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Three Companies Proving Agile is Successful Outside of Software

Agile is often referred to as a project management framework, methodology, or a mindset and is widely used throughout software development companies. You may have heard about some of the benefits of Agile like increased productivity, higher success rates vs. traditional project management, and boosts to customer satisfaction while simultaneously decreasing time to market, costs, and waste.

With results like these, you might be asking if Agile could also work for your organization, even if you’re not in software development. Unfortunately, I often encounter the mindset that “Agile is only for software, its principles don’t apply to us.” I think that’s just plain wrong. As a Certified Scrum Master and Product Owner myself, I often see Agile principles in practice beyond their perceived scope of software development, even using Agile in government work.

It’s true that many software development companies have adopted Agile and been greatly successful with its implementation, but why couldn’t professional services like Management Consulting, Human Resources or Marketing use the same principles to reach success? That very question was the focus of the recent Business Agility Conference in NYC. In a first of its kind event, 300+ agile professionals, consultants, and business leaders participated in a series of short presentations and facilitated workshops to discuss how applying Agile can, and is, innovating and disrupting current markets while increasing organizational success outside of software development.

While there were several great presentations focused on successful Agile implementation outside of software development, I think the following three presentations did a particularly great job:

David Grabel – VistaPrint

VistaPrint, a marketing company for small businesses, conducted an evaluation of their waterfall methodology revealing that the teams were taking more than 60 days to take a new idea to a deliverable. However, the 60-day cycle amounted to only about 40 hours of actual work.

Why, if the actual life-cycle takes only 40 hours of actual work were they seeing the process take two months to deliver? A root cause analysis revealed they were suffering from feedback “swirls”, blaming, unclear decision rights, and long creative lead times.

VistaPrint made the decision to switch to Agile, focusing on decreasing project lead time. They began by promoting team environments, information sharing, and transparency. They implemented team building activities, daily stand-ups, Kanban boards, an idea pipeline, more informational touch points, and retrospectives to review what went well and what didn’t to improve their processes for the future.

In five months, they saw their Lead Time decrease from 40 days to 15 days. Five months later, they would see this drop further to 7 days, an 83% improvement overall.

Dan Montgomery – AgileStrategies

Dan Montgomery was hired as a consultant and coach to help 5Acres, a not-for-profit orphanage placing children with permanent loving families, improve their business model to increase the number of children placed with permanent families each year.

The current system used a waterfall methodology and a hierarchical management framework. The control was tightly coupled and often failed in cascading down to the appropriate levels for execution. The organization also found that there were far too many initiatives being worked simultaneously further affecting their ability to successfully plan, execute, and deliver results.

5Acres began the transition to Agile by conducting team building activities and deep dives to define the organization’s initiatives. One key outcome was implementing the use of Objectives & Key Results (OKRs). They committed to taking on only 1-5 initiatives at a time to improve the likelihood of success. The teams focused on the mantra “start less and finish more.”

In doing so, 5Acres took over 30 strategic initiatives and prioritized them to set five clearly defined, measurable, organizational goals to reach by 2020. The clearly defined goals helped 5Acres hone in on their key objectives and desired outcomes over a short 3-5 year horizon resulting in a focused, attainable plan.

Isabella Serg – AgileIBM

Agile is not necessarily new to IBM. The technology company has been using Agile across IT programs for years. The novelty was implementing it in their Human Resources department.

IBM was facing challenges in recruiting and retaining top talent including the difficulty of attracting STEM talent, an expanding global workforce, and a need to better manage high and low performance across the organization. To improve their employee services, HR conducted an evaluation of their current practices and identified two areas that would benefit from an Agile approach: its hierarchical organization and implementation of a specialized work force within HR; and managing work in progress (WIP).

IBM started by identifying their Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) which fed into the creation of cross-functional, self-selected teams. Making the change from specialized, management assigned teams to cross-functional, self-selected teams increased employee feelings of empowerment, purpose, and collaboration ultimately resulting in better work products.

The teams implemented a backlog to manage their WIP. This provided transparency and focused employees on finishing a task before starting a new one. The teams were then able to measure their work and end results providing them further insights into their strengths and identify areas for improvement.

As we can see from these three examples at the Business Agility Conference, Agile is not only successful in software development, it’s just the first industry that really proved it works. Creating cross-functional collaborative teams can lead to employee empowerment and boost team performance while delivering better client results. Developing measurable, attainable, time-boxed goals can lead to a higher likelihood of successful execution: start less and finish more. Implementing transparent work practices, measuring end results, and evaluating strengths and weaknesses can lead to process improvement and increased efficiency.

 

The basic principles of Agile center on collaboration, transparency, and the creation of self-organizing cross-functional teams. Almost any organization can build on those basic principles to achieve success.

Three business women talking

Expertise as a Service: Emotional Intelligence in Consulting is Crucial

Consultants – including myself –love to talk about how emotional intelligence in consulting is a critical skill in our industry. But why is that?

Our Technical Assent team spent some time thinking through this question during one of our regular professional development sessions; the idea we kept coming back to is that emotional intelligence (also referred to as EQ) is critical to a consulting firm skillset because it supports our ability to deliver expertise as a service.

Even if you don’t know what emotional intelligence is, there’s plenty of literature now on the subject and why it’s important in the workplace. It’s popularly defined as “your ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness” (Bradberry 2009).

Emotional Intelligence in Consulting: More than Empathy and Communication

What I don’t see a lot of are specific reasons explaining WHY our emotional intelligence is so especially helpful in consulting. We often use words like “communication” and “empathy” to describe the connection, but that’s not terribly precise or helpful. If we understood the linkage better, maybe we could exploit it more effectively, too.

Let’s stop and think about what consulting is really about. As a consultant, it’s not enough to have the answers. What distinguishes a good subject matter expert or analyst from a good consultant (and you certainly can be both) is the ability to effectively provide expertise to help another achieve their goals – it’s expertise “as a service”. And services are fundamentally about supporting customers – their goals, in their operating context, in terms that make sense to them.

Connecting these ideas – provision of knowledge as a service and focus on the customer – I can see a few distinct and specific linkages between emotional intelligence skills and excellent provision of expertise as a service.

    • Ability to not only listen, but understand. Effective consulting starts with understanding a client’s goals. However, it’s often hard for folks to understand their own goals well enough to articulate them. It’s harder still to articulate them well enough that another person understands them. Consultants with well developed emotional intelligence can meet their clients halfway on this; emotional intelligence in consulting helps us understand the client’s desired outcome more easily. And when it comes time to diagnose the root cause of a problem, the cycle repeats itself.
    • Ability to translate understanding to our recommendations. We’ve all been there at least once: we present a well-reasoned and logical recommendation to a client and the client rejects it. There’s many reasons this can happen; it’s often tempting to say the client just “doesn’t get it”. The truth is that a staff member who leverages good emotional intelligence in consulting firms to really understand their client will generally be able to construct recommendations that support their client’s goals in the client’s context – avoiding these situations altogether.
    • Ability to separate personal emotions from recommendations. If you do run into a truly difficult situation with a client, a professional difference of opinion can easily become an argument because we take pride in our work, and pride is an emotion that begets other (not so productive) emotions. There is no way to avoid disagreement 100% of the time, but facilitating outcomes in spite of disagreement requires an effective response. A consultant with well-developed emotional intelligence will be able to control their emotional responses in these situations and use the disagreement as feedback to improve the client’s outcome rather than letting it become a roadblock.

What do you think? Are there other specific conclusions can we draw to explain this concept of emotional intelligence in consulting to non-consultants, students, and new practitioners? I’d love to hear your thoughts.