Yes, Agile management is powerful. But it can't fix every problem

Agile leadership styles have been crucial to helping companies meet their digital transformation targets, but the indiscriminate use of agility is helping no one.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

The past 18 months have been characterised by rapid digital transformation -- and Agile management, with its focus on collaborative working styles, has been cast as the best way to deliver digital-led change at speed.

It's something we've written about extensively, from using Agile to support the transition to remote working, to its use in helping firms shift to new operating and business models, and onto its use in motorsports to help racing teams gain an advantage on the track.

Bola Rotibi, research director for software development at CCS Insight, recognises that Agile methodologies have become the de facto standard for project development and delivery, offering a more responsive way of dealing with the business's problem areas.

"Agile provides the mechanism for cross-functional team interactions and an iterative process, with a continuous feedback loop connecting the changing needs and requirements of end users to the development and delivery team," she says.

SEE: Project management: How to cope with massive uncertainty and get stuff done

Harvard Business Review (HBR) recognises the popularity of Agile management, suggesting that a practice created by a group of software developers in 2001 to help IT project teams achieve objectives quickly is now being used broadly throughout organisations. 

However, it's not all good news. HBR says wanting to be Agile and being Agile are two very different things. Its research shows almost 90% of companies have struggled with rolling out organisation-wide Agile transformations, even after succeeding with small-scale projects. The reasons for that? HBR says that projects can go wrong when they are staffed with star performers who inevitably get dragged away by other projects, giving them too little time to complete the work. Other Agile projects are doomed by being too isolated from the broader business and thus miss out on the bigger picture, or lack access to expertise. 

So while an Agile management style has helped support the rapid rollout of digital transformation initiatives during the past 18 months, it isn't necessarily the best fit for every project in every business.

That's something that resonates with Michael Voegele, chief digital and information officer at tobacco company Philip Morris International (PMI). "There are certain words that we over-stretch -- and Agile is potentially one. It doesn't apply to everything," he says.

HBR research reveals that many Agile initiatives not only fail to meet their goals but also cause disruption. Poorly managed initiatives can miss critical deadlines, slow product development, and lead to staff burnout, loss of key talent, and infighting among teams.

INSEAD also cautions against the indiscriminate application of Agile beyond the search for solutions to specific business challenges. The graduate business school says the inevitable disillusionment from large-scale failure might discourage even sensible, small-scale adoption of Agile.

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But while Agile software development involves making wholescale change to how IT departments work, the use of Agile in other business functions shouldn't mean working tightly to a set of values and principles first outlined in the Agile Manifesto 20 years ago.

Instead, Agile management should involve a subtle move away from traditional top-down techniques and towards something a bit more flexible and empowering. Voegele describes what that approach looks like in his own company.

"I talk a lot about horizontal leadership and eliminating silos," he says. "At PMI, we talk about project-based work -- how do we bring the best people together, who are focused on a dedicated outcome, and let them actually make their decisions?"

Despite Agile being pushed out across organisations, many people aren't confident in their new-found accountability. Most of the time, says Voegele, people are simply too afraid of what happens if things go wrong. The result? All the talk about Agile management styles leads to very little in terms of action and positive outcomes -- and that's something business leaders need to turn around, he says.

"What I'm working on with my team is to make people feel competent and confident that empowerment is something that they can carry -- that they are feeling confident and competent in making decisions. We are trying to create confidence in people so that they can execute the plan," he says.

He says PMI focuses on co-creation, where the company ask questions about the challenges that the business and its customers face, and then asks people to come in from different levels of the organisation to co-create solutions.

PMI creates tiger and SWAT teams, where people across the business identify challenges and make recommendations. People from a range of functions come in for one week and are dedicated to this specific problem as part of a group.

Voegele says another important area is competence. He says PMI invests heavily in expert training. These courses include the Scaled Agile Framework, which is a system for learning and implementing Agile, Lean, and DevOps practices.

SEE: Digital transformation: Five ways to help your business boost customer experience

The company is also building its AWS skills base and is working with IBM to build an IT education curriculum. Senior leaders receive training, too. Every quarter, the leadership team goes through two days of team-coaching sessions.

Voegele says the aim is to boost curiosity and to empower people across the business, making them confident enough to ask strategic, thoughtful and targeted questions to help the business solve the challenges it faces.

"We are investing heavily in providing what we call our 'IT Academy for People' to build their competences and their expertise, but also on the leadership side of the house. And I think that is fundamental because, at the end of the day, everything is rooted in curiosity," he says.

"Curiosity is about inclusion and diversity, and it's about reflecting and putting things into context. If we can make everybody in the business curious, we wouldn't even need to talk about being Agile. I think we we'd have a paradise of innovation and creativity -- and that's where I want us to get to."

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