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Agility beyond IT

Operating within the challenges of today and the future

Agility beyond IT - the need for all industries to adopt user centricity, agility, lean and systems thinking

To succeed in today’s world organisations need to be able to deliver faster, more efficiently and at lower risk, and that in environments of increasing uncertainty, change and complexity. This means collaborating and co-creating across and ever wider group of stakeholders and experts, at increased pace and being able to react to insights and change arising from the environment.

It is my strong believe that organisations that do not change towards more ‘agile’ ways of working are doomed to go the way of the dinosaurs.

But there is help, other industries, mainly automotive engineering and IT have had to go there before, and have lots to share.

4 ‘practices’

There are 4 key ‘practices’ (or mindsets) that organisations will need to truly understand and adopt:

  • user centricity (or product thinking – if you like) which puts users (and stakeholders) at the heart of everything, ensuring product-market-fit, i.e. desirability, feasibility and viability
  • agility which allows us to deal with unknowns and change
  • lean which enables us to work efficiently
  • systems thinking (including complexity theory) which allows us to operate well in complicated or complex environments

3 areas of focus

The get this right, we need to adress all of these 3 areas

  • Culture – the values and principles that guides our actions and choices
  • Process – how we do things
  • Tools – the specific techniques and technologies we use to design, build and operate our products and services

Too frequently organisations and industries only look at process, and believe that by adopting ceremonies, they have achieved anything. If left only at that, this is at best incrementally useful, at worst (and most frequently) detrimental as it creates the illusion of working in different ways but doesn’t delivery any of the benefits (often, in fact doing the opposite as it creates mixed messages like the idea of empowerment without real autonomy).

3x innovation: culture – process – tools

The 4 ‘practices’ are well understood, and arise from a number of disciplines, including psychology, neuroscience, mathematics end economics, and have been tried and optimised within specific industries, such as automotive (since the 50s – arguably longer) and IT (since the 2000s). Consequently other industries can learn, and in fact lift-and-shift, a lot.

However, like the IT industry, learning from automotive engineering but then innovating on top of it, other industries will have to do the same: pure copy-paste of concepts and process is not enough. At best you get some benefits, at worst you may create a dangerous semblance of having adopted these practices, while in fact creating red tape.

Instead, what all industries (and at more subtle level all organisations) have to do, is take what is useful (from the existing corpus of knowledge and best practice), leave what isn’t, and – most importantly – innovate on top.

And innovate across all three, culture, process, – and most frequently overlooked – tools.


It’s all about culture.

The best tools and processes are meaningless if not underpinned and consistently supported by the right mindset, values and behaviours.
In fact, misaligning culture with process and tools – such as still having a culture of command and control while on the other hand opting for process that can only work for autonomous teams, leads to dangerous mixed messages that in practice can be more detrimental than just sticking with old-school ways of working.

In a nutshell, we require culture that fosters

  • collaboration and co-creation
  • flexible decision making
  • exploration and learning
  • value delivery

Examples of culture fostering agility are

  • servant leadership – rather than command and control (SAS)
  • learning and failing fast (Etsy)
  • high trust teams (Google)
  • full autonomy at grass root level (SpaceX)
  • individual autonomy and ownership (Valve)
  • user centricity (Estonia’s agile constitution, UK digital services e.g. HMRC)
  • modular and adaptive design (architecture (BIG, Hadid architects), engineering (TU Zurich))


Culture needs to be enacted via the right process

There is an argument in the ‘extreme’ agile community that there should be ‘no (formalised) process’, but that process should emerge organically. Or rather, that there should be no process, just orchestration. This, indeed, can lead lead to amazing outcomes under the right conditions, usually in the context of high volatility environments (e.g. innovation) and highly skilled collaborators. With less mature teams, or in cases of repetitive tasks a bit more guidance (process) is useful, as we have seen in the case of lean manufacturing.

So as with everything, what is right, ‘depends’.

In a nutshell, good process

  • supports and guides, rather than stifles and controls
  • is flexible and adaptable and allows us to react to changes in the environment
  • is aligned with culture
  • is as lean (minimal) as possible
  • supports outcomes
  • is contextually appropriate

Examples of agile processes are

  • blameless post mortems (Etsy)
  • lean experimentation (SpaceX)
  • JIT decision making (Tesla)
  • no-process (Tesla)
  • agile procurement (defense)
  • continuous compliance (pharmaceutical)
  • lean UX and continuous validation (HMRC)
  • CI/CD, test driven development (IT)


Culture and process need to be supported with the right tools

Good tools are often seen as ‘icing on the cake’ while in fact they make all the difference. How can you become truly agile in an industry, like, say BioTech? Sure, changing culture helps, so does looking process, but you will only achieve the full benefits of fast feedback cycles if your tooling allows you to drastically shorten your delivery cadence and flexibly act on learnings and change as it occurs. In practice this means prototyping faster, and achieving compliance faster, for instance via  3d printing and automated documentation.

The key point is that tooling is highly industry specific and every industry will need to invent their own tools fit for their context to be successful. This is possibly the biggest challenge industries will face, as this means not only cultural and process, i.e. soft, change, but frequently dabbling in hardware innovation. While cultural changes is just as hard (arguably harder) this certainly feels more challenging. It also requires different stakeholders to understand what we are trying to achieve, usually experts such as engineers and scientists that, historically, not involved in definition or change of culture and process.

Examples of agile tooling are

  • smart contracts (legal)
  • 3d printing and prefab (architecture / construction / engineering)
  • 3d modelling, simulation and virtual twins (construction, engineering)
  • compliance automation (pharmaceutical)
  • adaptive factories (automotive)
  • adaptive / dynamic interaction through ML/AI (EdTech)
  • bioprinting ( biotech)
  • cloud computing, server-less (IT)

State of the art

We are at a junction where we see many organisation talk about agility and new ways of working, some really understanding it, and making big leaps forwards, while others are really not getting it, missing opportunities or just paying lip service.

While reviewing the ‘state of agility’ across industries I came across a statement by one of the leading consultancies claiming that to a key aspect of agility was for architects and construction companies to be closer to customers and involve them in the design and delivery process. I cannot express how scary I found this statement. We’ve been building dwellings for more than 5000 years, and the wisdom imparted on is is that we need to involve users?!!?! No shit.

What this shows is how badly many of the ‘leading’ consultancies and organisations really understand what agility means, and more importantly how narrow and short-sighted their view is.

Of course there are always those, that claim that agility can never work in their industry or organisation…

Agility doesn’t work in my industry

If you think agility can not work in your industry, or, maybe only at a very basic level, like, say ‘adopting ceremonies’ or ‘cross-functional teams’, then you are doing it wrong. And you are being proven wrong by your competitors that take a wider stance than just applying agility at the process or ceremony level, that are expanding agility beyond the requirements and design phase, into implementation and operation.

The above presentation highlights industry specific examples to get illustrate what ‘good’ looks like.

Where to start…

You really want to be agile

  • There will always be change so start responding
  • You can never know everything so start learning
  • Internalise the manifesto
  • ‘It all depends’

Acting agile

  • Agility is ‘not sticking to a plan’, but still highly disciplined
  • Shorten your cadence, iterate and evolve
  • ‘Continuous’ everything, automate everything
  • Agility is a team sport, empower AND support your teams
  • High trust teams perform better (allow them to fail but fail fast)
  • Servant-lead empowered, autonomous teams

Becoming agile is not easy

  • Agile adoption must be agile (incremental, see what sticks)
  • Be deliberate in what ‘problems’ you address
  • Copy, adapt and invent from other fields – think broad
  • Careful with  ‘Agile Transformation’, avoid ‘salesmen’
  • Don’t just adopt a methodology
  • It’s all about culture, process and tools (process is not enough)
  • Transform top down and bottom up
  • Ultimately it’s all about culture, don’t just focus on process
  • Innovate across culture, process and tools

Further resources

Cover for Lean Problem Analysis blueprint and guidance notes

Agile and lean problem analysis

A collection of resources including blueprint, guidance notes and template for agile / lean business problem analysis.
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