Five Ways to Become More Agile

This is the second part of our series on how to create an agile customer driven business

This is the second part of our series on how to create an agile customer driven business. In the first part we looked at how customer behavior has become the principal driver for technology investment and we explored how businesses can work in different ways to get on the front foot and become less reactive.

For many businesses the principal barriers to customer driven business agility are speed and risk. Speed – because change happens so fast these days its hard to keep up. And risk – because of the concern that the costs associated with getting something wrong could outweigh the benefits of getting it right.

These are concerns that we come up against time and time again; ‘I need to respond faster to customer needs and try, if I can, to start predicting how they might change but at the same time I have to ensure the benefits outweigh the costs’.

The reticence to invest in projects with uncertain outcomes isn’t surprising. There are many examples of IT projects that have cost £millions and taken years to complete, only to be out of date or irrelevant by the time they are live. Frequently the business is caught in paralysis between the need to explore new ideas and the fear of investing in failure.

Over the last four years we have worked with many companies – large and small – that have faced this issue and we have worked with them to find a way around it. As the pace of change increases still further the issue of balancing agility and innovation with cost and risk is arising in more and more organisations. We thought it might be useful to try and distill what we have learnt into some basic lessons that can be applied to any organisation trying to tackle this issue:

1. Don’t fear the new, or the small...

“The impossible is often the untried. ”

— J. Goodwin

Fear of technology becoming obsolete or companies going out of business meant that for many years the mantra ‘you will never be fired for choosing IBM’ rang true. Big brands usually mean big costs and long timelines however and when it comes to retaining and acquiring new customers time is of the essence, especially in this digital era.

World Risk Review is a country risk ratings modelling tool that JLT founded in 2006. Using innovative open source technology such as Node.js and D3.js, and deploying globally via the cloud (AWS), Red Badger re-designed and built WRR in just 6 weeks of development without compromising on great user experience.

The open platform approach to development means that these days there are a raft of smart tools and techniques freely available – open source, Cloud based tech that is not only far cheaper than blue chip alternatives it is also more flexible and accessible. Because the basis for the development is accessible to all you don’t need to worry if the company that does the building disappears – someone else can pick it up.

We are seeing more and more companies looking at Cloud infrastructure such as Heroku and AWS (Amazon Web Services), GitHub for source control and open source technologies such as Node.JS and Ruby on Rails – even in industries that are traditionally conservative such as financial services.

2. Challenge convention...

“ If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got. ”

— Albert Einstein

Don’t start with pre-conceptions. If you want to come up with something new then avoid setting parameters at the start. Some of the best briefs we have had have simply said here is what we are trying to do… go. The very best of them have even avoided being prescriptive about what form the idea should take. When the BBC Connected Studios put a call out for ideas it simply did just that.

The organisation was looking for ways to improve consumer engagements across a number of its websites and it put out an open call for ideas as to how that could be achieved. It didn’t dictate how those ideas should be presented or set any ground rules as to shape, form or technology. The result was a wealth of smart, creative ideas that not only gave them possible solutions but also gave them an insight into what was possible and ideas to fuel for how they might tackle other challenges in the future.

3. Foster internal innovation...

“Enthusiasm moves the world ”

— Arthur Balfour

It is an often misplaced assumption that if you want new ideas you need to find them in new places. In the work we have done with many clients some of the smartest ideas have come from within the company itself. It’s usually just a question of creating the right environment and mindset. The best ideas also come out of collaboration so bringing people together – physically or virtually – is also an important catalyst.

News International went as far as to create a separate entity – physically and psychologically – whose role was to come up with new services for its customers. It brought people from across the organisation together with developers, designers and marketing specialists to conceptualise, build and test new services. By using rapid prototyping minimum viable products could be built and tested in days rather than months – the good ones kept for further development and those that didn’t work – discarded.

4. Risk aware, not risk averse...

“ Do one thing every day that scares you

— Eleanor Roosevelt

The big benefit of using agile and lean design and development methodologies is the dramatic reduction in the time and costs associated with innovation. This means that in general the risks associated with innovation are considerably lower. That’s not to say there aren’t risks. Testing any product with a live audience will carry some risk. There is also the danger that an idea that tests tell doesn’t sell well.

Clearly then there is still the need to understand the risks involved with any kind of innovation but it is one thing to be aware of them – another to be afraid of them. Our work with global insurance specialist JLT involved connecting and building collaborative platforms for a highly distributed workforce from a range of different companies and cultures. By taking the programme apart into small, bite sized pieces that could be built, tested and rolled out separately we were able to manage the risks while still bringing fresh thinking into each stage.

5. Understand and commit to the principles of Lean...

“ Maximise customer value, minimise waste ”

— Womack & Jones

The team at Red Badger are committed evangelists when it comes to the adoption of ‘Lean’. Lean software development is the best way to ensure that the fundamentals of your approach to technology has agility hardwired in. It is built around the principles of lean software development and can be summarized as seven individual principles:

  • Eliminate waste – if it holds no value to the customer, don’t do it
  • Amplify learning – a constant cycle of testing and feedback
  • Decide as late as possible – build in options and decide based on results
  • Deliver as fast as possible – it’s the fastest not the biggest that survives
  • Empower the team – find good people and let them do their job
  • Build integrity in – separate components must work together to deliver an experience
  • See the whole - think big, act small, fail fast; learn rapidly

Customer driven business agility requires challenging the way you think as well as just the processes around what you do, but in an environment dictated by ever changing customer demands there are few businesses that can stick to business as usual.

Change can be scary but the implications of not changing are even more so. Over the last few years we have helped a number of companies increase their agility and respond more effectively to shifting customer demands. By understanding and implementing the key steps outlined above we believe organisations can start to get on the front foot with their customers again.

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