Belinda Waldock is an agile business coach and a professionally qualified Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) coach and mentor. She has drawn on her experience coaching and mentoring organisations in the implementation of agile approaches inside and outside of information technology and written the book “Being Agile in Business: discover faster, smarter, leaner ways to work”.
The book presents ideas and techniques to create an agile culture and apply agile thinking to many aspects of running an organisation.
Belinda emphasizes the importance of collaboration, communication, leadership and teamwork needed to achieve agility irrespective of the technical domain or business area.
She has made an infographic which lists 30 ways that being agile can benefit a business.
Belinda recently spoke to InfoQ about the book.
InfoQ: Please tell us a bit about yourself?
Belinda Waldock: I live and work in Cornwall in the UK as an agile business coach, I help businesses to work as a team and find opportunities for growth and improvement using agile and lean methods and thinking. I’m a co-organiser of Agile on the Beach an annual conference held in Cornwall where 350 agile thinkers gather to discuss agile within and beyond software. I also lead Software Cornwall which is a not for profit community with a mission to support the growth of software businesses and careers.
I was introduced to agile as a method for software development while working on a business growth programme providing expert coaching and training to local businesses to support the growth of their businesses and development teams.
InfoQ: Why did you write this book – what is the problem you’re helping people solve?
Belinda: I work with businesses that supply software, and also with businesses investing in and using software to help their businesses to grow. As I began to understand the agile and lean cultures that had been developed within the tech industry it was very apparent to me that any business could benefit from this way of working as an effective approach in environments of change and innovation. This led to the development of the business agility model which is what forms the essence of the book.
InfoQ: Who is the book for – who will it help?
Belinda: Much of my work has been in introducing and helping others to understand and adapt an agile way of working, because it comes from the tech industry most books on the topic are focused on the use of agile and lean specifically in the tech industry and specifically large enterprise scale organisations. When Pearson invited me to write a non – technical book on agile I jumped at the chance to translate and interpret agile for any business professional. The book is aimed to be an introduction to agile thinking and methods that any business professional could understand and adopt simply.
InfoQ: You make the point that the ideas from agile software development can be applied in other areas of a business – how can that be, surely these are highly technical techniques only applicable in the technical domain?
Belinda: Agile by name, agile by nature. The values, concepts, approaches, methods and tools used in agile are highly adaptable. Agile is more than just a set of tools and methods, it’s a way of working and a set of values. Agile enables teams and organisations to rekindle the behaviours of an innovative start up business, where the norms and rules can be challenged in order to seek out improvements and disruptive innovations that enable a business to gain competitive advantage.
When surveying the software businesses I was working the benefits they were reporting from adopting agile were, a more flexible approach, improved workflow and responsiveness, team cohesion, efficiency, customer satisfaction as well as other benefits such as faster time to market, increased turnover and profitability and an overall improved morale across the business. All of these things aren’t just things that software development teams aspire to, all businesses would like to be more positive, productive and effective, more agile!
From morning stand ups and agile dashboards to minimum viable products and test driven development approaches, most of the key concepts and tools are adaptable for use in any business, and more broadly in life! Agile is a mind-set that is supported by a set of tools and methods that help to reach and maintain a state of agility.
InfoQ: What business domains can these ideas be useful in, and are there some where they are not applicable?
Belinda: It’s been a really interesting journey introducing agile to such a variety of businesses, my conclusion is wherever there is a team working on a shared goal, agile can be useful to bring the team together and help to navigate their route. I would say that where there is change and uncertainty that agile is applicable, todays’ global business economy there are few areas that escape having to respond to change and continuously improve in order to sustain their businesses and competitive advantage.
InfoQ: How does being agile help people “anticipate change and navigate uncertainty”?
Belinda: Agile helps to see trends and patterns to our work and our environment so we can begin to understand the rhythm and flow and be able to anticipate what may happen in the future. A lot of the pain that goes with change and uncertainty can be addressed in a team using agile by helping to communicate and share information and insights.
There are some things we cannot anticipate but using agile we can build in slack to plan for these uncertainties. We can ensure we have the time and resource to be able to respond to these rather than ignore them, over stretch resources to deal with them, or forfeit other work in its place.
Agile is an approach that expects change and builds it into the plan, raising awareness and understanding to reduce levels of uncertainty.
InfoQ: You have a section in the book on “Agile Thinking” – what is the essence of this thought process why is this so important?
Belinda: There is a distinction between ‘doing agile’ and ‘being agile’, and to make the most of ‘doing agile’ you have to think in an agile way too. Agile thinkers embrace change and use agile as a tool to identify and seek out continuous improvement.
Agile as a way of working is a learning driven approach, an agile thinker accepts that a plan is a starting point and a way forward, and to achieve the best working solution we need to be ‘agile’ to adapt and evolve the solution as we go. An agile thinker takes time to reflect regularly and identify change, they actively listen and interact. To think in an agile way in business becomes more vital as the rate of change increases in business and it agility effects its ability to maintain competitive advantages.
InfoQ: You put a lot of emphasis on identifying, expressing and clarifying goals – why is this so important, surely most people are comfortable being told what to do without having to understand the goals?
Belinda: A traditional top down organisation generally uses a directive approach to getting work done, assuming the solutions defined by those who have defined the goals know the best solution, a rigid scope is produced and teams build it.
When teams are controlled in this way, without feedback the opportunity for learning is limited, if we have no idea of the goals how can a team know how to improve and even reach the goal.
An agile leader works with their teams to establish goals and then trust them to use their talent and skills to reach that goal. By facilitating a state of shared understanding and purpose, teams are given ownership and accountability, and empowered to work collectively to reach those goals. An organisation that is agile looks to support their teams and provide them with the knowledge, skills and resources to be able to deliver the value aligned with the defined goals of that organisation.
InfoQ: You contrast a value driven approach with a constraint (Cost/Time/Scope) approach to delivering projects – how can this be applied in businesses where the constraints need to be identified in detail before funding can be approved?
Belinda: The cost and time used to develop features are directly linked to the value they create, return on investment. An agile approach aims to deliver a working solution as early in the project as viable, which means that before the project is completed it is already creating value that could then be invested into developing that solution further.
This approach questions the validity of trying to define a fixed term project, because if successful the project in theory will run indefinitely. Using this thinking we move from a state of fixed term projects, to a state of continuous development and improvement. It’s not to say boundaries and constraints aren’t in place, more that those boundaries are able to flex to take into account the performance of that work and adjust accordingly.
InfoQ: How can people identify the MVP for an initiative such as a business process change?
Belinda: Firstly we need to establish why the need for a business process change, what’s driving that change and what goal would we like to achieve. Once we know why we are changing the process we can observe the current process and establish areas of concern related to the improvement we want to achieve. We can establish what the minimum viable change might be, we could implement the change in a minimum viable way, or we could look for the minimum viable process to scale back an existing process.
If it is a change to an existing process we can use the concept of MVP (minimum viable proposition) to look for small changes and improvements we can make quickly that will viably improve the process and help establish further improvements. What are the Minimum Viable Changes that can be made in order to improve this business process? This is a good option for when we are looking for quick and easily implementable solutions to free up time and resource to implement greater changes in the future.
If we were looking to add a new business process or replace an existing process then we can use the concept of MVP to test out that process and then implement the change in a series of small incremental improvements building upon that MVP until it is fully implemented.
If we wanted to look for the minimum viable process, then we could use the pareto principle to identify the 20% of the process that creates 80% of the value and scale back the process to optimise this value and streamline and optimise the process.
InfoQ: What are some of the important “soft-skills” that people need to acquire or nurture to effectively adopt this approach to working?
Belinda: One of the reasons I love agile is because it naturally supports the development of key personal skills such as raising self-awareness and awareness of how a person fits within a team. As well as help to support the growth of our intellectual and logical intelligence, agile helps to develop emotional and social intelligence skills too that benefit the individual, teams and organisation as a whole.
Agile encourages an open culture of continuous learning and development in a positive way. It’s a solution focused and collaborative approach that helps to facilitate communications and relationships. Agile encourages collaboration over competition in that it provides a channel that allows everyone to have a voice and to be heard, as it encourages its users to be active listeners – the ability to silence your inner voice and listen and focused completely on what another is saying.
InfoQ: What are some of the important management changes needed to allow this way of working, and how do managers encourage people to take on these approaches?
Belinda: If a business is going to allow an agile way of working within their organisation then management must be open to the changes that is likely to bring to the structure and the current way of working. I introduce agile to leaders and managers with a warning that they must be open and willing to change in order for the act of ‘doing agile’ to lead to ‘being agile’. Leaders must literally listen to the writing on the wall, agile will reveal the challenges faced by the business, the blocks and barriers, where what is written in policy doesn’t actually materialise in practice. If the management team of a business cannot embrace what agile is telling them and change, then the point of ‘doing agile’ becomes lost.
InfoQ: What are the some metrics that should be used to measure success in the new way of working and what metrics should managers let go?
Belinda: Businesses, especially start ups love vanity metrics, the kind of numbers that look great, they paint a great picture and tell the stakeholders what they want to hear. They tell us what is going well, but what they don’t tell us is what is going wrong and where we can improve, they are ego metrics rather than performance metrics. My favourite metric at the moment is the Amazon sales rank, the graph looks great when you look at it, but the reality is it paints a picture that encourages assumptions to be made. I have no real idea what it actually means because the algorithm is secret and so I cannot understand it, so it provides no valid measurement that I can learn from and use to improve my ranking further.
Sanity metrics are metrics that help us to understand what is going well, and also how we can do better, where we can improve performance, and leverage our ability to create value further. They help us to see where we are gaining momentum and traction towards our goals, and areas of friction that are holding us back.
As an organisation we need to focus on metrics that help us to improve, that tell us what we need to know, that inform our decisions and raise awareness of the impact our work is having, and let go of the metrics that provide no real tangible information about how we can improve. Ensure your organisation values sanity metrics over vanity metrics!