Agile at scale: Lessons from the frontline at News Corp, CBA and Australia Post

Enterprise Panel Newscorp, CBA, Aus Post - AA15

Leveraging the benefits of Agile requires a corporate rethink, writes Beverley Head.

It’s hard to imagine a more digitally disrupted trifecta of Australian businesses than News Corp, Commonwealth Bank and Australia Post. All have seen internet enabled start-ups encroach on their territory, and all are turning to Agile to provide a means to respond rapidly and effectively.

At Agile Australia 2015, executives from each of these organisations participated in a panel session helmed by Agile coach Lachlan Heasman to explore the challenges associated with bringing Agile to the enterprise.

Not so long ago, Agile practitioners were considered enterprise Australia’s fringe dwellers; techno-geeks who would slyly cover office partitions with Post-It notes as they learned the lingo of the scrum.

Today Agile is out and proud, and its capabilities are rapidly percolating beyond the IT department as enterprises grapple with digital disruption and the need to respond rapidly to morphing market conditions.

Leveraging the full impact of the Agile approach, however, requires a commitment to update corporate cultures, flatten hierarchies, rethink budgets and KPIs, and blow up a few sacred cows along the way.

Pete Steel, then Commonwealth Bank’s retail CIO, who has since taken on the bank’s lead digital role, explained at Agile Australia 15 that the bank now had 1,000 people working on 144 Agile projects, noting that the approach had been a “massive success” but was not without speedbumps and stormy waters.

It took management foresight, he said, to accept that Agile mandated a “change in the way you work, the rhythm, the disempowerment of senior leaders who think they know best and instead making the decisions where they are made best, on the floor in the scrum.”

While CBA’s Agile engagement began in technology and particularly in customer-facing innovation, he said that some senior bank executives had now begun to adopt Agile practices to nut out bank strategy objectives. “It’s really interesting to see that sort of engagement – refreshing to see it creeping out beyond software development,” he said. It also signals the impact Agile can have on corporate culture.

And culture is crucial according to Australia Post’s Cameron Gough, general manager of the organisation’s digital delivery centre.

After using Agile techniques to rapidly roll out a post office locator app, Gough said he paused to analyse the value that had been delivered to consumers and the enterprise at large. It delivered, he says, an “aha! moment” when he realised that to fully leverage the value of Agile, Post had to step back from just “doing Agile” to instead creating a culture in which Agile could flourish across the enterprise.

Establishing an Agile-friendly culture was also increasingly essential, he acknowledged, in terms of being able to attract and retain skills.

Getting the right culture, he said, also meant taking a fresh look at funding models, moving to a continuous rather than staccato budgeting approach; securing organisational support for experimental methodologies; and focussing on creating value for the enterprise rather than just getting product out the door.

Like CBA, Post has developed a significant Agile capability. Having originally had 40 to 50 Agile specialists working in the technology group, Gough said that Post now had “around 250 working in 15 Agile teams across three tribes.”

To help with the transition to an Agile enterprise culture, Post has deployed the SAFe framework which Gough said gave a degree of structure to the process that was helpful in that; “It’s a sort of mediation layer into the organisation. But it equally gives us a lot of space for the teams to evolve.”

Alisa Bowen, group director of digital product and development at News Corp said that the company was; “very very early into the stage of making the entire organisation Agile, and all organisations would say they aspire to be more nimble and able to learn more quickly.” But she acknowledged that was “incredibly hard to do.”

One of the approaches she said had proved valuable was to strip away some of Agile’s specialist language and replace it with enterprise-friendly terms. “The first piece of advice I got was if you want this to work in the enterprise then avoid the fundamentalists.”

Bowen said News Corp had focused on; “the spirit of the principles, on the learning outcomes, breaking down large monolithic projects. We talk about milestones and phases rather than sprints, because as soon as you start talking about that people think it’s just for the technologists.”

She added that part of the rationale for implementing Agile processes was to attempt to break through the bureaucracy and layers in a large organisation such as News Corp, delivering teams with more flexibility, autonomy and empowerment to get closer to the customer.

Bowen said that there were still funding challenges. “The process of acquiring funding is still a bit of the tail wagging a dog. But the bigger challenge for us has been stakeholder management in the wider organisation.”

She said that it was important that the broader enterprise appreciated and got comfortable with the “ambiguity” that can accompany Agile projects and instead of being focused on the issue of ‘what was being delivered by when’, to turn the discussion to the business outcome that was being sought.

As she noted; “Once everyone is focussed on the outcome and the steps that might get us there it changes the conversation.”

This content was previously published in the AgileTODAY magazine (Volume 10).

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