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Operating in the current climate with an agile approach

In a world where change has become a constant, more and more businesses are looking to agile methodologies to help them adapt and improve. Investigo held a networking event on Thursday 25th June to discuss operating in the current climate with an agile approach. The event was presented by Jay Rahman, Co-Founder and Head Coach of Fractal Systems, an agile adopting and improvement consultancy. Jay is a professional agile and scrum trainer with over 20 years’ experience of coaching business leaders through the transition, helping to embed lean change principles and practices. The discussion was hosted by Grainne Costello, Principal Consultant for Investment Management – Change and Transformation at Investigo.

The new normal

“We’re not in Kansas anymore,” said Jay, comparing the current climate to Dorothy’s arrival in the land of Oz. “We’re in interesting times. Many if not all ways to do business, live and work have changed. While some have been a blessing, others have not been so much fun.” But amid the uncertainty, there’s opportunity. Jay referred to the Chinese word for crisis, a combination of danger and opportunity. It has a further derivative meaning of change at the right time. “As human beings and change agents, we prefer to manage change on our own. But surprises lead to all sorts of emotions.”

Recover, realign, reengage

From his interactions with his clients, Jay feels there are three main question firms are asking themselves right now:

How do we recover lost performance and productivity, now?

Some organisations are embracing agile as a way to manage uncertainty and amplify innovation. “As I speak to clients, some are doing well but most others are struggling,” said Jay. “Smart firms want to continue to deliver value. With the sudden distribution, many firms are seeing huge productivity declines and are struggling to recover. “

How do we adapt in the medium term?

With remote working becoming the norm, what is the medium term? With the future still uncertain, how far do companies plan ahead? Do they need to strategise according to the current normal or plan for a return to previous ways of working?

How do we handle a new distributed world?

In order to survive in a distributed world, companies need to find a way to bring their culture into line with new working practices, while maintaining the level of productivity they knew before.

Classical management vs agile management

In the new distributed normal, volatility is standard, uncertainty is prevalent, complexity abounds and ambiguity is amplified. During times of difficulty, there’s always a temptation to revert to a traditional command and control form of leadership. But companies are finding that “Controlling people more tightly in a distributed world won’t work,” said Jay. “This puts emphasis on senior leaders to know all the answers, come up with strategy and feed it top-down. But these plans aren’t responsive to change, they’re slow to adapt and internally realign.”

In fact, agility is very much the name of the game. “It used to be that big companies would overcome smaller ones,” said Jay. “Now faster firms tend to overtake slower firms. It’s a paradigm shift that COVID has highlighted. Using a restrospective-driven approach, companies can test ideas rapidly, discard useless ones and amplify what works. They can use agile frameworks to manage communications and visualise work, extending the agile narrative past software and into management, freeing the team up creatively.”

How agile can help

“Agile shouldn’t start from the tech space, it should start from the business space,” said Jay. Despite being a project management process mainly used for software development, agile frameworks are crucial for so much more than software. They’re designed for complex environments, optimised for learning, suitable for rapid adaptation and result in consistent value delivery, so “they work wherever we need to optimise learning and adaptability. They focus on individuals and interactions rather than processes and tools.”

However, Jay was keen to stress that “It’s not a fix-all. It doesn’t fix all your problems. It makes them transparent so you can fix them. It’s that level of intelligence, honesty and a practical approach for cumulative learning. Scrum and agile work well if you expand the narrative a little bit and see it as more than software delivery. We are scrum practitioners. Skilful use of the scrum framework orients us and our teams to solve problems and work through challenges to consistently deliver.” Fractal Systems use the scrum framework to help their clients answer the following questions:

•How should we collaborate and communicate to solve the daily problems?

•How should we collaborate to review the outcome of our work?

•How do we consistently optimise and improve how we work?

•How should we manage our interactions to consistently and deliberately learn and adapt?

•How can we find the right cadence for collaboration and when should we collaborate?

Collaboration should be pretty much a constant. “Most companies say let’s talk for 10-15 minutes every morning,” said Jay. “A daily stand up, inspecting and adapting every couple of weeks. It’s a chance to talk about the challenges they’ve faced, how to deal with them in the future. Some ‘say let’s figure it out when we need to,’ but there never is a right time. Unless you’re decisive in making communications happen regularly, the team starts to disintegrate. A scrum is a risk management framework. Every interaction we have is a risk reduction event.”

When new normal becomes normal

“The biggest fear is that there won’t be a normal,” said Jay. “If firms are faster than us and coping well working from home, how can we? You should be prepared to continue working in a distributed environment. If we return to normal, happy days. If we try and wait it out and realise in three to four months that it will extend into a year, we won’t be around to manage that.”

Kathleen Versland, an organisational transformation advisor, said that the majority of her colleagues will be working from home for the foreseeable future. “The working world will not be the same,” she said. It helps when a company already has the facilities and the mindset to work from home effectively. Speaking to Jay recently, the CTO of Atom Bank felt the company would have been struggling had it not already been working in this way. “Look at the opportunity,” said Jay. “It’s opened up and made transparent the cracks in organisations. It’s about eliminating those cracks and challenges.”

“For organisations that were already considering it, COVID has accelerated the optimal working model,” said Nas Zuberi, a senior programme manager and business analyst. “But margins have been squeezed. It’s a model that reduces real estate costs.” He gave the example of a firm that realised it was spending nearly a billion dollars on real estate throughout the globe. “The crisis brought that into sharp focus. Companies have already taken that step with hotdesking models. We recognise that there will be a need for humans to come together when it’s safe to do so. It’s about striking a balance, making optimal use of remote and office working to achieve the productivity they had previously and hopefully exceeding it.”

As they’re forced into new ways of working, there’s an opportunity for organisations to redistribute and invest, looking for ways to redeploy their assets and leverage them effectively. Fidelity, for example, will be closing down its Tonbridge head office and moving to a brand new location.

Agile for agile’s sake?

A client once asked Jay how he was selling agile. “I’m not,” replied Jay, “and I don’t think you should. You should be helping the firm respond well to a redistributed workforce. It’s not about agile for agile’s sake, it’s about helping the workforce adapt. It’s about using a framework to help firms address the problems.” There’s the argument that a lot of organisations already work in an agile way, but that the name hasn’t been put on it.

With cross-functional change, however, the challenge is in getting empowerment – in senior leadership delegating responsibility and decision making. Delegation is a crucial part of successfully embedding agile techniques. “Senior leaders tend to measure success through delivery, and safety through control,” said Jay. “There’s nothing wrong with control, it’s about how you get senior leadership teams to give the right amount of control to teams. You want product owners to be trusted to make the right call. How do you give trust, incrementally increase your trust in teams, build confidence in the teams? You give it only to teams who have proved they can handle it well.”

Managing large amounts of money, leaders are naturally worried about risk. They don’t want to see a drop in productivity. When looking to move to a more agile way of working, it’s therefore important to help them ensure productivity stays constant. “Agile is about delivery and risk management,” said Jay. “We use a retrospective-driven approach to figure out the largest problems we’re trying to solve. Show senior stakeholders how agile works. Have a right to influence. Once people see the value, they’ll start to trust you a little bit more. Our behaviours change. We can’t manage risk without being honest, pragmatic and open to cumulative learning. You need to be doing it regularly. If you look at agile as a framework to help you do that, it becomes a no brainer to adopt it.”

Our speaker

Jay Rahman is Co-Founder and Head Coach at Fractal Systems. Working with some of the leading investment managers in the industry to implement agile methodologies, he has increased productivity and success for a variety of different business areas. He is currently consulting with some tier 1 investment firms, helping to manage transitions and increase productivity during COVID-19.