Requirements Best Practices

[Q&A] The Agile, Customer-focused Organization: How to Evolve

Guest presenter, Kurt Bittner of Forrester Research, answers questions about transition to an agile organization

Ania Osinska-Bulloff | May 3, 2016

How do you create responsive teams that deliver better products faster? This organizational shift is hard – and requires change across people, process and technology. Last week, during Jama’s webinar: The Agile, Customer-focused Organization: How to Evolve, Forrester Research guest presenter Kurt Bittner walked  through actionable steps that lead to this evolution. In this webinar, questions about enabling organizational collaboration surfaced.

Kurt Bittner answers them today.

Webinar Participant: Does technology affect the people and process dimensions? Some people in my organization say we should focus first on the cultural and process changes and then look for technologies that support them.

Kurt Bittner: All three dimensions need to change in unison. The reason for this is that the processes that people perform are affected by the technologies that they use, and therefore people work differently depending on the process and tools they use. As a simple example, smart phones have changed our culture in important ways. With technology at our fingertips, we now expect to be connected all the time. Older technologies like email are giving way to newer technologies like chat and video. As digital technologies make new things possible that were unimaginable before, people adapt to interacting in new ways that change the culture.

In the business context, widespread adoption of social media technologies has changed the way that people interact as well. Circulating lengthy and complex documents for review has declined as people expect more interactive conversations using chat-like interfaces. None of these behavioral changes would have been possible without changes to technology that lead to cultural and process changes.

WP: Our company is in the process of adopting Agile for some teams. How does what you’ve talked about related to Agile?

KB: One of the defining characteristics of Agile is the dedicated cross-functional team. There are several reasons why this is one of the most important Agile practices, but they include improving collaboration and reducing time spent waiting for resources to become available to work on a task. Reducing wait time and improving collaboration improves delivery velocity.

In the broader context I presented, organizations expand the membership of the cross-functional team (which I have referred to as an integrated product team) to include other skills, including User Experience (Ux), Customer Experience (CX), operations, security, and architecture, among others. The goal is the same, however: To eliminate waste and improve throughput by improving collaboration and reducing unproductive wait time.

Beyond that, the second major aspect of Agile is that delivering working software in small increments increases cross-role collaboration and reduces waste by improve the speed at which teams obtain feedback on the quality and suitability of their work. Doing so tends to break down organizational silos and change both the behavior of team members and the culture of the organization.

WP: My organization hasn’t had very good luck with large-scale change initiatives. Everything we hear about Agile is that it’s a huge cultural change. How should we get started, and what pitfalls should we know about so we can avoid them?

KB: We have observed that organizations who are successful in their adoption of these practices get started by changing a team at a time. They choose a product area that is experiencing pressure from customers and competitors to improve delivery speed and product quality, and they use this pressure to motivate change. They let team members “opt-in” to avoid the negative effects of coercive pressure, and they support the change with training, coaching, and hiring/acquiring resources with the new skills, where necessary. Leaders support the change by removing obstacles and impediments, and they promote and celebrate successes when they occur. When there are setbacks, leaders encourage the team to learn from the experience rather than punishing mistakes. As teams become successful, they expand the adoption by sharing what they have learned with other teams also on the journey. Peer pressure tends to drive the adoption over time, as other product leaders and potential team members see the results of the new way of working and want to achieve similar results for their own products or teams. Leaders also change the measures of success to reinforce customer-driven goals. In short, culture tends to change bottom-up, supported by leaders who encourage and support the change.

WP: How do I take this information back to leaders in my organization to get them to help with the changes we need to make?

KB: First, help them understand that there is a better way to organize for better customer results. Help them to understand that the change proceeds product-by-product, team-by-team. Help them understand how cross-functional teams break down barriers between functional roles and enable better collaboration that results in less waste and less time spent waiting. And help them to find a product where your organization can experiment and learn – one where customers are demanding better experiences, faster, and where competitors are threatening to take those customers away. Finding such a product makes the change less risky – everyone knows that the old way of working is sure to fail so they are open to working in a new way.

Learn more on how product organizations enable collaboration that results in efficient integration of customer feedback, less meetings, faster real-time reviews and decisions: