Agile Is Not Enough

By addressing architectural rigidity, closing talent gaps, and adopting a product mindset, leaders can realize agile’s power.

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Agility is critical for companies trying to keep up with customer expectations and emerging business trends. By adopting an agile approach, software development teams can create new products and services rapidly, transform processes, and even help reinvent the organization. But agile teams can stumble as they interact with and depend on others, so it becomes a matter of anticipating and mitigating these choke points in the organization.

Consider a credit card company that wants to update its mobile app so customers can easily check and redeem their reward points. The company creates an agile team of developers, designers, and an initiative owner who understands customer behavior and can make decisions about focus and priorities. This team updates the app in a few weeks, but it takes months for another part of the organization to provide the data feeds from the rewards system, and longer still for another part to integrate these changes into the app, delaying the rollout of the new functionality.

Customers like the new feature, but now they also want to see recent points activity when they log in. The members of the original agile team have moved on, and since everyone is busy, it takes a few months to pull together a new team. This team makes the changes but overlooks a defect that causes the update to fail vulnerability testing. Once fixed, the operations team refuses to release the code to customers without more thorough testing. Disagreements between the development and operations teams about the extent of that testing further delay the new update.

This kind of story is all too common for many companies, even those with a strong technological focus. Several years ago, this was the case at Target. The company suffered from significant technical debt built up from years and years of growth. Critical parts of the business were supported by monolithic architecture that limited how rapidly it could innovate and introduce change. This growth also meant a rapid increase in demand for technology resources — demand that Target met by significantly augmenting its staff with third-party contractors.

The obstacles that Target and other organizations have encountered in their transformation narratives lead us to an important lesson: Agile is powerful, but it is not enough. To have a truly effective digital organization, companies have to

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Comments (10)
Anonymous
I applaud the author's perspective on agile.  I would simply add that agile inevitably is more effective when all employees are treated as trusted partners, and they have a clear common goal.  
Jason WANG
As of the talent management in IT, it is clearly essential to move the digital/technical team closer to the business, while meantime to move the business team closer to be more digital/technical. If we can find a way to move both team toward each other, then we are creating an environment to enable digital transformation of the organization. 

And the question then will be: what would be the nest way an organization shall be doing this: move digital team? move business team? or hire someone with the desired capability from outside?
George Giles
This is actually a pretty pedantic explanation of the obvious, but when it comes from 'thought leaders' at a famous institution it gains a great traction with executive management that a senior engineer with 35 years experience does not have.

If you want to know what is going wrong with doctors talk to nurses.

If you want to know what is going wrong in IT ask your own engineers with decades of experience.

Sadly we live in an age where telling the truth at work may get you fired. So instead it all gets couched in the must recent buzzword soup that is usually qualified with weasel words.

Sorry boys, I call it like I see it.
Hadi Taheri
Talent is at the core of the digital technology operating model, and Agile is powerful, but it is not enough(QC)  and who has accountability(FeedBack) when things go wrong(UCL and LCL ).
Steve E
I agree that this article is a good read, especially in highlighting that Agile methods applied to isolated projects or with short-term goals will not get optimal results.  My reaction to the contractor comments are similar to those above.  I have seen where employees and contractors are indistinguishable from an ownership/accountability and innovation standpoint.  A good partner that brings good people to your company will deliver exceptional results.  Job performance is no longer related to some loyalty to an employer. We are much more savvy now.  Loyalty and job performance are "earned every day" through meaningful work, clear goals, mutual benefits and supportive leadership.

In my experience, the root of problems with Contractors come in three styles:
1.  Poor definition of what is expected of the contractor/supplier - a transaction based contract will optimize to the minimum viable service level.  This is only OK if you don't value the service provided (e.g., paper delivery for copiers).
2.  Purchasing terms and pricing carrying too much weight in decision making - going for the low-cost provider can easily lead to cutting corners on ownership, quality and innovation.  If you can't figure out how the price is so good, be wary.
3.  Fragmented Supplier/Contractor Landscape - using more than a few suppliers as interchangeable "cogs" in your machine creates a lot of churn in personnel, accountability and creates extra burden on the supervising employee, as the article states.  If you put a bunch of different, competing suppliers on your project without a rock-solid delivery structure, then YOU are the "zookeeper" and all of the hand-offs and churn are yours to manage.

Success comes with suppliers in the same way that it comes form employees.  Leaders must create a trust-based, goal oriented relationship where performance is rewarded and mutual growth, innovation and learning together are valued.

*Full disclosure -- I am a contractor that has worked for the same handful of companies for more than 20 years in mostly "badge-less" environments.  We strive for at least as much ownership and value as our client counterparts.
Patrick Foster
Hi Scott, I thought I recognized your name, we worked for the same company in 2009-2013.

On your comment above I think the difference is, this article is talking about out sourcing as a body shop activity rather than a true partnership, if you chose your partners right then you do indeed both grow from the positive experience.
Scott Varho
While I wholeheartedly agree with much of what’s written here, there's one argument that misses the mark based on my experience leading digital product delivery teams at product and services companies.  The argument is that those who rely on external vendors are worse for it in the long run.  This can be true if you don't know what to look for in a partner.  For many of our clients, working with 3Pillar isn't causing technology and process atrophy, in fact, it's the opposite. We are agitating for modern practices, architectures, and techniques. There are numerous instances where working with an external partner that is committed to the craft of building great products with enduring value can be a great way to invest in your in-house teams and modernization through the process of building together.  This is a benefit that yields compound interest and goes beyond the code or design assets delivered.  This blog post delves further into why this argument is incomplete: https://www.3pillarglobal.com/insights/why-external-partners-can-be-the-best-path-to-business-agility-and-technology-modernization
Elizabeth Hamblin
Carol Ibach, you can share the article URL [ https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/agile-is-not-enough/ ] if you'd like — blog posts are freely available and you don't need to purchase a reprint.
Carol Ibach
How can I share or get reprint
John Morrison
A finely written treatise on the benefits and not so obvious shortcomings of Agile.  Thank you Will and Steve.