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How adopting agile techniques across your business will power growth

Are you familiar with agile? If you’re working in tech, project management or software development, you’ve probably used this methodology. In the last twenty years, it revolutionised how software products are developed. Agile has been so successful, it’s being adopted more widely as a tool to run whole businesses.

The world moves fast. So the ability to respond quickly is vital. Even more so in post-pandemic Britain, where there are new opportunities to seize and uncertainty has become the norm. The future is unpredictable, and it’s in these conditions that agile businesses thrive. 

Agile is at the heart of our business coaching. We use its principles to guide everything that we do. But what does it mean to be ‘agile’?  And why does it lead to growth?

Waterfall project management

Twenty years ago, life was often frustrating for anyone involved in IT.  Waterfall project management was the system used most commonly.  It mapped everything into distinct, sequential phases, with each one beginning only when the previous one had been completed. Before joining Rackspace, I worked in a CRM business that used this approach. It relied heavily on the business team telling IT exactly what they wanted. They were asked to write out their requirements in excruciating detail. And then they’d get that, and only that.

The thing is, nine times out of ten, the business didn’t know what they wanted. We would deliver CRM projects and reports that weren’t what they’d expected. If we were doing a business intelligence project, the business would say, we really need such and such information. When they were given this, they’d say, ‘That’s not what we expected.’ A total waste of time, money and effort. Lose-lose for everyone involved. Most businesses don’t have business analysts that can help translate ‘business speak’ to ‘IT speak’. 

Hence the frustration.  Waterfall sets up the customer and delivery in conflict.  By the time the project’s delivered late and over budget, your understanding of what you thought you asked for is not the same as what’s been delivered. Or the world has moved on.  Enter agile.

What is agile?

Agile project management is an iterative approach to software development projects. What does this mean?  Making progress through successive refinement.  A good analogy would be a sculptor carving a statue.  First, they select a stone of the right size. Next, they carve the general shape.  Maybe the shape of the head and torso is beginning to form.  The sculptor refines their work by adding detail.  Slowly the final form emerges but the sculptor doesn’t consider any area complete until the entire work is finished. 

Such an incremental, iterative approach means feedback can be acted on quickly and responsive changes can be made at each stage. Project teams and the business work alongside each other collaboratively within a certain time frame and budget. It’s an altogether more rewarding way to work.  But how does it work more widely?

Introducing an iterative cycle

Agile works by breaking projects up into incremental stages.  In the same way, businesses can take a 12 month period and divide it up into blocks of 90 days.  Gone are the 5-year plans.  Instead, goals and OKRs are set around these timeframes to deliver incremental value.   Outcomes are measurable and specific, within each 90 day period.  The 3-5 year goal is recalibrated every quarter, working out whether the current trajectory is heading in the right direction.  If it isn’t, the goal isn’t set in stone but adjusted accordingly. 

Taking an empirical approach

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Transparency and measurability are two big hallmarks of the agile approach.  In a wider context, this means sharing KPIs that are aligned with key goals.  What results are you expecting?  What does good look like?  How do you change things to improve the score?  What are your leading and lagging indicators?  What’s your profit per x? Some of this is about reporting the result and looking over the time horizon into the next quarter.

Working cross-functionally

KPIs are about measuring ‘business as usual’ and OKRs are about change.  The latter are often cross-functional. Business leaders come together to deliver change, thinking from a customer perspective rather than working in silos. 

This is very different to the old departmental structure of Sales, Marketing, Finance etc.  Instead, we suggest to our clients that they set up self-managing teams or pods that are multi-disciplinary and organised around specific customers.  So everyone involved in a customer’s account works together in one team, delivering value.  Managers become coaches. 

Bringing focus

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Single-minded focus is at the heart of agile and works as well across a business as it does in software development.  Picking three to five objectives for the year and sticking to them.  Only three to five – not 17!  Becoming accountable for the outcomes of these objectives. And making sure that the number 1 thing is genuinely the number 1 thing.

An agile business will look out across the quarter and say, against this small number of OKRs, what progress can we make in the next 90 days?  Less is more.  Do a few things but do them well. Pick a theme for each quarter to rally around and have clear accountability for the fewer things you’ve committed to.

Continuous improvement

There’s a beautiful honesty to agile that can form the foundation of your whole culture. Central is an understanding that business is always a work in progress.   Alan Weiss’ quote comes to mind here, ‘I’m constantly surprised how stupid I was two weeks ago.’  I love that. The nature of being human is we’re constantly learning. And we’ll get it wrong.

Accepting this will help you avoid the sunk cost fallacy. That awful situation where you think, ‘We’ve spent so much time on x y and z we need to keep going.’  That’s a very Waterfall way of thinking.  So what if you’ve spent three years on it?  It isn’t working. Be brave and start again.  Keep saying to yourself, where are we now and where will we be in 90 days?

Retrospectives are central to agile. There’s a constant process of reflecting back over that short period. Did we achieve what we wanted to achieve? If we didn’t, why was that?  What would we do differently next time?  Being open and honest becomes an instinctive part of how teams relate to each other.  People seek criticism, challenge each other but are supportive. 

When you’re doing this all the time, it becomes normal.  You’re starting to build a culture underpinned by psychological safety and radical candour. Here’s another great quote by Rowan Bunning, an Agile coach, who said. ‘the agile movement is part of a larger movement towards more humane workplaces.’  So true.  Managers become coaches, teams self-manage and there’s true purpose alignment. 

Moving your Head of Development to become Head of People

Think for a moment. Who could be the best person to help you roll out agile more widely in your organisation?  We have a suggestion based on the experience of some of our clients.  If your software development team are using agile, then the Head of Development is likely to be well versed in its techniques. They could make an excellent Head of People. This has worked well for our clients FX Digital and OnTruck.

Your Head of Development will be used to OKRs, self-managed teams, huddles and retrospectives.  These transferable skills could be useful in HR.  You can outsource the compliance side of the role and get them to focus on recruitment and learning and development.  It’s so rewarding for them to broaden their experience, taking a pivotal role in cultural change.

Total commitment from the CEO and leadership team

As CEO, you cast a long shadow.  Adopting agile will only work if you’re totally committed.  And the whole leadership team is behind you.  It’s a big change to something very different.  You’re going to need new meeting rhythms, new ways of communicating, new ways of relating to one another.  There’s no getting away from it.  It’s going to be hard.  Our advice is to start at the top.  Don’t tell anyone that you’re changing your approach but get the Executive Team onto an agile footing first.  Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for failure. 

One of our clients who’s recently been through this process mentioned he’d had a skip meeting with a member of staff who’d joined the previous year. The guy said it felt like he’d joined one company and it had morphed into another company entirely, so great was the transformation.  Because the Executive team were behaving so differently, it felt palpable that the organisation had changed.  It’s great to hear feedback like this.

It takes time

There’s no magic bullet.  It takes time to create new habits.  Agile isn’t a quick fix.  You need to commit to deliberate practise before it starts to become second nature.  For instance, it takes a good year to get good at writing OKRs.  We had a team here recently who looked back at what they wrote 12 months ago and were embarrassed.  But that’s how progress works.  They’ve learned, grown and their OKRs are now more precise as a result.  

When we start our clients on their coaching journey, we give them a three-year agenda.  This is what we’ll work through and this is when it will happen.  Some don’t make it. Because often it gets harder before it gets easier.  We show them a great model of change and identify where they want to be.  But they have to go further away in order to get there. It’s like learning a new golf swing or a racket hold. You have to undo old habits and re-learn them all over again.  Adopting agile across your business takes effort and hard work, make no mistake. But the reward can be stratospheric growth.


Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his book, ‘F**k Plan B’ here

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