Agile development: How to tackle complexity and get stuff done

IT professionals face an almost never-ending to-do list of projects. IT leaders tell us how to make sure you focus on the right priorities.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

These are complex times. From rapid technological advances to fast-changing customer demands, IT professionals face an always-growing list of challenges.

Harvard Business Review says complexity is an increasingly necessary element for viability and competitiveness in today's unpredictable business environment. If you want to get ahead, then you will have to deal with complexity as best you can.

So how can IT professionals manage complexity? The answer, as these three digital leaders show, is to put agility at the centre of the IT organisation and its product development strategy. Here are their best-practice tips for getting things done in an iterative manner.

1. Don't be afraid to engage with a fresh challenge

Trainline CTO Mark Holt says IT professionals shouldn't hide from complexity. The best way to deal with difficult situations is to get stuck in.

"Engage with the complexity," he says. "Some people look at really complicated things and they go, 'Oh that's scary', and they don't engage with the complexity. Whereas other people engage with it and they understand it and they go, 'Ah, I can put these two things together and I can put this thing together, and I can simplify here, and we'll achieve the right results."

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Holt believes his key role as CTO is to create a culture in the organisation where his people feel comfortable and confident to try new things. Rather than being scared of risk-taking, he says tech leaders should encourage their IT professionals to innovate and develop customer-centred products and services in an iterative manner.

"Those are the kind of people who aren't afraid of the complexity, who are able get in amongst it, and that's where you get really good solutions," he says.

Holt says engaging with a challenge involes great teamwork. He says his organisation is always on the lookout for people who have an ability to manage complexity and the solution often involves agility in organisational culture as well as product development.

"I'm also a massive believer that much like you iterate a product, you iterate an organisation. And you're constantly going, 'Oh, we'll take this piece and we'll move it over here because it'll be more effective'," says Holt.

2. Decouple dependencies to prioritise key elements

Danny Attias, chief digital and information officer at British charity Anthony Nolan, says tech executives looking to deal with complexity must ensure they're working to create a joined-up organisation. More often than not, that means using Agile principles to break down problems into small parts that can be managed effectively across the organisation.

"My career has been about decoupling dependencies wherever you possibly can," he says. "When you start a project, people will often say that they need to do one thing before they do something else. And my response is often: 'Why can't you decouple them?' Because if you can decouple them, then you can just do a bit and not have those constant dependencies."

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Attias says the alternative to decoupling is huge complexity. Organisations that end up with a string of dependencies often create months, maybe even years, of work. He says IT professionals looking to deal with complexity need to break projects up and prioritise on key elements. That's sometimes easier in private sectors firms, like retailers or finance firms, than it is in a charity like Anthony Nolan, where complexity can have life-changing consequences.

"If you look at the list of issues for not-for-profits, then every single one of them saves lives – and that means prioritising is really hard," says Attias. "We know that we can't deal with all of them at the same time. So we have to decouple our dependencies and then just have a clear mechanism for getting things done."

He says IT professionals in all sectors must accept that culturally it's simply not possible to do everything at once. If you spread yourself too thinly, then you won't get anything done. Pick a couple of priorities, get them sorted and move on.

"And don't think that you know what you're going to need six, 12 or 18 months down the line," says Attias. "Just pick the things that you really want to get on with, do them, and then decide again what comes next, rather than predicting everything and trying to have a work plan for the next three to five years. Simplify your complexity and break it into small chunks."

3. Get as many eyes as possible on the prize

Joe Soule, CTO at finance giant Capital One Europe, says the key to managing complexity is to be as transparent with as many people and parties as possible.

"Things will be complex in particularly large businesses," he says. "And as a result, I think the important thing is that as many eyes are on the complexity as possible. The most important thing when you're creating transparency is the way you work, the way you are open about what's going on, and the data that comes from your machine."

Soule is another big proponent of Agile working methods. He says the bank has about 60 Agile teams that each have a backlog of roughly three sprint's worth of refined work against the investment plan for the year. Soule works with his teams to ensure that targets are always relevant and achievable.

"That process and that transparency allows not just me but the many people who work with me to keep their eyes on what is ultimately a very complex machine," he says.

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Soule's says the inherent agility of his team has proven invaluable through 2020. By being able to switch priorities quickly at a time of crisis, the IT department has been able to deal with the complex challenges associated with the pandemic and to keep the business operational and its customers satisfied.

"I don't think we've seen any loss in productivity and the quality doesn't appear to have changed, either – incident rates, run rate and service is where you'd expect it to be. The team showed that it could pivot and pivot hard," he says.

"And that was useful because we pivoted off a bunch of things that we thought at the start of the year were incredibly important to us. For about 24 weeks, we've run that pivoted agenda, where we're probably more customer-focused, more resiliency-focused and more capacity-focused."

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