By now, you’re probably familiar with the term Agile. Though misconceptions abound, it is simply a set of principles. Nothing more. It’s not a methodology or a framework. But these principles, when used effectively, are powerful and transformative.
We know this because our Tech team has been practicing Agile for many years. Primarily they’ve combined modern engineering practices such as CD, BDD and emergent architecture with Kanban. Kanban is a management system that balances demand with available capacity in a continually responsive, Agile-like way.
The benefits of such a resilient, flexible system have been so striking we wanted to propagate Agile throughout the entire business. To do this, we brought aboard Salvatore Rinaldo, an experienced Agile coach (and, perhaps unsurprisingly, a fairly decent chess player).
What is Agile coaching?
Coaching, according to Salvatore, is not about mentoring, training or consulting (though at times a coach may have to shift into mentoring, training or consulting mode).
“Agile coaches should help organisations explore their challenges and identify experiments that can move the business forward. Designing your own experiments helps internalise the process, so the knowledge gained is not easily forgotten.”
This is why Salvatore’s workshops are heavily interactive. “I am a big fan of learning through playing. I like to design new activities and invite others to collaborate to make them more memorable and fun.” Salvatore explains you can’t assume teams have fully grasped a concept or learned a technique until you see them put it into practice.
What to expect from one-on-one Agile coaching
Salvatore’s one-on-one coaching begins with a simple question: What would you like to focus on? The coachee directs the area of concern. Salvatore helps address those concerns by breaking them down into different perspectives and actionable responses.
“There are times when you feel a one-on-one is possibly turning into a therapy session. I try to ask questions that will help both of us see the problem from multiple angles while maintaining a link between what we are discussing and the original purpose of the session.”
One-on-ones are an opportunity for gaining better insights on problems and challenges that stand in the way of improvement. Salvatore usually asks the coachee to follow-up on their discussion with a task — running an experiment, reading about a particular topic, trying a different approach with a specific individual or team. They then discuss the outcomes of that task at the next session.
Moving past misconceptions and applying Agile
Some people can get hung up on the terminology. They may see Agile as just another process for process’ sake. “Don’t sell Agile,” advises Salvatore. “Don’t treat Agile as an outcome in its own right.” Instead, start with the problem at hand. Draw connections between the Agile principle you’re introducing and a corresponding problem.
Don’t sweat over covering every Agile principle. “We won’t be able to adopt every principle and practice in one go; it’s a journey,” says Salvatore. “Changes are introduced as practical opportunities arise. The real outcome is that teams develop the ability to explore and solve their own problems.”
Fear of change is often a serious hurdle in adopting Agile. But according to Salvatore, this fear is only a symptom. “Clear understanding of any underlying problem is the first step toward gaining motivation and overcoming fear. Change should never be imposed. Coaching does not enable change unless we are motivated to change.”
Adopting Agile across multiple departments
LendInvest has multiple departments within its business, including Sales, Marketing, Credit Risk, Operations, Product and IT, Legal and Finance. Each department has its priorities and plans, and deliverables often run across department lines. To encourage Agile thinking across departments, Salvatore began by working closely with top management.
“Salvatore challenged the Executive team to be more mindful of how we can help drive the right outcomes,” says Matt Tooth, Chief Commercial Officer. “Through Agile, we’re discovering that trusting those with front line skills and expertise, and delegating autonomy, is the best way to motivate people and achieve the business outcomes we all want.”
Across the organisation, Agile practices and Kanban boards are springing into effect, driving initiatives with multiple stakeholders. Kanban boards cover a broad range of products and operations, including existing commercial lending lines, new product launches, and capital raising activities. Their key benefit: creating better coordination between the many different teams in the business.
Hugo Davies, Director of Capital Markets, and his team are recent adopters of agile working. “I’m excited to take on this approach as we’re already beginning to see the benefits.”
Because Hugo’s team develops transactions that are mostly bespoke and highly differentiated, they’re used to working along a certain set of Agile principles. “However,” says Hugo, “implementing those principles and tracking them through Kanban boards has made us more aware of where our pain points exist and when we’re most likely to hit a bottleneck. Kanban helps us measure these frictions and allows us to act before they affect us.”
This heightened responsiveness, Hugo hopes, will ultimately translate into less dependency on other internal stakeholders and a significant reduction in transaction times.
For Lauren Eaton, Head of Lending Operations, Agile development facilitates the sort of fast delivery and quick change her team excels at. Releasing the LendInvest loan portfolio tool in stages allowed her team to work on improving and fixing bugs as they went along, resulting in a better product and much faster delivery.
Three important Agile reminders from Salvatore:
- Value your ability to learn fast, more than your ability not to fail. Welcome failure as it enables learning
- Develop facilitation and active listening skills. Most Agile practices are nothing more than structured conversations
- Develop the discipline to observe and expose issues. A willingness to tackle each issue as it’s uncovered allows for continuous improvement
How do we know when it’s working?
At LendInvest, we continually monitor whether we are iterating effectively and creating value according to basic Agile principles. We do this through product backlogs, review meetings and retrospectives.
Success, though, is not simply achieved by becoming “more agile”. Creating value is always the key focus. According to Salvatore, “Agile principles and practices are there if you need them but what’s most important is achieving your business objectives and satisfy your customers.”
“Ultimately,” added Salvatore, “we want a healthy feedback cycle where business representatives, development teams and product managers discover, plan and iterate collaboratively,”
Sticking to it
Agile thinking fails to stick when an organisation doesn’t measure and reward the right outcomes and behaviours.
For example: if your measurable objective is your ability to deliver pre-defined results in a given timeline, you’ve almost automatically excluded an iterative development process, which is inherently oriented around continuous learning. Changing your objective to the more significant measure of customer value, allows an iterative, Agile process to flourish.
Developing a culture of autonomy and trust is also essential towards maintaining an agile mindset. “Our ability to motivate people and shape culture is crucial to our success,” stated Salvatore.
For teams to continually work effectively together, it’s important we invest time and effort in motivating, nurturing and developing our people. But autonomy and trust are harder to deploy than many people think, especially in large, hierarchical organisations. Salvatore suggests Patrick Lencioni’s book ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’ as a good place to start when learning to build better team dynamics.
Putting all the pieces in place
LendInvest is a fast-moving, dynamic organisation. Our challenge is to drive focus where it’s needed and quickly align all the different teams so they can work together on the next big initiative. Often this requires the dexterity to shift focus from internal operations to customer-centric initiatives and back.
Likewise, our product teams need to switch between discovery and build quite rapidly. Our software engineers, too, switch between developing new features and supporting operations seamlessly. None of this is a barrier to Agile. Our challenge is putting the right Agile practices in place where they apply.
“Like in chess,” Salvatore concluded, “when you manage to get all the pieces in the right position, the end-game becomes easier to win.”