Enterprise Agility

“Want to scale agile? Don’t. Descale the work first. Achieve big through small.” – Jonathan Smart

Author: Christian Nagel

More customer value, faster development times to respond to market changes, better employee motivation, higher customer satisfaction, higher product quality and lower costs. The lure of benefits such as these often motivates IT organizations to consider adopting agile methodologies, widely believed to help deliver such positive outcomes. However, transforming a traditional IT shop into an agile one is rarely easy or quick. It can prove even more difficult to extend the agile philosophy to functions outside IT and become a truly “agile enterprise”. Our experience shows that many agile initiatives get stuck in implementation, failing to deliver the prospective benefits. Why?

One big reason is often the approach to agile transformation. Many leaders adopt a mindset that envisions an orderly transition from one stable state to another, seeking to move the entire IT organization to agile in one fell swoop. Our observations have shown that such an approach rarely yields the desired results. Instead, agile initiatives are more successful when they challenge traditional ways of thinking and begin with selected parts of the IT organization rather than tackling the whole enterprise at once, using piloting as well as inspect and adapt mechanisms. This alternative mindset accepts that organizational change can only be realized gradually, provides more leeway on the way to agile and allows ample time for the IT organization as a whole to adapt – which essentially means applying agile principles to the agile transformation itself. Once agile practices are well-established in certain areas of IT, they can be expanded to other teams and eventually to other functions within the broader organization, bringing the entire enterprise on board in support of the IT organization’s efforts to scale agile.

There is no way around the observed fact that wholesale agile transformations take time. Indeed, it can take up to 10 years to go from a traditional IT organization that is ‘agile curious’ to an entire enterprise with living agile values deeply fostered in the corporate culture. Even though the road is in fact long, that is no reason not to start. We envision a four-stage transformation process that can deliver benefits every step along the way —and that can accelerate each step by taking specific actions (figure 1). The following is our guide to cultivating agility in an organization—from small beginnings in the IT department to its adoption across the entire enterprise.

The fact that it may take years to move through one stage to the next should not necessarily be a cause for concern. Every stage in the journey to becoming an agile enterprise can yield benefits, although the advantages (and limitations) differ from stage to stage. Another important point to highlight is that it is possible for many different methodologies to coexist in a single agile enterprise – as long as all of the teams involved commit to a shared culture based on the agile values and principles defined in the agile manifesto [1]:

  • Prioritize individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Prioritize a working solution over comprehensive documentation
  • Prioritize collaboration between all parties over contract negotiations
  • Prioritize a fast response to change over following a plan

Becoming agile at the enterprise level is a long process that many organizations feel is most feasible when they take it step by step. Starting a journey toward agility requires leaders to accept that there will be some instability and conflict within the IT organization in the first two stages, when pockets of agile activity are surrounded by traditional development culture and processes. Although each of the steps toward enterprise agility has its specific limitations, each will also deliver valuable benefits. The ultimate payoff: the potential to gain a competitive edge through agile methods that will allow companies to be more responsive to and more aligned with their customers’ demands.

[1] Kent Beck et al., "Principles behind the agile Manifesto", The Agile Manifesto, 2001.

Where would you position your organization in our four-stage model? What accelerators do you have in place to take agility to the next level? We would love to hear about your agile transformation experiences and find out where have you thrived or struggled. Get in touch and let us know!

Read our full article on Enterprise Agility on Deloitte Insights, issue 25