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This is a new breed of agile enterprise — with 4 ways to win

Steve ZoBell Profile picture for user Steve ZoBell November 27, 2019
The principles of the original Agile Manifesto inform teamwork in today's agile enterprise with four winning attributes, writes Workfront's Steve ZoBell

Business people win race city concept © - shutterstock

The agile ideals that have revolutionized software development are levelling up and defining a new breed of agile enterprise that is better adapted to rapid change than competitors. These new winners share a set of key attributes.

At Workfront, we’ve been in the front row for the design and implementation of digital transformation projects with more than 3,000 global companies. We’ve seen that the organizations most likely to succeed are those with an agile approach to strategy, operations, and culture. In a decade when 70% of transformation projects have failed, these are the mythical 30% that have leapt forward as they have become a new breed of agile organization.

For the majority that have struggled with digital transformation, it’s often said that people are the blockers to progress. But our State of Work research with thousands of knowledge workers in the US and Europe reveals a workforce that is ready to engage in high-impact, strategic, agile efforts. They are just struggling and frustrated in their attempts to get work done. The problem isn’t people; it’s the toxic effect of unproductive time.

Compounding the problem, when digital transformation projects go awry, is that they often entrench the issues they were meant to solve. As Chris Marsh and Conner Forrest of 451 Research put it in Systems of Delivery Take Agile Mainstream to Define the Future of Enterprise Apps — a 2019 report on how agile thinking is going mainstream:

Years of acceptance of dysfunctional technologies and implementation practices have left deeply embedded silos of people, information and process, and — perhaps most limiting — silos of mindset and imagination.

By contrast, agile organizations achieve the right balance of consistency and flexibility across four key attributes that mitigates against wasted effort and opens a growth mindset. Here’s how they win.

1. Communicate a clear strategy and direction

Having a clear direction may sound like business #101, but the real challenge is to help teams relate their everyday actions to company strategy. No matter how senior or junior in the organization, everyone needs to understand the context of their work — the role they play in achieving company outcomes. According to the original Agile Manifesto, written back in 2001:

Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.

This means no walls between commercial needs and development processes. The organizations that successfully sustain market growth get it right by aligning a clearly communicated strategy with their working culture.

2. Agility is a core competency

Once people know the purpose of their work and the enterprise goals they are helping achieve, they must look at how they accomplish it. The Agile Manifesto advocates:

The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.

Now scale up the same self-organizing principle. When faced with a problem to solve or project to deliver, agile organizations think beyond departmental structures and ask: “What’s the right combination of talent and skills to get this done?”

Leadership works across departmental seams, changing more often, with new leaders emerging and individuals and teams empowered to drive new market opportunities. And as the Manifesto prescribes:

Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

3. Work doesn’t just happen - performance is managed

The authors of the Manifesto saw agile teams as working at a constant pace but open to constant change through a managed process:

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

In the same way, winning organizations strike the right cultural balance between the pursuit of results and a supportive, positive working environment.

Everyone wants to work with confidence rather than fear. That doesn’t mean a reluctance to challenge or disagree — it’s finding the right way to express candor within a team. One essential element of that is using data — real-time data rather than guesswork — to guide decisions about team and project performance.

4. A strategic approach to workplace technology

Almost nine in 10 workers (87%) surveyed for our State of Work report believe leaders need to rethink workplace technology. Notice that the survey did not say that they wanted leaders to buy more software, but rather rethink strategically how software is used. And 84% say opportunities are being missed because their company has not moved to more modern solutions.

Agile organizations strive to give their business a digital backbone that knits together individual tools into a coherent whole, supporting dynamic work processes, and capturing information that supports visibility and context.

There’s an extra pay-off. 88% of workers describe technology as an important part of the employee experience. The right tools improve performance and improve retention of talent.

Solving the biggest problem - work gets in the way of work

The biggest obstacle to more enterprises becoming agile organizations is that, ironically, work gets in the way of work. For the sixth year in succession, our research shows that thanks to unproductive meetings, and fielding time-sucking messages across multiple channels, people on average spend just 40% of their work week on the job they were hired to do.

Our diagnosis, based on our work with global companies, is that the root cause of unproductive time is the lack of a strong mechanism for strategic alignment, work planning, and work status communication.

The same spirit that inspired a small group of developers to write a manifesto for a better way of working nearly two decades ago is helping to shape the companies that are winning today and likely to win tomorrow. And just like the Agile Manifesto’s authors, the focus of these companies is simple:

Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery.

None of this is beyond the reach of companies that have struggled with transformation in the past — they too can become agile enterprises. It’s all a question of getting work done right.

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