‘Lean Agile’: the only route to true transformation?

In Blog article by Freethinking Business Consultants

By Dean Addison, Principal Consultant at Freethinking

As companies across the continent feel the urgency to digitise and transform, the concept of digital solution-selling is careering out of control. Everywhere you turn, digital consultancies and agencies are selling the concept of ‘digital transformation’ with wild abandon.
And as businesses, we seem to be lapping it up.

We’ve become overly-enamoured with sexy concepts like the Cloud, DevOps, Agile, software-as-a-service, Artificial Intelligence, Automation and the like. We’re seduced by these miracle cures, these quick-fixes that promise to transform us into a world-class development organisation overnight.

Maybe we’ve just been conditioned over a lifetime of advertising. Still, I can’t help but think this trend of ‘digital solution selling’ is simply the enterprise equivalent of the late-night TV infomercial.

Somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost focus on the real goal: sustainable, meaningful business transformation.

The hard truth is that there are simply no miracle cures. Those organisations that are successfully moving into the digital era are in the midst of a painful transition – where every sinew and muscle of the company is forced to re-form and continually adapt to external pressures.

These firms realise that Agile is more than just a way to do IT, that it’s actually about how you do Business. Agile principles should inform every decision, every system, process, strategy, or customer interaction. They realise that the only way to really transform is to adopt ‘Lean-Agile’ and adopt it at scale.

We’re realising that Agile is more than just a way to do IT, that it’s actually about how you do Business

In understanding Lean-Agile, a great starting point is to look at what I term the Adaptive Portfolio Credo, which neatly summarises how different our thinking needs to become:

Traditional thinking Lean-Agile thinking
Protecting departmental budgets Optimising the holistic portfolio
Rigidly following a plan. Responding rapidly to emerging opportunities
Annual planning cycles Frequent portfolio evaluation
Centralised authority Collaborating on decisions
Managing cost Maximising value

A Lean-Agile approach re-weights the emphasis back to where it should be: understanding what are the unique digital challenges and opportunities within your particular organisation. It takes the focus away from the latest shiny technology or solution.

Lean-Agile is characterised by decentralised decision-making, self-organising teams, lightweight ‘epics’ in place of heavy business cases, rolling-wave planning methods, and objective, customer-focused success metrics.

But as I’ve indicated, Lean-Agile won’t happen overnight. It requires passionate commitment from leadership at every layer in the organisation, as they seek to remove obstacles and embed Agile into the heart of the organisation.

We generally find that companies progress through 5 stages of Lean-Agile maturity. Though they can be fast-tracked, these stages can very rarely be skipped:

  • Stage 1 (“ad-hoc Agile”) – Agile principles are used inconsistently across the business, with varying levels of quality, and successes only achieved through isolated and heroic efforts.
  • Stage 2 (“doing Agile”) – teams start exhibiting some consistent Agile habits, as knowledge-sharing begins to develop, and quality improves.
  • Stage 3 (“being Agile”) – most of the product portfolios are managed in an Agile manner, with disciplined and repeatable processes, and consistent roles across the portfolios.
  • Stage 4 (“thinking Agile”) – characterised by a high Agile maturity across the organisation, the principles of Agile can scale and deliver strong results, with well-defined measurement systems and automation in the test and build phases.
  • Stage 5 (“culturally Agile”) – where Lean and Agile are woven into the fabric of the organisational culture, spurring continuous learning and optimisation, removing waste and inefficiency, and leveraging automation to its fullest extent

When we look at truly Agile companies, it becomes clear that deep organisational change has taken root, shifting the organisation’s whole structure. Lean-Agile may not be easy, but it is surely worth it!