Agile IT - Without a Mess!

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Key to success in the digital age is an IT function that is able to respond quickly to changing customer needs. 

By Orsolya Sekerka, Chief IT Officer, Digi Telecommunications 

Like most established companies, we have for many years focused on the core tenets of reliability, predictability, interoperability, security, and cost containment in delivering on our IT mission – “doing IT right”. In recent years we have also faced demands from the market and from customers for greater speed and agility, adding to the challenge of doing things right – “doing IT fast.” When I became CIO earlier this year, it was clear that we could not continue to operate IT in a traditional manner and remain competitive.

Of course, you can’t transform an entire IT organization overnight. Furthermore, there remain aspects of our business that continue to be well-served by a more deliberate approach, areas like billing and invoicing where reliability is the most important factor.

Companies are taking a number of different approaches to meet these new business demands for faster, more flexible system delivery while avoiding undue risks – basically, becoming more agile without making a mess of it. Some appoint a chief digital officer to oversee a team completely outside the purview of IT. Some CIOs start their own segregated agile teams.

At Digi, we have an ambition to create an IT organization that can balance both an agile and traditional IT framework. Gartner calls this “bimodal IT”—the practice of managing two separate, coherent modes of IT delivery, one focused on stability and the other on agility.  McKinsey calls it two-speed IT: “a fast-speed, customer-centric front end running alongside a slow-speed, transaction-focused legacy back end.”

Whatever label you want to put on it, we embarked on a plan to incorporate agile capabilities with much shorter cycles in order to deliver certain customer-facing systems, while at the same time maintaining our traditional IT competencies. Along the way, we have learned a few useful lessons.

Marketing Two-Speed IT

The first and most important step was to communicate with our team what we were trying to do. We explained that it would be impossible for us to support our near-term business goals by continuing to operate the way we always had, no matter how successful we were in the past.

We identified the competencies we would need and individuals within the organization who possessed them. It is very important to have internal buy-in and identify existing team leaders who can be ambassadors for change.

At the same time, it was equally important to inject some new blood into the team. We sought talent from outside the company who were a natural fit for the agile environment and would complement our existing team.

As for the organization, we didn’t change a thing. Reporting structure s and titles remained the same. We simply began assigning our agile-minded team members to dedicated project teams.

Even with this careful preparation and explanation, we had our fair share of challenges. The bimodal model occasionally brought about differing perspectives among teams. However, I believe our decision to have the two teams work together, rather than splitting the function, has made us more efficient. It can only work, though, if it is clear that both are equally valuable and have a part to play as complements to one another.

Embracing the Unknown

We started with a project that was well-suited to trying out an agile approach: the makeover of our online channel and mobile application. Being able to try out a lot of things to see what worked best for our customers was important to us. The risk presented by this project was manageable, because this is an area where customers are comfortable with change. Customers may get upset if there’s a problem with billing, but they are typically more tolerant with adjustments to a web site or mobile application, as long as they are seeing periodic improvements through, for example, the introduction of innovative new features or offers.

In addition, although this was a mega project, it comprised a lot of smaller deliverables and milestones. Moving to an agile development model enabled us not only to make successive changes to the systems, but also to fine-tune our approach to two-speed IT. We gained significant knowledge and experience on resource requirements, internal communication, and stakeholder engagement that we are now able to apply to other similar projects.

A traditional IT project is very straightforward. You establish requirements and milestones and follow up afterward to make sure they are achieved. With this project, we only need to identify our high level ambition, with the understanding that even the goal might change over the course of development. It wasn’t clear what the exact scope and milestones would be, and we planned in terms of overall investment, not a detailed cost breakdown, making adjustments along the way. This approach requires much more management attention and supervision to ensure the project progresses well and to monitor the impact on the rest of the organization.

Indeed, one of our learnings has been that, although we did a good job preparing the project team, as I described above, we did less well preparing other parts of the organization. For example, we understood that milestones might change along the way, based on customer needs. But this type of planning process were relatively new to Finance and other stakeholders.

There are days when the agile approach continues to deliver some surprises to others in the organization. But it encourages us to foster deeper discussions with teams on what we are trying to achieve, how we are managing the risks of two-speed IT, and what we are accomplishing.

One of the key success factors for me has been working hand in hand with our CMO on our agile projects and making sure Marketing and IT collaborate well. Everyone needs to understand the new agile approach and the business needs that we’re trying to meet. Just two years ago, the two teams operated in isolation. Marketing had a requirement and threw it over the wall to IT. When you’re incorporating faster, flexible IT development, it’s critical that IT and the business are 100 percent aligned. IT brings an understanding of what is possible and how to best deliver it, while Marketing brings an understanding of what customers need. In an ideal situation, there’s a healthy day-to-day discussion about what to do next. Of course, that’s not easy to do every day, but that’s the goal.

Agile IT, Agile Leadership

Another thing we’ve learned is that the agile model is something more than a different IT development methodology. It requires different skills and competencies, different decision-making processes, different ways of communicating with both our business partners and our external customers, even a different management style.

For example, there were some areas where we underestimated our resource requirements, so we had to expand. You just have to be conscious of the changing conditions and be ready to take a different course.

Ultimately, this is a journey with a fairly clear destination but with an uncertain route. You can try to prepare for it, read articles about the model, and engage consultants, but ultimately the only way to do it well is to get started and course-correct over time. Just as agile development demands continual adjustment, so does incorporating high-speed development into the traditional IT organization and into the enterprise as a whole.

If you think you know all the answers up front, you’re doing it wrong. You can’t pre-define this transformation. You have to be an agile leader to make it work.


Digitalization and the Need for Women IT Leaders

Most people these days appreciate the benefits of diversity. People of different backgrounds, ages, experience, or gender bring a variety of perspectives to a problem that is likely to result in more innovative solutions than the point of view of a homogeneous group.

But beyond the general benefits of diversity are some specific reasons that I believe we need more women in IT leadership roles now.

Let me say first that I’ve never encountered any hindrances in IT because I am a woman. I was very often the youngest member—and the only female—in an all-male team.  I also had no technical background when I started working. I was an economist, with a MSc. in Business Administration. But I ended up spending 18 years of my career in IT project and change management. During this time, I’ve never felt at a disadvantage because I don’t have a technical background.

In fact, I found the most important asset for a career in technology is the ability to change. And the most important competency as an IT leader is the ability to lead a team through change. As we move through this era of digital transformation, a period marked by fast change and the need to constantly adapt, that flexibility and agility is even more important.

Generalizations are risky. But I would say that while men are often better at engineering and long-term planning, women are often better at understanding business needs and adapting to change. These characteristics are complementary within an organization. But as digitalization accelerates the rate of technology and business change, the ability to adapt to change – to lead a team through change – will be especially valuable.

Consequently, I regularly encourage women to seize leadership opportunities emerging from the era of digital transformation.

 

The Takeaways 
To succeed in your career, you have to take a DIY – do-it-yourself – approach. You can’t rely on a company or a boss or a mentor to develop your career. You have to take the initiative.
Reaching your career goals requires taking some calculated risks, both in deciding to make the move to a new company and in establishing your position within an organization.
At some point in your career, it becomes less about you and more about the positive difference you can make, in the lives of customers and the young talent coming up behind you.
Things change so fast in IT that, more than in many industries, you need to constantly be learning and updating your skills. And that’s what makes this field so exciting.