Business is full of buzzwords, and among the buzziest of the last few years is ‘agile’.
The traditional project management approach is ‘waterfall’. But, in contrast to the dynamism of the term, the waterfall process can be rigid. After a long period of requirement gathering and planning, the project is developed in a linear way, journeying through multiple phases and silos. A final product is delivered after an often lengthy process, perhaps measured in months or years, but with little opportunity for adaptation once the project has begun.
‘It is difficult to adjust and change anything mid-course, it is very difficult to adapt if customer needs change, for instance,’ notes Carine Simon, senior lecturer in operations research and statistics at MIT Sloan School of Management.
Enter agile – an alternative approach to project management that was crystallised in 2001, when a group of software developers agreed upon the Agile Manifesto. It strives to build in flexibility as customer requirements evolve, and provide more opportunity for managing expectations.
‘It’s taking large, complex problems, breaking them into smaller increments, then prioritising those increments based on relative value. As they’re completing pieces of work, agile teams are soliciting customer and stakeholder feedback, so they can adapt accordingly,’ says Will Poindexter, leader of Bain & Company’s technology and agile innovation practices in the Americas.
Agile works in iterations – or ‘sprints’ – in which teams undertake short, focused bursts of activity – perhaps as little as a day or as long as a month – each resulting in a new version of the product. This ‘minimum viable product’ can be tested and reviewed by the client on a regular basis, and adjustments easily made without wasted work.
The team assigned to a sprint is often called a ‘Scrum team’, led by a product manager or owner and, crucially, it is cross-functional – in contrast to the waterfall approach, in which working sequentially through separate departments can make communication a challenge.
Working in this way, argues Poindexter, not only increases the likelihood of the project’s success by as much as four to six times, it speeds up the process of getting a product to market, and instils more motivation, engagement and satisfaction into team members.
‘There’s much more ownership given to the team, and the fact that it’s cross-functional means that communication and knowledge barriers are broken down,’ says Simon.
To be or not
Over the past five years, agile has moved out of the realms of IT, with partial or even wholesale adoption in fields and functions as diverse as marketing, construction and manufacturing.
Having seen agile working first-hand during her time in the corporate strategy team at Liberty Mutual, Simon believes there are no obvious drawbacks to the approach other than the necessity to get buy-in and train staff. But that does not mean it is for everyone. If a task does not typically see a lot of waste – for example, if work does not need to be repeatedly tested or redone, client feedback is not an important component, or if changes to the deliverable are easily made – then the iterative components of agile might not add much value. Also less prime for such approaches, Simon says, are heavily-regulated areas where the opportunity for rethinking might be stymied by the necessity of baking in non-negotiable elements of compliance.
‘Agile is not a Swiss Army Knife; it should be a tool in your toolbox versus the tool that you apply to every single problem,’ says Poindexter.
He has found it best suited to customer-centric organisations where speed to market is paramount; organisations looking to break out of creeping bureaucracy; or those looking to ‘change-the-business’ functions – such as technology, product development or marketing – rather than ‘run-the-business’ ones, like legal.
But if businesses adopt agile in a partial way without at least fostering an awareness among the wider functions, bottlenecks easily arise. For this reason, during an agile roll-out, Poindexter often works with legal teams to build an understanding of the process and mitigate problems. ‘One example in legal would be: can I create guardrails that we can work within from a legal perspective, and when things start to bump up against those guardrails, that’s where agile teams need to pull someone in from the legal team to advise. It allows them a certain level of autonomy within the guardrails, without having to slow them down so that every time there’s something from a legal standpoint they have to go and look for help.’
To bring people with you in this effort, and sustain your energy in the persistence, you’ve got to be a true believer.
David Oskandy – Avanade
But Simon sees some potential for the full-blooded agile approach in legal teams: ‘If there would be a benefit to having the customer see multiple early versions or drafts of the contract and give feedback, if there’s a lot of interdependencies between different parts of the contract, such as changing one thing at the end cascading to changing multiple parts of the document, then that would be an area where having an iterative agile process might help.’
And some corporate legal teams are seeing for themselves how agile methods can transform service delivery.
At pharma and medical device company B Braun group, the legal team has reorganised into task-based teams, utilising Scrum, digital Kanban boards – charts that help teams to visualise and maintain workflow of tasks – and other collaboration software.
‘Before, each person was responsible for their areas of responsibility and, although there was interaction, everyone was more working individually. Now, we are working more in teams, solving problems together,’ says junior legal counsel Vanessa Weis.
At B Braun, a Scrum team might be composed of staff with knowledge of a topic, and another who is a complete outsider, bringing a level of objectivity to a sprint. ‘This person sometimes has the best ideas. It’s like the saying “You cannot see the wood for the trees”. We have got more open-minded on topics, and share more thoughts, even if it’s not our responsibility,’ Weis adds.
The team’s sprint approach has brought efficiency to the process of problem-solving by concentrating the efforts of the Scrum team into focused sessions – stripped of distractions such as phones or meetings – that might last two or three hours, or even days, depending on the size of the task.
‘We want to solve that problem during these hours or these days, and not work on it for weeks or months, never getting things ready. In the past, someone would start a project and then you would be working in weekly or monthly project meetings,’ says Weis.
Gerd Pleuhs, general counsel (GC) of multinational food company Mondelēz International, has organised his legal team into ‘centres of excellence’, which operate on a global basis. When local issues arise, these teams can quickly organise to collaborate with local business units, providing advice and training without the need for legal resources deployed permanently in each jurisdiction.
‘It creates a trustful relationship with the finance side of the business, because they can see that it is a very efficient way of how you organise yourself and lower the cost of the delivery while improving the quality,’ says Pleuhs.
The Mondelēz legal centres of excellence are grouped around subject areas – marketing, social media, data privacy and corporate governance – and so are not cross-functional in the strictest sense. But Pleuhs has found that the challenge of working flexibly across a full range of geographical jurisdictions exposes team members to cross-curricular problem-solving.
‘If you look at the traditional career development, you’re growing up in a department in your area of expertise over time. Now, with agile teams, what changes dramatically is the scope of work that you’re exposed to,’ he says.
‘It changes the work for the individual involved and it becomes by far more interesting and colourful. You’re building your own career and capabilities and become a more trusted and valued adviser within the company.’
Just add liquid
Technology firm Avanade, a joint venture of Microsoft and Accenture, has applied agile methods since 2011 and claims to employ more Scrum masters than any other organisation in the world. The legal team is no exception, creating what GC David Oskandy calls a ‘liquid workforce’. Team members have specific skills, often in core areas such as commercial and intellectual property law but, by virtue of working in an agile way, many have developed a sub-level of expertise.
If I give my knowledge to an agile working group, I have to be willing to not spend time on stuff that I used to do and rely on my colleagues to help me get those things done. And that’s a learning curve.
Gerd Pleuhs – Mondelēz International
The liquid workforce translates to a team of 60 lawyers operating globally, enabled by a digital platform where team members can request assistance or pick up work, easing communication across time zones. Some proponents of agile, like Poindexter, have found that co-location is important to productivity, but recognise the reality that this is not always feasible given global teams, and that technology such as video conferencing can help bridge the gap. Avanade’s legal team also creates thought-leadership taskforces – to prepare for GDPR, for example.
‘The taskforces are visibly expanding the roles and responsibilities of many, if not most, of our lawyers. They’re building themselves into bigger profiles, both substantively and in terms of leadership,’ says Oskandy. But an organisational style that invites frequent changes of scenery – be it changes of project or jurisdiction – requires a certain flexibility in the mindset of recruits.
‘What we are looking for is people who are more willing to be a generalist than a specialist. You still need the specialists and subject matter experts. But in dealing with the general kind of work that a company of ours has to manage on a daily basis, you want to have people who are curious, want to learn, who want to build a career on making an experience in different parts of the law to become a more rounded lawyer,’ says Pleuhs.
There is no doubt that deciding to implement agile requires broad commitment to make a success of what is, unavoidably, a shock to institutional cultures.
‘To bring people with you in this effort, and sustain your own energy in the persistence, you’ve got to be a true believer,’ says Oskandy.
At this point, many readers may look away, thanks to the wisdom that the legal mindset is not always best adapted to changes of process.
‘In the beginning, I struggled with how much time it took to convince people and how much investment you have to make to convince folks to join you on that journey,’ concedes Pleuhs.
‘If I give my knowledge to an agile working group, I have to be willing to not spend time on stuff that I used to do and rely on my colleagues to help me get those things done. And that’s a learning curve – you have to let the trust build in the system.’
As with other organisational change management projects, a good way to create buy-in can be to do a ‘proof of concept’ – identify suitable teams or functions for a pilot, and then use success to develop advocates who can sell the idea elsewhere.
‘It might be a little meta, but have an agile way of implementing agile, so it’s not all areas of the company at once, it’s iteratively starting where it makes more sense,’ says Simon.
Poindexter strikes a similar note: ‘We have seen some organisations that have tried a “big bang roll-out”, and they are big and flashy and make headlines. But the results really tell a different story.’
Oskandy’s legal team, for example, deployed agile initially in the Nordic region, then extended across the globe following a successful transition.
And being iterative might also mean listening carefully to the experiences of those on the frontline. ‘When we started to use the different agile methods, a lot of people were sceptical. But [B Braun GC] Volker Daum said, “If it’s not working, then that’s also fine.
But let’s try this.” That was a good beginning, because all the time we had the feeling we could say “It’s not good for us, it’s not helping,”’ recalls Weis.
None of this is to argue that the role of the leader should vanish in a fog of self-organisation – although those with top-down, detail-oriented leadership styles might perceive team empowerment as loss of control.
‘We’ve seen a number of agile efforts that have not reached full potential because the leadership didn’t change their behaviours.
It’s important to get the leadership on the same page with the actual team in terms of what they are trying to accomplish,’ says Poindexter.
‘Agile allows leaders to focus on what they should be doing, which is setting strategic direction, freeing up resources to work on the highest priority things, and removing impediments so their teams can be productive.’
Oskandy agrees that the leadership is fundamental in supporting cultural change: ‘The value proposition has got to be right for people to buy into it. You’ve got to have that growth and mindset to encourage people to take steps beyond their core role, which they are very comfortable in. You’re requiring more time from them, more effort, more thought, more bandwidth.’
Avanade works with Scrum.org, founded by software developer and consultant Ken Schwaber – one of the original Agile Manifesto authors – and has access to 2,000 trained Scrum professionals plus 60 agile coaches. It also conducts training on a continuous basis, often with immediate practical application baked into the process.
‘The lead on a taskforce will also be the lead for the agile-based training and it’s a very interactive methodology. They’ll set aside a specific time, ideally in person, and create space for people to go through that process together. The training embeds itself more effectively when you’ve got people engaged not only in learning something substantive, but also how we are going to deploy this,’ says Oskandy.
Simon believes that getting team buy-in for agile methodology outside of the software development sphere might soon be a problem of the past, as new graduates without preconceived project management ideas enter the job market. ‘Then it becomes a much more natural way of doing work. Agile may become the new project management technique that is part of the standard toolbox of graduate students.’
Greg Hall is managing editor of GC
Catherine Wycherley is features writer at GC
The agile manifesto
We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:
1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
2. Working software over comprehensive documentation
3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
4. Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.
© 2001-2019 Agile Manifesto Authors
The liquid workforce: Avanade’s agile method
‘The liquid workforce has allowed us to handle a 26% increase in master service agreements – the basic kind of operating arrangement with our clients – as well as developing new offerings, new alliances and enhancing our ability to keep up with new laws and trends. This last aspect is really important in our space, with greater rigour over data privacy and data protection laws as the legal field catches up to technology.
It has allowed us to lead the company as well. The best example is that we were at the forefront of developing our position on digital ethics. We set up a framework, put together a cross-functional taskforce and we’ve developed a point of view on digital ethics. Thought leadership is a critical component in our company and this is pervasive in the tech industry. Technology changes so very fast. You’ve got to be as swift as those changes to stay ahead of them, and this model encourages our lawyers to do that.
A knock-on effect of the liquid workforce is that we’re more readily leveraging offshore resources, contractors, interns and bots. That set of resources for lower-risk work has enabled us to purify our time and maximise our focus on the highest risk and highest potential.
The liquid workforce makes us congruent with the day-to-day culture of the business. Because we understand and operate with agile as a legal team, we speak the same language and have the same muscle memory as the business, which is important in keeping up with them and maintaining credibility with them. We’re well integrated with the business team, we’ve got a bigger voice, and this allows us to participate in developing strategy, which is a bigger role than simply acting as the problem solver or the risk manager.
The feedback that I’ve gotten back from the CEO and the rest of the business is “highly efficient” and “productive”. They recognise we have transformed ourselves into the highest value-add team we possibly could create.’