How agile is your business?

5th May 2021

For many years, as an agile coach, mentor and consultant, I have been helping teams and organisations with their agile journey or transformation. Helping organisations become adaptive through changes to their leadership style and approach, organisational structures, culture and ways of working is not easy.  I have come to understand just how challenging it is to ‘be’ agile rather than ‘do’ agile and this hit home for me recently when I got board level approval from my company, CMC Partnership Consultancy Ltd, to lead our own business agility transformation.

With my background and experience, surely this would be an easy ask. After all, I have helped organisations much larger than CMC, coached and mentored many seniors and execs through their difficult agile transformation journeys. How hard could this really be?

In this series of articles I’ll be sharing my personal journey leading a business agility transformation within my organisation. I’ll cover what I believe business agility is and why it is important for organisations today; why CMC has embarked upon its own journey and how we have approached it. No personal journey would be complete without successes and failures so I will reveal these along the way to hopefully provide some useful do’s and don’t’s.

So before we get started on my personal journey it’s probably worth a recap: what exactly is business agility and why did CMC agree to go on this journey?

What is business agility?

Organisations are facing unprecedented challenges as they move away from fixed, multi-year programmes towards a constant continuous need to change; reinventing themselves and their products and services to keep up with increasing demand from consumers and customers. To achieve this, and thrive rather than just survive, organisations are looking to become more adaptive and embarking upon agile transformations.

This isn’t just about training people in agile methods such as Scrum or sending seniors on an agile leadership course. Business agility is about understanding the organisational impediments within the business that impede them from being adaptive and able to respond quickly to the market or customer needs. There are lots of frameworks out there that can help you understand these elements but the two that resonated most with me were the Agile Centre Business Agility Canvas and the Business Agility Institute ‘Domains of Business Agility’

Some of the common threads to becoming an agile organisation include:

  • Developing leaders who effectively empower and support their team
  • Changing organisational structures so they encourage cross-functional working and knowledge sharing
  • Ensuring knowledge workers have access to the right information to support rapid and effective decision making and prioritisation
  • Embedding a culture which encourages learning, and continuous improvement through innovation, autonomy and creative problem solving and psychological safety through constructive challenge.

All this underpinned through a clear and compelling vision for change that is sponsored and championed through the senior executives.

So why the need for CMC to take this journey?

Over the past few years CMC has expanded: When I joined CMC in 2017 there were only 3 Business Analysts (BA) as the consultancy had been focussed on providing Business Change services. Now, on top of the change practice, which has continued to grow, there are upward of 20 BA’s, with myself being both the Head of BA and the Agile Consultancy Lead, along with a growing agile practice where we are developing  agile coaches. This amount of growth not surprisingly put pressure on the back office operations, finance, IT and contract teams whose processes evolved quickly to meet demand. A demerger from our sister company, followed by an IT overhaul in early 2020 to Office 365 and a further move to become an Employee Owned Truest (EOT) in Dec 2020 meant that CMC had reached change saturation point. Staff surveys pointed at the need for improved senior engagement and transparency of decision making, refined and updated processes and clearer career paths for the growing staff, as well as the need to ensure the consultancy practice was keeping up to date with demand for new and exciting client transformation opportunities.

It’s not hard to see how the need for CMC to become an agile business was born.

Getting started.

Once the board signed off my proposal it was over to me. I had an approach to Business Agility in my back pocket, one I had used with clients, but as an independent consultant; I hadn’t done this with my CMC colleagues. I was unsure how much they knew about Business Agility and whether they would agree with my approach; maybe they had different ideas, as they are all very well qualified and experienced consultants.

I decided to utilise one of our regular ‘Community of Practice’ sessions to socialise the proposal  the proposal I had made to the Board, and also seek willing volunteers.  I was surprised and delighted when 16 people signed up to be part of the newly formed Business Agility Working Group (BAWG). This is about 20% of our consultants, plus back office staff, who were willing to spend additional time, on top of their client work and day jobs, to do this.

The first BAWG was set up for an hour: we took advantage of an online collaboration tool, Mural, to capture thoughts and generate ideas. For some reason my consultancy and agile skills seemed to evade me that day, and I didn’t apply any of the best practice I would when doing this with a client (i.e. setting a clear objective and agenda, establishing a team with clear roles and responsibilities)! Luckily the Group were enthusiastic and keen to take part – although this in itself presented a challenge……

Everyone had an opinion on where we should start: Lets write a vision, let’s just document what changes we want to make, we need to use the 4 P’s (Project, Purpose, Particulars, People), what about the value proposition canvas; the list went on!  After the 2nd workshop, I felt we were going around in circles; there was no clear direction, no clear goal, no roles or responsibilities set and definitely no rules. This didn’t feel much like an agile team to me. I needed to lead and treat this like I would a consultancy assignment.

I decided to set up a core team to lead the BAWG. This refined team consisted of:

  • Sponsor – CMC Executive
  • Product Owner – myself
  • Scrum Master
  • Change lead
  • Communications lead, and
  • 2-4 Analysts

The next workshop with the core team focussed on developing a team charter; It was so important that we started working as a team and had a clear goal that we all agreed on. I used the ‘Team Canvas’ template embedded within Mural to do this.

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This focus on the purpose and goal of the team, roles and responsibilities, common and personal goals, values, needs and expectations, strengths and weaknesses, and those all-important rules and activities. was incredibly constructive. We even agreed some early goals, delivery cadence and ways of working. We were finally up and running.

What have I learnt so far?

Core Team – To do a business agility transformation it is critical to have a core team with a common goal and purpose in place. Whether they are dedicated full time or not depends on the size of the organisation and the availability of resources. Regardless, they must be collectively committed to achieving the goal of the team.

Senior buy-in Importantly, there must be strong senior buy-in and sponsorship from the start. Without this the transformation cannot succeed.

Plan, plan, plan – Make sure you plan each workshops/meeting, outlining a clear agenda and objectives and ensure you know which techniques you will use to achieve this.

In my next instalment I will discuss how we got started; and the approach we took to get our business agility transformation off the ground including how we are assessing our agile competency with a homegrown business agility maturity assessment.  I’m sure there will be lots more challenges to share too.

By Lyn Girvan, Head of Business Analysis at CMC Partnership Consultancy Ltd