Agile ways have become mainstream for software and technology teams. What about those traditional teams and departments that aren’t building high-tech solutions? The ones that support customers, make the sales that keep the company afloat as well as everyone else who supports the business? Can those teams and departments use agile practices to boost their business agility? Absolutely!
Over the last two years, we have worked with numerous teams and departments that operate outside technology. These teams run the gamut from Sales, Finance, Customer Service, Marketing, Operations, and even Legal. Some are temporary and cross-functional teams set up to address a goal while others are long-standing departments. Though they are not building software solutions, the agile practices that help software teams can boost productivity and predictability while improving organizational business agility.
Below is my list of the top 10 ways that non-technology teams and departments can apply agile ways of working to boost their business agility. Each is explained in more detail in the sections that follow.
- Prioritized Backlog of Work
- Short Daily Meeting
- Visualize the Workflow
- Self-Organizing Teams
- Limit Work In Progress
- Short Feedback Loops
- Organizational Impediments
Applying Agile Practices to Boost Business Agility
#1 – Use a Single, Prioritized Backlog of Work
One of the simplest things a team or department can do to get organized is to create a single prioritized backlog of work. That means taking an inventory of everything that has been requested or assigned to the team and putting it on one list. This exercise may surprise you! When you learn all the work that is in progress at any one time, it may be daunting. Many organizations have lots of backchannel requests and pet projects underway and not surprisingly, team members are not always working on the organization’s top priorities.
Speaking of priorities – and this is one of the most challenging parts – prioritize your list of work in rank order. That means there is a single top priority, a single second priority, and so on. If you are thinking “it’s all high priority” then stop and make a mental shift. This won’t be just a one-time list – you will need to maintain it as needs and priorities change.
There should be one person who is responsible for prioritizing the list. Even if multiple people can add things to the list or request work, there should be one person who is able to prioritize. And this involves the ongoing challenge of deciding what is most important.
There are many techniques for prioritization including Kano, MoSCoW, and Biggest Bang for the buck. The specific practice is not as important as having it enforced with discipline. Otherwise, requestors will resort to whoever screams the loudest or use back channels to get their pet projects completed.
It is important to also identify the ways that work gets introduced or assigned. Called work entry, this is just as important as how the work gets done. If you don’t get a handle on the incoming work, team members will tend to thrash, stall, or choose to work on easy tasks that aren’t valuable.
Some organizations find agile tools like Trello or Jira helpful. I don’t recommend them if you are just getting started as the tool can be a distraction. Instead, use low-tech tools like a shared Excel sheet in Teams. Or if you are working in the office, use a whiteboard to create a physical board.
#2 – Use Short Daily Meetings
Another rather simple thing that you can do to improve agility is have a regular short meeting to synchronize your efforts. Investing just 15 minutes each day can help to eliminate duplication and delays from lack of communication. This simple meeting can also replace existing meetings.
If meeting daily seems like too much, try meeting just two times per week, say Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Beware though the tendency to turn this meeting into a longer meeting or a daily status meeting. While a quick status may be helpful, the purpose of the meeting is to allow for teams to coordinate their efforts for the day and maximize their productivity. Team members can ask for help or raise impediments. It is not for the manager or a project manager to interview each person on the team to gather status!
Traditionally these short meetings were called standup meetings and people actually stood up. That doesn’t make much sense for distributed teams. Just work to keep the meeting short and focused.
See our related post for tips on the Daily Meeting: You Should Stop Using a Daily Scrum Meeting
#3 – Visualize the Workflow
Does your team or department perform a lot of repetitive work? If so, an investment in visualizing your workflow may prove beneficial.
Start by identifying all the people or skills that need to perform work in the workflow. For a standards development group that I supported recently, their process steps are listed below along with the resulting workflow:
- Standard is requested
- Create a standard
- Peer Review
- Legal Review
While different team members could create a standard or peer review it, they found that the legal review and publishing steps were performed by others outside the team. By visualizing the workflow they were able to see that work tended to pile up in these steps and most of the delays were associated with these other departments who had their own set of priorities.
Just visualizing the workflow doesn’t magically fix the bottlenecks. But making them visible, teams can take action to mitigate the delays. For example, if reviews by the legal department are a source of delay, can the team try:
- Negotiating a service level agreement with legal
- Bringing a person from the legal team to their team
- Getting training from legal so that the team creating the standard ‘hits the mark’ on the legal requirements and avoids rework
- Negotiate with legal to spot check or review a subset of the standards, perhaps the more complex ones
Again, just visualizing the workflow is a great first step but then making sure it is optimized will lead to greater business agility.
Kanban boards are an excellent way to visualize work (see #6 below). A more formal technique called Value Stream Mapping may also be used for complex workflows or those that span multiple departments.
#4 – Conduct Occasional Retrospectives
Retrospectives are a vital part of the agile process that fosters continuous improvement. A retrospective is a fancy way of saying, let’s talk about how we can get better. They are similar to project post-mortems, lessons learned meetings or after-action reviews. The key differentiator for the retrospective is the frequency.
With project post-mortems or after-action reviews, the team waits until they are done to reflect on their performance. Retrospectives on the other hand are held frequently – typically every two weeks. The team using retrospectives doesn’t wait till the end of the project when nothing can be done about the outcome. They conduct retrospectives frequently enough that they can leverage the insights to the work ahead of them.
A skilled facilitator is essential to an effective retrospective. A good facilitator will create a psychologically safe space and get the team talking about areas that they have the power to change.
Facilitation is an important skill that can be learned. Check out the list of related blog posts below for tips and techniques on leading effective retrospectives:
- Tutorial for improving Retrospectives
- Improve Your Retrospectives Part 1
- Improve Your Retrospectives Part 2
- Improve Your Retrospectives Part 3
- A Simple Trick to Improve Your Retrospectives
#5 – Work as a Cross-Functional Group
This concept of working as a cross-functional group is really important. There are a few different aspects of cross-functionality that are important.
First, a cross-functional team means that you have people with different but complementary skills. If you have a team where everyone has the same exact skills, then you are likely creating a bottleneck for someone else in another part of your organization. That is specialization.
Are you or your team the only one in your organization who can do a particular thing? Consider the following examples of specialization silos that typically create a bottleneck:
- A Legal team that needs to review and approve all Contracts and Standards documents
- A Digital Marketing Team that designs all graphics used in the company including the newsletter, website and all brochures
- An Operations Team that pushes website changes into production
You have these specialists right? And you don’t see any way around them, right?
If all the requests from across the organization get piled up at the door of the specialist then you are creating phantom delays across the company. Everything moves slower and it is not obvious why. Not surprisingly, predictability goes out the window.
The resolution of this requires you to really evaluate your organization to understand how you provide value to customers. It may lead to spreading out the talent you have as part of cross-functional teams that are delivering value to your customers.
The second aspect of cross-functionality is at the individual level. Each individual should strive to have not only deep expertise in one area, but they should be growing skills in all other areas of the business. This makes for a stronger team with fewer key person dependencies.
As a humorous example of this, consider the T-Shaped employee that Valve Describes in their New Employee Handbook. In addition to a deep primary skill of heavy weaponry, they also have secondary skills of hugeness, sandwich preparation, uber charging, killing people, and folk dancing.
#6 – Use Kanban
Kanban is the go-to organizing approach for many teams and departments. It includes a number of the elements we mentioned above like a single backlog of work and visualizing the workforce. It is actually a lightweight and flexible approach that many business teams find helpful.
There are 6 key practices of Kanban as shown below.
One aspect of Kanban that many organizations find challenging is the idea of limiting work in progress. Work in progress is the sum of all the things that are started, underway, and not yet done. There is a significant cost to carrying a lot of Work in Progress or WIP. It is like having a bunch of processes or windows open on your computer – everything runs slower. And the slowdown isn’t linear.
We have a great exercise that we do in our training classes that demonstrates the negative effects of too much WIP. Too much WIP causes people to multi-task which slows everything down, introduces more mistakes, and burns people out.
So how do you avoid too much WIP? Simple. Prioritize ruthlessly and don’t start new work until you are finished with your current work. A Kanban slogan is “Stop Starting and Start Finishing”. I don’t suggest it is easy to do this but if you can, you are certain to boost your business agility.
#7 – Use Scrum
Scrum is the most popular agile framework in use with 80% of all agile teams using Scrum or a Scrum Hybrid, as shown in the chart below.
Scrum works great for software development. It may work great for you as well if you need a focused, cross-functional team to develop something new. That is where Scrum really shines.
Here are some of the elements of the Scrum Framework that are helpful:
- Short Feedback Loops – Scrum Teams work in short cycles of development called Sprints. These Sprints are typically 2 weeks long and they result in the delivery of some part of the solution. This allows for frequent inspection and adaptation to confirm the team is building the right thing.
- Clear Roles – There are 3 roles in Scrum – Product Owner, Scrum Master, and Developers. The Product is the person who sets the priorities for development. The Scrum Master helps the team use Scrum, coaches the team to perform, and helps them adopt Scrum. And the developers work together to build out the solution based on the priorities set by the Product Owner.
- Specific Scrum Meetings or Events – Scrum Teams meet on a regular basis in a set of structured meetings that help them plan, execute and coordinate, review the solutions with customers, and reflect on their performance and how they can improve. These meetings occur at the same time within the 2-week sprint mentioned above which creates a repeatable cadence and supports productivity.
Scrum works great when you have a dedicated team made up of cross-functional people that need to build something new. It is less effective with part-time team members or when everyone has the same skill set (e.g. budget analyst or DBA).
Even if you find Scrum in its entirety isn’t applicable, you might find that using a 2-week cycle of development is helpful to build a solution incrementally.
#8 – Self-Organizing Teams
Do you know a quick way to boost the motivation levels and productivity of your team members? Simple! Give them some level of autonomy over what they do.
In Agile circles, this is known as self-organizing or self-managing teams. The idea is to give teams the big picture and the goals and let them figure out the best way to get the work done.
Daniel Pink is in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us showed that the 3 primary motivators for employees are autonomy, mastery and purpose.
But letting teams self-manage is more than just helping employees feel good about themselves and motivated about their work. Empowering employees to make decisions is smart business. By pushing the decision-making to those team members closest to the work, you can move faster and boost your business agility.
Self-organizing teams leverage participatory decision-making. In a nutshell, this means letting everyone participate in decisions that affect the team or group. It is about making sure all voices are heard and that everyone participates. This encourages buy-in and adoption and helps decisions stick.
#9 – Limit Work In Progress (WIP)
We mentioned the need to minimize WIP when we described Kanban. But you don’t have to implement Kanban to minimize WIP. You simply have to be clear and ruthless about priorities.
Most organizations have more things to do than they have people to do that work. Many of those organizations make matters worse for themselves by pushing people, setting overly aggressive deadlines, or setting stretch goals that are not achievable. These attempts to force the situation actually backfire and result in lower productivity.
Here are some effective ways to Limit Work In Progress:
- Prioritize in rank order fashion starting at the top of the organization
- Say no more often (or say yes but not now)
- Make work visible to understand what is currently in progress
- Don’t start new work unless you truly have the capacity to work on it (applies at the person level and department level)
- Don’t over assign people
#10 – Establish Short Feedback Loops
We mentioned short feedback loops in the context of Scrum. But you can use those feedback loops outside Scrum as well. Using short feedback loops lets you get feedback and take corrective action.
The opposite of short feedback loops is long ones. Take the classic waterfall project delivery as an example. The final solution is generally released in one big bang. More often than not, it is not the solution that the customer needs.
The better approach is to break your overall challenge down into small elements that can be built and tested separately. Where it makes sense, show it to the customer or end-user and get feedback. This helps eliminate work on features or aspects of the solution that are not very important to the customer.
There is an approach in agile ways of working called the Lean Startup. Introduced by Eric Ries in his 2009 best seller, the main idea is to test small parts of the solution on your customer to determine if your assumptions about what they need are correct. Ries says that frequently our assumptions about what the customer needs are very wrong. It is when we are most certain that we know what customers need that we are likely to waste time and valuable resources building the wrong thing.
#11 – (Bonus) Remove Organizational Impediments
Finally, a bonus item – Remove Organizational Impediments. This also comes from the Scrum Framework and the idea is for managers and leaders to do what they can to facilitate work. They make it possible for people to do their best work in organizations by reducing or eliminating the “friction” that slows or stops people from making progress.
All organizations have these impediments. In many organizations, the impediments have been around so long that people simply think of them as “the way things get done around here”. These impediments gum up the works and reduce business agility.
Here are some examples from various clients I have coached:
- Onerous approval processes
- Unnecessary bureaucracy
- Decision-Making delays
- Heavy employee turnover that puts pressure on remaining employees
- Use of temporary or contract labor
- Inadequate systems and tools
- Pointless rules
- Slow and ineffective hiring practices
One of the best things leaders can do is be transparent about their efforts to remove the impediments. A few of my clients have actually made the impediments visible on a Kanban board created from a large whiteboard. Managers took on the most painful of the impediments and worked to remove them.
Bottom Line – Use these Recommendations to Improve Your Business Agility
Agile ways of working has proven themselves in the technology realm. They can also be valuable to help those non-software business teams to increase their business agility. Contact us if you would like to leverage agile ways of working in your organization.