Andy Sloman: what is an agile business?

Andy Sloman, managing director of our LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor business shares his insight on the benefits of agile business.

The Agile movement originally started in digital businesses with a strong focus on customer experience; think of Spotify and Netflix as great examples. The success of these businesses has led to their cultural and organizational characteristics being studied and adopted by non-IT businesses. This is the path we’ve taken at LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor, where we started using agile in our IT team and then pushed it out across the whole business, bringing huge benefit to us and our patients.

What is agile?

Instead of working on lengthy project or product delivery cycles, working agile means to build and deliver the smallest possible increment of a product and give it to your customers so that they can give you immediate feedback. By working in very short iterations with continual feedback baked-in to the process, working in an agile way becomes an evolutionary journey which relies on high quality conversations between the customer and the supplier.

Within iterations of two to four week cycles you can see incremental progress. At each stage the feedback you receive allows the deliverables to be reviewed or tested which means changes can be prioritized for inclusion in future iterations. This way, valuable business functionality can be delivered to end users much faster, at higher quality and with a much lower risk compared to traditional project delivery methods.

Getting agile right requires not only a change in process, but also a change in mindset. There are very few rules to describe how to run agile projects and what will make them succeed or fail will be the mindset and attitude of the team members towards themselves and their customers.

Six key attributes of agile teams are:

1. Focus on customer value: Agile teams deliver better value and higher quality products and services by relentlessly focusing on the customer. They continually analyse their customer’s behaviours and needs to deliver optimal products and solutions in the most efficient way possible.

2. Working iteratively: Agile teams typically deliver meaningful business value every two to four weeks. By working closely with stakeholders, business demand is continually prioritised to ensure that only the highest value items are fed into each iteration. This reduces waste and ensures that the team stays focused on the customer and on delivering genuine business value.

3. Continuous improvement: Agile teams review their progress and adjust ways of working at the end of every iteration, creating a culture of continuous improvement. Constantly learning from success and failure and optimizing ways of working drives up quality, productivity and ultimately, customer satisfaction.

4. Cross-functional teams: There are no silos in agile teams, instead they are autonomous, cross-functional and wherever possible, co-located. By working together progress is faster, rework is reduced or eliminated and output quality is higher. Managers adapt their role from controller to coach; an agile manager will work with the team to agree what needs to be done and why it is important, but will step back and allow the team to figure out how the work gets done.

5. High quality communication: Agile teams use lightweight processes and documentation. Wasteful stacks of documentation and reports are replaced by high quality conversations between colleagues working together with common purpose.

6. Openness and transparency: Agile teams work in a very open and visible way so that risks, issues and blockers are found and addressed as soon as they arise. Progress is clear and issues and solutions are owned by the whole team, not just the manager.

In business today, the pace of change is increasing and windows of opportunity are opening and closing faster than ever. For existing businesses there are more threats from more unpredictable directions than ever before – take the rise of Uber and Air BnB as recent examples of new market entrants disrupting traditional business models.

Large companies traditionally have trouble in responding quickly enough to these new market dynamics, so it’s no surprise that they are looking for ways they can increase business agility. There is good evidence that large enterprises can adapt and transition to a more agile operating model, but it’s not an easy journey.