Three Challenges to Business Agility and How to Overcome Them: A Conversation with Scaled Agile, Inc. CEO Chris James

For most businesses, agility is imperative. For most businesses I talk with, it’s easier said than done. I recently sat down with Scaled Agile’s CEO Chris James to talk about business agility, what it means to adopt an Agile and DevOps mindset, and how to overcome the challenges organizations often face in developing business agility.

To better understand our current state, Chris began by looking to the past. Business agility began as a movement to improve manufacturing. Those efforts led to approaches like Kanban, waterfall, and iterative development. The Agile Manifesto and Agile Principles have their roots in these approaches. In addition to customer-centricity, Agile placed a high value on small teams and face-to-face collaboration. As software systems have evolved to greater complexity, encompassing technologies like mobile, AI, machine learning, and blockchain, the teams needed to build them have become larger, more dispersed, and more complex. The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe ®) was developed to address the needs of these more complex software projects and the teams needed to produce and operate them.

Agile, as Chris notes, is very much a journey, not a state. SAFe provides best practices and education for organizations to guide their journey and develop their skills. Some organizations have begun to adopt an Agile mindset in areas outside of development, including teams in marketing, legal, and human resources. As the Agile mindset takes hold, some cross-functional teams also begin to work together on joint projects using Agile principles. For example, a marketing team may pull in stakeholders from legal during their campaign planning process, rather than waiting until the very end for legal review. In this way, these organizations improve communication, collaboration, and productivity, ultimately leading to greater business agility. Chris notes that some of the most successful scaled Agile efforts involve strategic initiatives at the business unit level. 

However, sometimes organizations get stuck on their Agile journey. Common hurdles include:

• Enabling teams to work together no matter where the team members may be

• Securing buy-in from senior leadership

• Creating a culture that embraces the pursuit of continuous improvement

These challenges all dovetail, ultimately leading back to the most fundamental aspect of business agility success: a mindset of flexibility.

Challenge 1: Enable distributed teams to work together

One of the most powerful advantages to having an Agile mindset is that it allows you to perceive and assess a situation, even when it is rapidly changing. With an Agile mindset, you have the flexibility to respond and adapt in new ways to evolving needs. For Chris, it’s not surprising that the businesses that have fared best in adapting to the pandemic had already invested in the tools that facilitate communication and collaboration within distributed teams, because distributed teams have been increasingly necessary to support more complex, enterprise-scale software development projects. 

For distributed Agile and DevOps teams to work successfully, you must consider how working remotely will impact the tools they use and the processes they follow. You must have the right Agile and DevOps toolsets in place. You must also have adequate tools, processes, and procedures for day-to-day communications, such as messaging platforms like Slack or Microsoft Teams ®—ensure you have video conferencing capabilities with whatever tool you select. 

You’ll find pragmatic tips in this blog post about practicing remote Agile and this resource library from Scaled Agile.

Challenge 2: Cultivate senior leadership buy-in

Leadership is one of seven core competencies that SAFe identifies, and senior leadership buy-in for Agile is critical to success. Organizations that succeed with Agile and DevOps typically have leaders that believe digital transformation is a business imperative, that value the best practices embodied in these approaches, and that embrace the Agile mindset. For leaders that want to learn more about this core competency and its role in ensuring Agile success, SAFe offers leader training.

Challenge 3: Embrace a culture of continuous improvement

One of the most profound changes with Agile and DevOps is the commitment to, as Chris puts it, “relentless improvement.” Here, too, having an Agile mindset plays a critical role. You can learn more about building your own culture of continuous improvement by viewing the full webinar on-demand.

Learn how your Agile practice can help strengthen business agility

How can you build your own culture of continuous improvement and improve your organization’s business agility? Chris and I discuss the challenges many organizations face in developing more robust business agility, and share best practices and strategies you can use to overcome those challenges in our webinar Gorilla Logic & Scaled Agile: Business Agility. Click here to view the webinar on-demand.

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