for quick and easy adaptations. They can embrace fluctuating markets, industry disruptors, and technology advancements instead of holding them at a safe distance. Because true agility means “accepting the truth that we can make progress with incomplete information.”4 It replaces the need to “hit the target” right away with an ongoing commitment to progress. The process is the target.
Implementing agile beyond software
More and more, the agile methodology of project management is being applied cross-departmentally, and even across other industries. Organisations are recognising the value of taking iterative steps towards change, instead of having to invest in exhaustive all-or-nothing approaches.
While agile project management began with software development, the same principles can be applied towards creating a flexible technology adoption strategy as well.
Legacy systems are often the biggest obstacles for enterprise companies in gaining technological agility. These systems are robust platforms, sometimes housing decades of client and transactional data. But they can be cumbersome ecosystems due to their age and infrastructure. Overhauling a typical legacy system requires a massive investment in time and resources, and they are not undertaken lightly. That is a problem in an era where technological change happens often.
Younger generations working in legacy systems may get frustrated by the inability to adapt quickly to evolving customer needs. Any system that fails to support the agility younger workers expect will be deemed obsolete. And any company unwilling to adopt leaner operations will have the same accusations levelled against it. If millennial works are forced to flee to more agile disruptors, then the very demographic poised to help companies stay relevant will become their downfall.
But it is not just the workforce that organisations have to worry about. Millennial customers will take their business to where they feel most understood. Firms that lack flexibility will quickly find themselves wondering “what the heck happened here.”
All the fears surrounding the adoption of new, disruptive technologies can be allayed by taking on a more agile adoption approach. Instead of completely replacing a legacy workflow all at once, companies can take an iterative approach towards new technology adoption. They can introduce new processes, workflows, and systems incrementally, allowing their people time to adjust and figure out their new routines.
Four pillars of agile
Agile project management has four pillars that break down a larger objective into attainable goals. The first pillar is the project’s overall Theme. From there, Initiatives are collected from bodies of work called Epics, which are comprised of even smaller Stories (see diagram below).5
Here are some ways to translate these pillars and apply them towards a more agile technology adoption strategy:
Themes. An agile Theme is the high-level goal a project aims to achieve. For example, a technology adoption Theme might read, “Move all operations and workflows to be 100% cloud-based.” This is a common objective right now, but also a very large goal. It will need to be broken down into more achievable steps to gain company-wide buy-in. Themes aim to climb Mount Everest. Epics, Initiatives, and Stories show exactly how to accomplish getting to the summit.
Themes are crucial for making sure everyone is using the same map. Every step a company takes, every resource it uses, and every dollar it spends can be filtered through the project Theme. Asking, “Will this get us closer to our Theme?” helps guide every decision that needs to make. Project Themes are the North Star keeping everyone moving in the same direction.
Initiatives. Initiatives are the pillars supporting an overall Theme. They are smaller objectives that help achieve the big picture. An Initiative is a significant collection of tasks that must be completed to fulfill the vision of the Theme. Themes typically only have a handful of Initiatives supporting them.
Using the Mount Everest analogy, Initiatives are the major camps of progress. So, if a company’s goal is 100% cloud adoption for four major departments, for example, then an Initiative might represent one department’s complete transition. Completing all four Initiatives will fulfill the overall Theme.
Epics. Where Initiatives represent pillars supporting a grand Theme, Epics are the collective bodies of work driving each Initiative. They are the marches required to make each camp along the way to the top of the mountain. Agile project management is built on delivering shippable units of a product through a series of “sprints.” Epics are a collection of these sprints.
For a department supporting a company-wide Theme of 100% cloud adoption, their Epic would involve each team in the department finalising their transition. Once each team transitions successfully, the department declares victory, and an Initiative is completed.
Stories. Stories are the quick sprints required to complete an Epic. If a full-day’s march is needed to reach a campsite, then Stories are the steps for completing that march. Agile Stories break down Epic workloads into achievable outcomes. A company moving its entire legacy system to the cloud is a massive undertaking, even if it benefits everyone in the organisation.
A project that large can feel like scaling the highest peak in the world. But when the Theme is divided down to the level of each user Story, that mountainous goal becomes a lot more achievable.
Making agility a real possibility
Technological agility is not reserved for disruptive fintech’s alone. Any organisation can achieve the flexibility they need to stay competitive in the ever-evolving-equipment finance industry. It is not necessary to drink from the waterfall. Even when complete technological shifts become critical, taking a more agile approach will make for an easier transition.
Flexibility is not the exclusive domain of youth. With the right approach and inter-generational collaboration, any organisation can move quickly and easily to keep up with rapidly changing technology.
1 Harnessing the digital future: A long-read Q&A with Andrew McAfee, James Pethokoukis, AEIdeas, http://www.aei.org/publication/harnessing-the-digital-future-a-long-read-qa-with-andrew-mcafee/
2 Millennials are the largest generation in the U.S. labor force, Richard Fry, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/04/11/millennials-largestgeneration-us-labor-force/
3 Agility: It rhymes with stability, Aghina, De Smet, and Weerda, McKinsey Quarterly, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/agility-it-rhymes-with-stability#0
4 The state of agile software development in the UK, Karl Flinders, Computer Weekly, https://www.computerweekly.com/news/2240209932/The-state-of-agile-software-development-in-the-UK
5 Epics, Stories, Themes, and Initiatives, Max Rehkopf, Atlassian, https://www.atlassian.com/agile/project-management/epics-storiesthemes
Marketing Content Specialist
LTi Technology Solutions
4139 S. 143rd Circle
Omaha, NE 68137
Tel: +1 402 493 3445