How to navigate with agile leadership

Qrious has Agile in its DNA. We launched developing software solutions with Agile in 2014, and in 2015 pushed the methodology across all our business units. This is the story of how that decision reinvented our organisational model, and how an unwavering commitment from the senior leadership team showed the way.

The Birth of Qrious   

The premise behind Qrious is simple - a world class software company, we help businesses unleash organisational intelligence with advanced analytics. So, Agile is a natural fit - in fast moving environments the software cycle of build, test, release and improve is our baseline.

Then in 2015 we, the Qrious Senior Leadership Team (Qrious SLT), decided to embrace an Agile mind-set right through the business. Many organisations are Agile only in their development methodology - could that be holding them back? How might we reorganise Qrious to reflect agile thinking in all we did? And what role might the SLT play in committing to this and leading the business through change?

The Pros and Cons of “Agile” Organisations

When we looked at other organisations we thought we identified a common flaw. While many businesses embrace Agile, it’s usually in product or software development units. Typically, these units deliver strongly… right up to the point they interact with another business unit. Then things grind to a halt… development slows, capacity goes unused, and Agile gains slip away.

We realised these organisations weren’t really Agile, and were only as strong as their weakest individual units. Identifying this weakness gave us a challenge - pushing Agile out through the entire organisation would be a massive undertaking. Getting the team to embrace this and “get on the bus” was a unique task. Ultimately it also proved to be a great journey for the Qrious SLT.

Agile Pods

We started by breaking up the traditional silos of product, sales, and development, reconstituting people from each into autonomous cross functional teams. These typically consisted of:

  • A Business Development Manager
  • A Product Owner
  • Big Data Engineers
  • Data Scientists

Calling these new units pods, we gave them explicit responsibility for delivering on our business vision, all the way from ideation through to customer delivery. This combination of devolved responsibility and delivery capability created an organisational model that could work at a constant pace right throughout the business. A simple example… developers and product owners no longer paused for customer feedback - dedicated BDMs in each pod guaranteed real-time customer feedback as we built.

Service teams were included in the reorganisation. A Professional Services pod delivered analytics on a consultancy basis, while Shared Service pods owned responsibility for operational services like site reliability engineering and enterprise architecture.

An Agile Senior Leadership Team

The Senior Leadership Team knew we were asking a lot of the business. It’s a truism of corporate life that initiatives need strong top-down support to survive. We needed to show our commitment to Agile as a way of business life, so we redrew our organising model - with the Qrious SLT at the bottom. If we were serious about empowering our people then our new role was to get out of the way, to eliminate the traditional management command and control role and instead become servant leaders, providing support and guidance to our teams. Our goal was to empower our people, remove hierarchy and impediments, and increase our business cadence and speed.

None of this was easy. Honestly, at times it felt uncomfortable. It took a few months for the organisation model to take hold, through the typical change cycle of forming, storming, norming and performing. It took courage and commitment on all sides. Our teams needed to become comfortable with increased responsibility, and we learned to trust our newly empowered teams. But we stuck at it, and gradually the improvements in cadence and innovation we were seeking became apparent.

The Qrious Agile Manifesto

Agile is a process of continuous improvement. By June 2016 we had enough organisational experience to do a major retrospective on our “new” Agile model. We knew the decisions we’d made a year ago were working for the whole business and wanted to double down on this investment to empower our people and teams further.

We decided this was something the Qrious SLT could lead on, and so we created the Qrious #agileSLT Manifesto:

  1. The world we play in is a fast-moving high growth market
  2. Technology is evolving quickly and this pace of change is accelerating
  3. This means our opportunities and customer demands will also evolve rapidly 
  4. We need to outpace our competition and to do this, we need to have an “agile mind-set”

We will:

  • Be relentlessly customer centric
  • Have an empowering and transparent culture
  • Be able to scale with sanity
  • Be nimble and respond quickly to market change

An Agile SLT… a Continuous Improvement

Alongside the manifesto we saw an opportunity for the Qrious SLT to reaffirm their Agile practice commitment. An offsite Agile leadership coaching workshop with Nomad8 followed, and now we do things a little differently as a senior leadership team also.

  • Weekly meetings have become two week sprints, each focused on stories (or business challenges) that help us mature and improve the business performance
  • Fortnightly sprint planning doubles as the opportunity to review our achievements against each story and to track our progress against the business strategy and quarterly horizon goals
  • Monday, Wednesday and Friday our Qrious SLT stand-ups are short 15-minute updates where the team shares progress and help is sought where needed
  • Trello manages our SLT Kanban board and tracks our team sprint achievements and progress
  • At the end of a sprint a retrospective lets us measure and challenge our ways of working to identify improvements we can build into our process and the next sprint

The Big Four Learnings

As a team, we’re still learning - Agile is nothing if not a process of continuous improvement. But we’re in this for the long haul, and our commitment helps inspire the wider Qrious team. Our big four learnings (so far!) are:

1. Lead with a small “a” agile mind-set

Your team will adopt their own Agile practices, at their own pace, learn what works, and adjust as they go. Celebrate this! Remember agile leadership means letting go of top down control (great leaders give up control), instead empowering teams to succeed by themselves. An agile SLT vision builds self-empowered and autonomous teams capable of making their own decisions on their priorities and ways of working. The SLT is liberated from the burden of control, and focuses on strategy, enablement and guidance.

2. Walk the talk… demonstrate your Agile chops

Agile isn’t just for someone else. Lead from the front, be Agile evangelists, visibly demonstrating Agile behaviours to your wider team. Your reward will be increased employee engagement, faster time to market, and significant improvements in business cadence and performance.

3. Make a statement with an #agileSLT Manifesto

A clear purpose and understanding of the “why" has proven more important than simply implementing Agile practices. Our manifesto was a turning point, letting the SLT set out their Agile stall, and locking our beliefs into the new operating model. Defining the “why” has given our teams clear understanding of purpose and significance, and in turn meant better outcomes for our customers and society.

4. You’re on an Agile journey so expect continuous navigation

Not unlike Peter Burling and the team in Bermuda, planning will only get you so far. Then you need to learn and adapt, constantly plotting a revised journey to hit your straps. Not unlike those nimble yachts, you’ll spend a lot of your early journey tacking or jibing to find the rhythm of your business. But stick with it, enjoy the changes in direction, and you’ll ultimately be rewarded with a business racing high on its foils.

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