Opinion: Agile knockers just don’t get it

Spark has made the big leap to Agile at scale and there’s no turning back, MD Simon Moutter says.

Since the news broke that Spark is transitioning the whole company to Agile ways of working, there’s been no shortage of people voicing their opinion on how we should do it. Or how not to do it. Or just to not do it at all.

What’s interesting is while most of these “dudes” (like Steve McCrone, they’re mostly men) might know something about Agile ways of working or the concepts of organisational agility, they tend to know very little about exactly what Spark is doing or why we’re doing it. Invariably, they’ve never bothered to even talk to us or come to take a first-hand look.

These commentators often say Agile has become a fad and that the adopters don’t fully understand what it means in a business context. I agree. If you decide to “go Agile” because you think it is a cool and edgy way to do business, you will fail. Transitioning to Agile at scale is hard graft.

Over the past eight months, we’ve radically overhauled HR practices, issued new employment contracts, reset our company culture (with a new purpose, values and a big push on diversity and inclusion), trained thousands of people in Agile and Design Thinking, introduced new quarterly planning cycles, and recalibrated finance systems and delegated authority frameworks.

Even more importantly, our people have made a big mental leap to give up hierarchical management structures and job titles and transition to working in small, self-managing teams with colleagues with different backgrounds and skillsets, who may think very differently to them.

It has been a massive effort that has required exceptional discipline and commitment from all our people, supported by the most intensive internal communications and employee engagement process I’ve experienced in my lengthy business career.

Spark
Is Agile is the right way forward for Spark?

The commentators also make a big deal of the fact that Agile has been around a long time, with the implication this makes Spark a latecomer, not a frontrunner. It’s true Agile is not a new concept: The methodologies have been used in the software business for years and many of the world’s biggest digital companies were born Agile. Even at Spark, we’ve used Agile in parts of our business for several years.

But what’s new and different – and this is recognised by Agile experts both here and internationally – is the scale and breadth of our approach. Every part of Spark is going Agile in some way – from a “heavy” application in the “engine room,” to varying degrees of Agile “light” in customer-facing units such as stores and contact centres, and in corporate support units like Finance and Legal.

Final commentator truism: If you slavishly adopt a cookie cutter approach to Agile, you will fail. I couldn’t agree more. Before we made the bold call to go Agile at scale, we spent a good chunk of last year speaking to and visiting some of the handful of traditional companies (mostly in Europe) that are also making this transition. We learned a lot from them and from our partner McKinsey, which has great experience with large-scale Agile transformations.

But we also learned no one has (yet) written the definitive manual on how to do it – there has been lots we’ve had to figure out ourselves along the way. Equally importantly, we’ve been determined to build an Agile at scale model that’s right for Spark and that works best in the New Zealand context and culture.

So, why do we believe Agile is the right way forward for Spark?

First, the world is changing fast and the technology industry in which we operate even more so. Our mantra is that to be successful, we must keep changing faster than our competitors – both those we face today, and those around the next corner. And increasingly, our competitors will be the global digital companies (many of which, as I noted earlier, were born Agile). We need an organisational model that enables us to be faster to market. In Agile, decisions can be made quicker by smaller teams who are empowered to make the best calls on products and services and get on with it. Already, we’re seeing outcomes that used to take many months being delivered in a few weeks.

Second, we’re in an environment where business success is being defined by the quality of the customer experience and, increasingly, those experiences are digital – meaning they are software-based with a customer interface via an app or website. We must use data and other inputs to gain rich insights into our customers and use these insights to guide our work: anticipate what they want next, start with an MVP or beta version and keep iterating to make it better by creating an effortless digital experience around it. Agile helps us embed customer centricity into what we do every single day.

Finally, the traditional, hierarchical model of management has served business well for the past 100 years but a new approach is required for the workplace of the future – one that facilitates collaboration, allows talent to flourish and gives people a true sense of purpose in their work. We’ve found our people, especially the newer generation, are looking for more from their job – for many of them, the concept of joining a big company “at the bottom and working your way up” no longer appeals as much as it did to earlier generations. Our people have responded well to this change – our employee net promoter score has lifted by nine points since September 2017, despite all the disruption caused by our Agile transformation. 

At Spark, our purpose is clear: to help all of New Zealand win big in a digital world. We formed a view late last year that moving to Agile ways of working would best enable us to deliver on that purpose. As our Agile transformation has taken shape day by day, I’ve become ever more convinced that it’s the right thing to do.

Adopting Agile at scale may not be the solution for every company – but what we’re doing at Spark is attracting a lot of interest, both in New Zealand and overseas. We’ve recently had a couple of Spark executives share our story with some large companies in the United States, Europe and Australia, who are grappling with similar challenges to us and are considering Agile. These companies have been blown away at how far we’ve come in such a short time, and many of them are intending to visit us for a closer look.

Spark has made the big leap to Agile at scale and there’s no turning back for us. Our focus is on now embedding Agile – so that through relentless execution, we get better every day at delivering for our customers and investors.

Just over four years ago, we made a similar bold call when we shocked New Zealanders by changing our brand from Telecom to Spark. Back then, we had no shortage of commentators telling us it was a stupid idea … but once we made the decision, we never strayed from our objective. We did whatever it took to make it work. Today, I don’t think you’d find a single person with real insight into the company who would want us to turn the clock back on the rebrand (other than maybe some of our competitors!).

That was just one of the many bold moves we’ve made over the past six years that have changed Spark almost beyond recognition. In doing so, we’ve delivered fantastic new products and services for our customers, and the best financial performance among our peers in Australasia for our investors. For Spark, Agile is the next exciting chapter in this transformation story.

So my message to the commentators is simple – come and have a look at what we’re doing, you may learn something. And accept that it will take some time until Spark’s results show whether it’s been a good or bad move for us – until then, it might pay to hold off passing judgment.

Simon Moutter is managing director of Spark.

This is supplied content and not commissioned or paid for by NBR.

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