Agile teams define the modern model of work

How IT leaders can influence culture and efficiency.

teamwork / collaboration / group meeting in conference room
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How a business structures itself internally can have a huge impact on workflow and culture—both across individual teams and the company as a whole.

Companies need to be fast, focused, and adaptable to remain competitive in a world where customers’ needs are constantly changing. A wide variety of stakeholders have to work together across an organization to align the product or service with customer needs and company goals.

A new model of work must be adopted to meet this challenge—and with that challenge comes a major opportunity for IT leaders to demonstrate business leadership far and wide across their organizations.

Agile has been a prominent development practice for the past 15 years in technology, but the basic tenets of agile can be a cross-company organizing principle to help teams in any function be more efficient and, well, agile. According to Salesforce’s second annual “State of IT” report, 75 percent of tech leaders say IT is currently in the midst of the biggest historical shift of its role, becoming more deeply involved in the business and playing a critical role in processes. Since technology leaders already have vast expertise with agile, they’re well positioned to be change agents for forward-thinking companies by encouraging widespread adoption of the philosophy.

The evolution of work models

For decades from the 1970s on, the classic, sequential, and often very slow Waterfall method dominated teams’ approach to development. The early 1990s became known as the “application development crisis” or “application delivery lag” period. Demand increased exponentially for software and that software and hardware often required a development timeframe that spanned decades, the industry realized it couldn’t move fast enough to meet customer demands and requirements. Waterfall wasn’t cutting it.

Eventually, in response to needing a different, lightweight approach, 17 software professionals created the Agile Manifesto, a model focusing on flexibility, continuous improvement, and speed. Teams are independent of one another and no longer bound to the efforts and timeline of others. Rather than in-depth planning at the beginning of the project, agile methodologies are open to changing requirements over time and encourage constant feedback from the end users. Teams work on iterations of a product over a period of time, and this work is organized into a backlog that is prioritized based on business or customer value. The goal of each iteration is to produce a working product. Having the capabilities to achieve rapid feedback and then change direction is priceless.

As the nature of work shifts across companies and outside IT, agile should by no means be restricted to IT teams. A Sales ops team can use agile to implement a better sales training program, a recruiting team can use agile to solve a recruiting pipeline problem through experimentation, and a legal team can implement an agile approach to improving legal document turnaround time. Because programmers have a history with agile, they have the ability to fundamentally educate and transform their organization to follow this team-based model, based on this new way of working.

The 3 principles of agile

Perhaps your organization has already begun to deploy a team based working approach. This is a difficult and important first step, but does this mean you’re now agile? Well, not quite. There are three principles to keep in mind that may determine success or failure.

The first principle is team identity. Since each team has a unique set of objectives, experience and skills, it stands to reason that the tools they use and even the space they occupy could be optimized for individuality. When SAP was undergoing its agile transformation, it transformed it’s buildings into flexible spaces that gave teams control of desk layout, whiteboards and office accessories. The unique needs of teams transcend physical space and should be considered equally for software and tools. Your engineering department will likely have different needs than your marketing department, and the same goes for your HR team.

Tools like Trello, for example, were specifically created for agile development as a visual project management tool using a simple, card-based format that logs a list of tasks that can be moved around, opened up for more info, and more. MURAL is a collaboration workspace for modern teams that provides shared, digital whiteboards where teams can visually explore complex challenges, facilitate design thinking methods, and organize agile processes across any device. While these tools were built with agile in mind, what’s more important is that teams have the opportunity to select tools that are right for them.

A second principle is making sure your vision and strategy align with the mindset of your people. When it comes to goal setting and roadmapping, take both a top-down and bottoms-up approach to ensure teams feel a sense of individual ownership and organizational togetherness. For example, if you are using the OKR (Objectives and Key Results) goal-setting framework, objectives should be created at a company or departmental level while the individual teams should contribute the key results that are most likely to drive these objectives. In General Stanley McChrystal’s book “Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World,” he references the military and Ford as two organizations using a new management style where a team operates as a network with a shared consciousness and every member is empowered to execute. Agile provides employees with autonomy, a clear sense of their purpose, and the ability to quickly make decisions.

Finally, real-time communication within the team and between teams is essential. Some tools can also be used to facilitate culture. Slack offers agile teams the ability to engage in a seamless manner and knowledge-share between departments or across the entire organization through topic-based channels, increasing transparency and a feeling of connectedness. Channels are “team-first”: a more collaborative, open, and information-dense way to communicate. Employees have context and are clear on company goals. Culture isn’t just about team-building exercises and trust falls—it can actually define your business and be critical to your success or failure.

Success at a glance

As more companies attempt to adopt agile across their organization, it’s important to look at the paths others have taken for implementing a successful rollout, their reasons for doing so, and how they championed the idea to internal stakeholders. IBM championed the move to agile across Global Technology Services its largest department of over 115,000 employees by implementing a fit-for-purpose framework made of multiple agile patterns. They found through their work with clients that a one-size-fits-all approach simply doesn’t work for agile. Instead, through agility, iteration and real time communication, IBM has seen their agile transformation result in “double-digit efficiency improvement in services management processes (e.g., incident, change management) at all the major financial institutions, 70% velocity improvement in handling requests at many clients in the retail area, and in general a far better posture concerning service level agreements attainment across the board” (Source: Harvard Business Review white paper “The New, Lean, Agile Face of Business,” 2018).

How a business is run defines the long-term health of a company. Once you’ve identified a need for your organization to embrace this new framework of cross-team collaboration, utilize your agile expertise to support other internal departments by explaining to them how your technology needs to be modified per team or implemented to support the effectiveness of your new approach—whether that’s with digital whiteboards, collaboration hubs, or something else. Watch as you influence your organization in a new way. Where information and ideas flow, every individual becomes an empowered decision-maker, and culture evolves.

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