As an Agile Coach, I am a champion of change. Everyday, I work with my clients to enable them to move from a position that is either currently not fit for purpose ‘their burning platform’ or is generally still fit for purpose, but someone is starting to notice that ‘the iceberg is melting’. In the context of technology and specifically software, generally, this equates to the building of software in a linear manner with fixed scope, fixed delivery date and fixed resources, a lot of upfront planning and a change control system that ensures nothing happens to change that scope and thus the plan. This is still a workable model for many organisations, but people are starting to notice something is changing…
There was a time when we could write a bunch of long and detailed requirements documents capturing every angle of the user requirement, pile them up high on a virtual shelf and wait for funding to emerge. A project is finally kicked off to build the requirement and the user gets something delivered that someone else asked for maybe six months or a year ago. When the user finally gets to see what the requirement looks like as transformed into software (which is at the very end of the delivery process, maybe in UAT), unsurprisingly they start to say things like:
- “This is not what I asked for?”
- “Why did you build it like that?”
- “We don’t need that functionality anymore?”
- “Why are you always building the wrong thing?”
- “I need to make changes to the requirement because our needs have changed, but I want it delivered by the same date”
- “Why is the software always late?”
If you are building a bridge (or any product where the requirement is unlikely to change significantly over time), linear delivery models like ‘waterfall’ are exceptional. You capture all the requirements upfront like – length of the bridge, height of the bridge, strength requirement of the bridge. These requirements will not change and thus we can create detailed plans for the delivery, estimate resource requirements and determine delivery dates. Designs are built off requirements, the bridge is built from the designs. The bridge is tested to ensure strength requirements are met. All this is done with precision and accuracy. All change requirements are closely scrutinised with only the lowest impacting changes allowed through e.g. change the color of the bridge. Management of the project is strict and disciplined, everything documented in triplicate, with nothing left to chance. However, as we know, building software is nothing like building a bridge! Requirements are not set, and even if they were, they are subject to change before the ink drys, changes that even the user could never have predicted.
In the beginning, before choice was as popular as it is today, software was not subject to change. It was a required annoyance that hardware engineers in the 50’s & 60’s needed to make their mainframe computers work. Little known fact, but all software developers were female in the beginning. Where did they all go? But with the advent of the personal computer, Apple and Microsoft and later the internet, ensured software would take on a demand from consumers never seen before. Software now was the star and hardware just the supporting act to make sure it had the power to run the ever more complex software products demanded by users. Now let’s fast forward to today, May 2021. We are in the mists of a technology revolution. Granny’s with iPads, farmers using wireless cloud computing technology to manage herds movements, drones delivering books to our door having only ordered them online 3 hours ago. Banks under threat from technology companies that know little about finance but lots about what customer want, or at least know how to find out what they want. They are eating into the bank’s market share with internet banking and banking products e.g. Revolut, N26 etc. They are not trying to be banks. They are a new breed of software company that are looking for problems that need solutions. They are not sure what the right solution is, so they build it iteratively and incrementally. All the while engaging with the user empathetically and regularly to make sure the solution is solving their problem. When it is not, no problem, because they have a ‘test and learn culture’. They take feedback regularly, build it into the solution and quickly show the user again. This new breed have a very special competitive advantage, they embrace change. They are agile.
I can already hear the muttering and the smirks – “But we don’t need that here. We are really good at capturing the needs of our users upfront. If you do it right at the start, you’ll get what you want at the end”. The 21st century problem we face is, we may know what the problem is that needs to be solved. What we don’t know with significant accuracy is:
- What are our options to solve the problem?
- What’s the best option?
- What if the customer doesn’t respond well to our chosen option?
- What if our competitors get the chosen option to market before we do?
- What if we want to test multiple options with our customer?
- What if the customer doesn’t know what they want until they see it?
Waterfall does not answer these questions or at least allow them to be answered during the software delivery life-cycle, Agility does. The very word ‘agile’ literally means ‘able to move quickly and easily’. We live in a world where choice and the right to change your mind or your allegiance is omnipresent. ‘Brand loyalty’ cannot be relied upon anyone more. Oracle in its paper entitled Visions for 2020: Key trends shaping the digital marketing landscape almost apocalyptically states that “Data, customer intelligence, and experiences must all be united across marketing, commerce, sales, and service to win in the Experience Economy. And the numbers prove it. A third of consumers will walk away from a brand after just one bad experience, and 41% are willing to pay as much as 20% more for an exceptional customer experience.” Sobering words for any CEO of a gigantic multinational organisation from the ‘old world’ like banking, finance or insurance who believes their size, reach and monopolistic position in the market will ensure they can continue to tell their customers what they want and what they are going to get.
But its not all doom and gloom. The heavens are not about to fall upon traditional industries in the face of these agile upstarts and the increasing choosey and mobile customer base they wish to steal from you. But the time to act is now. The iceberg is only beginning to melt. You have been to the edges, you’ve seen the reality. Now it is time to do something about it. Start making the change now before the iceberg melts completely. Before your new agile competitors have a chance to catch up with you. You have the industry knowledge, you have the relationships built up with your customers over a few generations. You just need to adapt how you respond to this new generation of customers. Accept that they hold the power, they are in charge and you serve them. Start cultivating an environment of innovation and creativity. Let loose the tight reins of management and heavy organisational structure. Accept that you can no longer be the captain of a cruise liner carrying 20,000 employees. You need to get them safely into speedboats carrying a few hundred each!
Transforming to an agile way of working starts with both Business and IT. They must come together in the spirit of partnership and leave behind the service provider mentality. ‘One team, One vision’ and building software that solves business problems in the fastest and most cost effectively way, while all along continuously asking the question “Is what we are doing still relevant and still needed?”.
In this modern, technology driven world, as a business we must adapt or we die. Failure will happen and indeed it is a vital part of the process of learning and improving and innovating. Agile ways of working does more than embrace change, it accepts that change is a vital part of business and life.
Hands up who wants to change?