ArticleDecember 7, 2022 · 5 min read time
Staying on the right track in a rapidly changing world requires ever better navigation and lookout. However, they are not always enough. There will always be surprises which will test the company's agility. With the right technology strategy and a fully agile organisation, you can avoid pitfalls and find favourable winds.
Today's companies operate in an ever-changing world, in times where agility is essential. Agile methods and lean thinking are not a novelty. As such, it is surprising that the adoption of agility has been slower than one might have expected fifteen years ago.
Despite initial trepidation, adopting agile methods has been the most significant change in corporate culture over the last decade. The change has been evident especially in the context of business models. The traditional waterfall model of software development has been laid to rest in many organisations. Even though the adoption of agile approaches has largely proven successful, many organizations are not able to operate in a particularly agile way. The reason lies in the organisations' technology platforms.
Has technology become the biggest challenge to agility?
Practical experience has shown that agility challenges are often related to either the applicability of off-the-shelf solutions to support innovative business requirements or the inherent complexity of applied technologies. In most organisations, technology capabilities are dependent on more than in-house software development. A significant part of the capabilities is implemented by leveraging various off-the-shelf solutions and services.
The choice, role and interface designs of off-the-shelf solutions significantly determine how flexibly you can apply the solutions' technological capabilities. It is not a simple, binary "buy vs. build" decision, but a more complex "buy and build" decision, where the interplay between in-house software development and the use of off-the-shelf solutions and the allocation of responsibilities must be made based on the organisation's needs in terms of flexibility.
The result is a mix of components: often a vast, complex and elusive jumble that has evolved over time, piece by piece, without a clear vision that would guide overall development. New development projects are often steered clear of this complexity, leading to even more overlapping work, more development needs and added confusion.
A technology strategy accelerates agile development
The need for a pragmatic technology strategy is highlighted when considering the grey areas around the "buy and build" frontier. Establishing a strategy ensures that developing functionalities critical to the organisation progresses flexibly and swiftly. A pragmatic technology strategy will also ensure that the organisation's development resources are distributed to distinguished and innovative activities.
In addition, a solid technology strategy creates a shared vision for large-scale agile development and prevents unnecessary team silos. It ensures that the technology strategy management is reflected as an emergent activity at the team level, shepherding the production of technical structures envisioned in the strategy. The creation of a technology strategy requires expertise in both software development and off-the-shelf solutions. Traditionally, this cross-cutting competence has been largely unavailable, and the IT world remains rather sharply divided between software development and off-the-shelf solutions.
Until the last decade, various enterprise architecture approaches were thought to provide viable solutions, but these expectations were not fulfilled. The complexity of the technological landscape in organisations is greater than ever before. Therefore, these past failures should not be looked upon as discouragement, but as a signal that efforts to manage adopted technological landscapes should be strengthened further.
Five practical tips for building a resilient company culture
Many organisations still have work to do on technology strategy and business models. The basic functionality of a lean and agile organisation is often obvious in theory but overlooked in practice. Here are a few rules of thumb for building a more resilient culture:
1. Pay attention to your technology strategy
Make sure your organisation has an up-to-date vision for technology development that is sufficiently comprehensive. Focus on the "buy and build" frontiers, and don't oversimplify things. Be well-versed in both system development and off-the-shelf solutions. Understand what can be done with off-the-shelf solutions or services and how they can propel innovation, or at the very least lead to results that stand out from the crowd.
2. Start with the MVP and iterate
We have limited ability to see ahead and foresee an immaculate future. The solution, then, is to focus on building an MVP, a Minimum Viable Product. The MVP is equal to an acceptable solution, enabling the testing of the viability of a product, decision or architecture, at least up to a finite point. It also provides an agile way to test a new business idea and, if necessary, expand activities or business later.
MVP thinking in business development is similar to the lean start-up methodology. It’s not a novel concept, but regardless I feel it's how things should be done. The method provides a good toolset to determine whether a business model is viable and profitable. The starting point is to fail fast, i.e. do things quickly and try things out.
3. Introduce agile methods throughout the organisation, including budgeting
Finland already has organizations that are agile through-and-through. Many things have indeed moved in the right direction. However, far too many companies are still struggling with the basics. For example, ownership of an organization's budget may be buried deep within the organisation’s machinations. In a changing world, a budget made once a year is no longer the best way to run a business.
At the heart of agile budgeting is that goals drive action – not budgets. Agile and lean bring resilience and the ability to make quick turnarounds, as projects do not require a commitment for years. Shorter cycles ensure the ability to respond to changes in the business environment at very short notice.
4. Be prepared to let go of the old
A resilient organization can adapt to change. Caution is healthy to some extent, and resistance to change is not inherently bad. However, trepidation towards change should not act as a paralyzing agent. The solution is to build a model where changes can be governed.
5. Only company leadership can bring about a company-wide change
Top management must strive for change and lead the charge. While many organisations have adopted agile methods, some have folded under the pressure to shun change. New terminology has been introduced, but the activities themselves have reverted to the old model. Thus, the idea of agile has been destroyed, and in its place stands an altar for the illusion of control. Management was left on the outer rim of change – for failing to lead the charge towards change.
In a rapidly changing world, only agile companies will survive. It is possible to land a bullseye on the moving target of an uncertain future, but only with a business strategy that enables an agile response.