Agility: A Condition of Sustainability for the Company

Face to transformations and disruptions of all kinds, agility is becoming a condition for survival.

Faced with technological, societal, and geopolitical disruptions, agile transformation is a survival lever for companies. Even if teams often aspire to work in an agile mode, one should not underestimate the depth of the change nor the time needed to acculturate the entire decision chain.

How does agility serve the ambitions of the digital enterprise?

Personally, I don't think it makes sense to talk about a digital company anymore. Digital is at the heart of all transformations. People are becoming increasingly connected and interact daily via the internet; and also participate in social interactions. The younger generations are digital natives — as are start-ups. Successful companies, born before the 1990s, have integrated digital into their strategy. So I would say that agility serves the strategy of any company concerned about its future. It has become crucial for two reasons:

  • The acceleration of new technologies, which develop in parallel or reinforce each other, opens up unsuspected fields of innovation: artificial intelligence, hyper-connectivity, augmented reality, virtual reality.
  • The world we live in is becoming less predictable.

In the face of transformations and disruptions of all kinds, agility is becoming a condition for survival. It is, above all, the ability to adapt as quickly as possible to the reality on the ground and to the reactions of its environment: its customers, its competitors, the industry, etc.

What does agility bring to a transformation towards digital?

Digital transformation is not just a technical issue. The implementation of technological innovations transforms the organization and the culture of a company in depth. Internet giants are not only technology companies, they are distinguished above all by their ability to adapt to unpredictability and by their agility at all levels: infrastructure, speed of reaction, way of developing solutions, modes of collaboration between business and technology, and strategic approach. They will seek value in very short timeframes and test solution hypotheses in the real world. The 2000's model of project design and deployment over 3 years is over. The agile company defines the vision of a project. A few weeks later, it is already testing functionalities and using simple techniques to get quick feedback from customers and ensure that the solution meets a real need.

How does agility serve the challenges of a technical department committed to innovation?

Agility allows to align a technical strategy with a business strategy as the technical teams work closely with the marketing and sales teams during the development phase. Thus, the technical department, often perceived as a cost center, is transformed into a business and profit development center. It then becomes the heart of the reactor of many companies. This evolution contributes not only to the achievement of the company's business challenges, but also to the production of innovations to the satisfaction of existing employees and to the attraction of new talents. By breaking down the silos between business and technology, agility allows professions — who did not speak to each other to discuss in an open and transparent way — to better understand each other's constraints and to develop innovative and rewarding solutions together.

How to deploy innovation and at what scale?

We must not underestimate the profound change that an evolution towards agility represents. Even if employees want to work in an agile mode, it takes a long time to get used to it. Roles change as do working practices: the way to collaborate, to get customer feedback, or to make decisions.

In order to succeed, one must start small:

  • Mobilize a small agile team (5 to 10 people) on a real project that meets a real business challenge; purely methodological experiments are useless.
  • Make sure that the team includes IT and business employees. If business is not involved from start to finish, the development will be iterative and will not bring the expected benefits: a reduction in the time between the idea of a solution and its delivery to the customer.
  • Designate a sponsor within the management team to integrate the entire company's chain of command and decision making from the start of the project.
  • Ensure that agile methods and techniques are used by relying on an agile coach.

Then we will scale up, mobilizing hundreds of people on larger programs.

Scaling up should eventually lead to strategic agility, a real revolution in large group. I believe that the time of the detailed 5-year strategic plan is over. We need to keep a 5-year strategy and vision and, in the light of agility feedback, update it every year; every six months; or even every quarter.

How does agility impact the different businesses of a technical department?

Technical management jobs were well siloed within different departments: architecture, design, development, testing, deployment, and operations. Each job had a specific role. The transition points between departments were very formal, with milestones to be respected and little or no exchange. Agility breaks this model. Some roles disappear; others appear. While the skills remain, the way people do their jobs changes fundamentally.

What does agility bring to employees?

Our internal surveys are unanimous: more than 90% of employees working in agile mode want to keep going. Indeed, agility — which brings execution closer to strategy — gives meaning to their work. They understand better what they do and why they do it. They are not there just to produce lines of code, but to deliver a noble, inspiring, and different solution. They have a global and faster vision of the value they bring. They become actors, through direct collaboration which, within a well-defined framework, gives each employee and the team autonomy, decision-making power over short cycles, and the possibility of looking beyond their job.

What are the best practices to implement in order to drive change and get teams on board?

Changing deeply rooted work practices is a difficult and long road. Training is important, but it is not enough. I am a great believer in the practice of coaches who help teams on real projects carried out from start to finish with methods, techniques, observation, and reorientation.

It is essential to involve the entire decision-making chain of the company. Agility profoundly changes the role of managers and leaders who must integrate change. If strategy, vision and major orientations remain in the hands of leaders, operational decisions no longer come from the hierarchy. They emanate from the collective intelligence of the execution teams whose role is to implement the strategy in direct contact with the customer according to his feedback.

Finally, it is necessary to provide support over time until the teams have integrated the new behaviors, embodied them, become autonomous, and are part of a continuous improvement process — which is the ultimate challenge of agility.


Koen Vermeulen

Senior VP Orange Innovation IT & Services, Group CIO