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  • Richard Spilg

Supporting the move to Agile

My first introduction to agile was some 30 years’ ago – except of course we didn’t call it ‘agile’ back then. The financial services group I was with at the time had acquired control of a life assurance group and one of the immediate priorities was to reduce claims processing times from around a month to a week or less.

Common sense dictated that we empower those employees closest to the work to identify improvement opportunities and leave it to them to figure out the solution. The group comprised a cross-section of employees from the call centre, claims administration, finance, etc. without regard for title or seniority. They were given autonomy to come up with solutions within a particular timeframe, together with the assurance that they had access to whatever other group resources they may need.

With the full support of the Group CEO, the team tackled the task in the knowledge that there was to be no regard for hierarchy or potentially sensitive structural changes. Their task was to come up with solutions that were going to be best for our customers – and, by extension, the organisation. The result was eye-opening. Within a couple of weeks, the team had figured out the way to reduce turnaround times by more than three weeks.

With hindsight, it is obvious that agile is most easily and effectively applied in areas that demand constant innovation such as customer experience, product development, digital innovation, etc. What is less obvious is how agile can be successfully applied and implemented across support functions, such as quality control, health & safety, finance, human resources, etc. There’s a great quote in Doing Agile Right[1] that ‘Agile and bureaucracy are like oil and vinegar: they are good together, but they don’t mix easily’.

A few friends who work at organisations that are transitioning to agile have mentioned the challenges they’ve faced. That prompted me to reflect on some of the common themes I’ve picked up in my coaching work in this regard:

  • Senior employees in traditionally hierarchical organisations can struggle with the move to agile as it can be associated with confused reporting lines and a loss of status. As agile teams comprise employees based on relevance to the task, the likelihood is that teams will be multi-generational, multi-cultural, multi-jurisdictional and disregarding of titles or years served. This, combined with hybrid working as the new normal, can create communication challenges for all involved, but particularly so for more seasoned employees who may well decide that they either cannot, or do not want to, adapt to this new way of working. I’ve especially seen this in support areas with the unintended consequence of loss of experienced talent

  • Embedded agile coaches often do not have the coaching background or skills to be as effective as they could be. While they may be expert at agile ways of working, if they lack fundamental knowledge or experience of coaching, or have yet to find a leadership style that’s authentic for them, well-intentioned initiatives can easily fail through ineffective communication and lack of trust. Given the urgency and purposeful disruption implicit with agile, there is less time for people to become truly proficient at what they’re doing. The consequent lack of development time translates into employees having to learn as they go, the outcome of which can be chaos rather than constructive change

  • The culture of an organisation will dictate the extent to which agile practices can be successfully implemented. Command and control leadership styles don’t mix with agile philosophies. A culture that promotes trust and empowerment will provide the right foundation to support the adoption of agile. Even then, there will be the challenge of entrenched thinking styles that prohibit the ability of seasoned professionals to adapt to the change

I believe that coaching, both for those employees who may be struggling with the change and for those emerging leaders with responsibility for agile teams, can make a significant difference to the value they will add to the organisation. It may also be that some may not be able to adapt to the change and that coaching, while not remedial, will support them in figuring out the best way forward for themselves and, by extension, the organisation.

Richard Spilg

March 2022


[1] Rigby, Elk and Berez. Doing Agile Right: Transformation Without Chaos (Harvard Business Review 2020)

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