Agile development: How to make it work for you

CIO Strategies: What to do - and what not to do - to make Agile an effective tool for you team.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Tarah Lourens, UK CTO at payday loan specialist Wonga, says her top priority is building empowered, high-performing teams -- and Agile provides the key to this success.

She says a high level of empowerment is crucial in an organisation like Wonga, where the firm's technology is built internally and is crucial to the long-term success of the business. All products and service in the IT department are now delivered through Agile practices.

"It's incredibly refreshing," she says. "We use Agile right back in the business engagement phase. From inception, right through to delivery, we are doing things in an iterative way, allowing us to adapt and evolve along the way. It's been very easy to get people in the IT department and across the rest of the business to see the value of Agile."

Lourens, who joined Wonga in 2016, outlines to ZDNet how her IT department has embraced Agile and how other departments across the rest of the organisation are starting to adopt the methodology. She also provides a series of best practice tips for other executives who are keen to explore flexible ways of working.

Putting Agile into practice

Initial ideas for new products and services at Wonga are assessed by a group in which Lourens and line-of-business executives decide which potential initiatives are a priority. This group from across the organisation decides which ideas are worthy of further discovery, and additional time and resources.

Each of these ideas is considered through an iterative discovery process that includes workshops, which help expand the idea, determine how assumptions will be tested and establish how success will be measured. "It's a way to get the business to really pull back and focus on value," she says.

"The business is very supportive of the work we do and we get very little resistance. Our key stakeholders are pragmatic and flexible. They recognise that you will never deliver to quality, scope and time simultaneously. Priority calls will need to be made at some point during a project, they key is to make these early to minimise their impact."

Lourens provides regular metrics to the rest of the business as proof-points, both good and bad.

"We're very transparent about results, so that helps people see the value of Agile. In every forum, I share metrics, and it's what we use as a team to drive continuous improvement. Without measurement, it's difficult to know whether you are doing the same, better or worse," she says, before outlining how her teams also helps share business benefits.

"Some individuals in my team, including engineers and product specialists, have created an internal newsletter than talks about our progress and our results, both good and bad. People across the organisation have seen the sense of purpose and the level of engagement that's been fostered by working in an Agile way."

Spreading the benefits across the business

In fact, other executives who have seen the benefits of an Agile approach in IT are now eager to apply the principles in their own departments. To help aid this adoption process, Lourens and her IT leadership team are providing expert Agile coaching to key business departments, including HR and marketing.

The HR team runs a daily huddle and has scrum cards around the department to highlight aims and progress. Lourens says projects run by the HR team include reviewing employee benefits and identifying new ways to find talent.

"I spoke initially to everyone in the business about the principles of Agile and how they can apply to any area really," she says. "The HR team runs projects and talks daily about what's working and what needs refining - they're applying the principles of Agile in a way that works for them."

Lourens says the HR team has been very positive about the support from the technology department. The IT team is currently helping the marketing team explore how to make the best use of Agile, starting with retrospectives to identify pain points and areas of focus in the future. Lourens believes the principles of Agile can work across all business units.

"It's so easy to come into work and just do your job," she says. "So much time is lost by not communicating and understanding who is responsible for which areas of work. You can end up duplicating work if you're not careful, or worse missing things. Just talking every day can make such a difference."

The key discovery, says Lourens, has been the rest of the business has really embraced this new way of working. However, she also recognises the transition is far from complete. Lourens says there is more work that she and her colleagues can do to optimise working practises and take advantage of the opportunities the business finds.

Making the most of Agile

Executives in other businesses who are thinking of embracing Agile must recognise the methodology is much more than a set of clearly defined processes. "Agile is all about culture, and principles like empowerment and autonomy really need to be prioritised," says Lourens. "If you don't focus on culture, Agile won't work."

She advises her c-suite peers to be clear on accountability. While Agile needs workers to feel empowered, they also require clear goals and boundaries. "Empowerment comes with responsibility and this needs to be made clear," says Lourens. "The boundaries need to be well-defined so everyone understands when they can make a call and when they need to involve others."

As Agile projects develop, CIOs and their c-suite peers should focus on support issues. Lourens refers to the importance of providing psychological security. Senior executives must allow people to feel that it is OK to make mistakes so that they can learn and improve.

"Retrospectives have no value if people can't say what they're really thinking," she says. "As a leader, you must make sure people can speak - and that means hearing stuff that you won't like. You must allow people to air their grievances and respond to the effects. Over time, that openness becomes incredibly healthy."

Finally, Lourens encourages other executives to take a fresh approach to project completion. Agile, she says, is about much more than delivering work through iterations and sprints. Businesses must start thinking about minimum viable tests and products.

"You need to get the rest of the organisation to understand the value of delivering a product that isn't the final article but that will, over time, create commercial benefits," she says. "The gains from creating a minimal viable product - which allows you to test, validate and improve your ideas - can be really powerful in terms of delivering business benefits quicker."

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