Fail fast, iterate faster: To survive, IT leaders push agile businesswide
How do you convince business stakeholders to adopt agile? Ask, "do you want to be relevant tomorrow or not?"
Organizations are under pressure to move fast and develop quickly to keep up with competitors. But this means companies have to change longstanding processes, disrupting operations across lines of business.
Some companies look for reprieve from the fast-paced model of agile development with iterative releases. Bimodal development accommodates "planning and predictable change" along with "experimental and disruptive change." Through bimodal, those groups lagging in an organization have permission to move at a slower pace.
A slow rate of change, however, only works for a limited time. An iterative approach to technology engineering and deployment, agile technology changes are released in pieces instead of all at once. So a new software update might only include changes to a few lines of code, rather than a brand new version.
Agile is "pretty much a business imperative, isn't it? I mean, you want to get to market, you want speed to market, you want to drive innovation throughout your organization and it's moved from just being a technology thing to something that needs to be a part of your DNA," said Gail Evans, global CIO of Mercer, speaking in May at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in Cambridge, Mass.
Agile is not only the way companies build and deploy technology, it's the way they should think, said Evans. Agile will give people permission to think and behave differently, not bound by strict corporate structures. That, in turn, can spur innovation.
Though widely touted as best-practice, agile adoption is relatively immature and deployment at scale across the enterprise is "still a dream for many," according to a 2017 survey from Forrester. To facilitate agile transformation, companies need executive leadership buy-in or transformation efforts will remain siloed.
"If the mindset of the consumers and masses is changing so much, I think it's going to be impossible for monolithic organizations to exist in the future."
Global CIO and head of digital for Bharti Airtel Limited
But convincing risk averse companies to move, deploy and iterate in short cycles — as opposed to releases every six months — is a big ask.
How do you persuade business stakeholders, asked Harmeen Mehta, global CIO and head of digital for Bharti Airtel Limited, speaking at the symposium. "You ask them the question, 'do you want to be relevant tomorrow or not?'"
Mehta fundamentally believes businesses won't survive without a quick delivery model because it's what consumers demand. Before Uber came along, no one was asking more of local minicab companies, for example. But once the traditional model was disrupted, change was demanded industrywide.
"If the mindset of the consumers and masses is changing so much, I think it's going to be impossible for monolithic organizations to exist in the future," Mehta said.
Failure is the only way to learn
When companies are small, it is easy to maintain a rapid pace of innovation, but technology and business leaders have to help maintain that momentum as an organization grows.
Command and control is hard to maintain at larger organizations, according to Steve Kokinos, co-founder and executive chairman of Fuze, speaking at the symposium.
Companies need to give "people a safe place to fail fast and iterate quick," he said. "Just keep trying new things."
Through fail fast — or in Mercer's case, "learn fast" — technologists are encouraged to try new things and iterate until the right answer to a problem is discovered.
"I think it is very important to fail," said Mehta. Through successes, "you only learn one way, which is the way you tried."
"As leaders, we need to be calm and believe that the end product, that minimal viable product, will be delivered."
Global CIO of Mercer
Companies don't have the luxury to invest thousands of dollars in constant failures, so by failing fast without huge investments organizations can quickly move on.
Iterative failure, however, is not standard operating procedure for most businesses. To get other business leaders to embrace agile, technology leaders cannot waiver in their confidence in a project.
"As leaders, we need to be calm and believe that the end product, that minimal viable product, will be delivered," Evans said. "Because if you don't show that, your teams will notice your lack of confidence in your change."
That's not to say the fast pace of innovation was easy at Mercer. "We've bitten off more than we can chew," Evans said. "We went to the cloud, built a PaaS platform and a big data platform in 12 months. That was hard."
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