by Byron Connolly

The Aussie path to agile: Successes and slip-ups

Jun 19, 2015
Cloud Computing

agile skateboard athletic fast
Credit: Thinkstock

Businesses are under more pressure than ever to adopt more agile ways of working in an environment where customers demand products and services be delivered almost immediately.

At this week’s Agile Australia conference in Sydney, three digital and IT executives on a panel discussed their journey to an Agile environment and why in many ways it’s still very much a work in progress.

In software development, Agile methodologies enable developers to constantly assess if a project is on track through the entire development cycle. They also allow users to respond to features and review products for changes on an ongoing basis.

Alisa Bowen, News Corp’s group director, digital and product development, admitted that the media company is still in the very early stages of becoming more agile.

“Almost all companies would of course say that they aspire to be more nimble and able to learn more quickly – but it’s incredibly hard to do,” said Bowen.

“That’s my first confession – I think we are a long way off being great at it. This is a style of working and an approach that really started in our technology organisation, and frankly, it failed,” she said.

But once it was picked up by News Corp’s product planning and engineering teams, benefits started to materialise. It is now spreading into the company’s enterprise technology and sales and marketing organisations, she said.

“Bit by bit the functions that work with the technology and product organisation are seeing the benefits and enjoying the way of working – getting competent using the language, the tools and techniques.”

Agile has been a big success at the Commonwealth Bank but it hasn’t been without its speed-bumps, said CBA’s retail and wealth CIO, Pete Steel.

Four years ago, Agile was IT-led in pockets of the large bank but since then, divisions such as Comsec and MyWealth have taken the lead and, combined with technology staff, have got the movement growing, he said.

“There were some speed-bumps – a lot of people who were struggling with the way you work, the rhythm, the accountability, the disempowerment of senior leaders in head office who think they know best in making decisions [which are] really best done on the floor in the scrum,” he said.

CBA currently has around 1000 people working on 144 Agile projects and another 1000 who are “influenced by it every day”, said Steel.

Bank executives are now starting to adopt Agile practices after seeing them used in software development.

“It’s really refreshing to see Agile creeping out through the organisation beyond software development projects,” Steel said.

CBA has also used Agile methodologies for customer-facing functions using start up-style delivery, he said.

“Where we want to go next is quite confronting for us; using the power of Agile to break down through the permafrost of the rest of the organisation and to say ‘here’s the customer goal’, and start including risk, compliance and operations people … to use Agile and start to get them solving a problem with us.

“This is an important thing to do and it’s something that we are trying out over the next few months,” he said.

Australia Post has progressively digitised its business as customers start consuming its services using PCs and mobile devices. It has around 250 Agile specialists across the country working in 15 teams.

Cameron Gough, Australia Post’s general manager, digital delivery centre, said the customer is now king and the organisation has been forced to change the way it develops services and the pace at which people work.

“The big start was in digital,” said Gough. “We set up a digital delivery centre and I’d love to say that we had a three year plan and flawlessly executed against it but I’d be lying.

“We made many mistakes along the way. I’m glad we had a big plan because when we got into it, we realised that we would have missed a whole lot of learnings along the way.”

Australia Post used an Agile methodology to develop a post office locator application.

“It was a nice and neat, simple architecture and we nailed it,” said Gough. “But once the celebration died down, we took a look at it and said ‘actually we didn’t really get anything out of this, and as far as our Agile journey goes it didn’t mean that the next project would be done in Agile.’ We didn’t [see] any uplift in our Agile capability,” he said.

“It was an ‘aha moment’ about how we create the environment and culture in which agile can grow and prosper. That was a big shift for us, from that moment we moved away from focusing on doing Agile to how to create the environment in which Agile can survive,” he said.

Traditional funding models don’t work

Gough pointed out that traditional project funding models don’t support Agile projects, which are more suited to continuous flows of investment.

“We’ve got organisation support for more experimental development methodologies,” said Gough. “With that comes the recognition that you need to ask different questions about that way of working.”

The importance of cloud

Australia Post has moved all of its digital assets to the cloud using Amazon Web Services, which has made Agile development easier for staff, said Gough.

“If you really want to unlock the potential of Agile and the potential of your teams, you can’t lump them with 60 to 70 per cent of their time getting environments working and getting builds out,” said Gough.

Utilising cloud infrastructure has unlocked the passion teams have for getting work out the door rather than spending time getting infrastructure ready, he said.

The war for Agile talent

News Corp’s Bowen said the organisation has historically been perceived to be slowing moving and less creative than it ought to be and the transition to an agile way of working has helped it attract staff that want to work this way.

“And in the war for talent you have to be accommodating and to be really frank, that’s probably one of the key reasons we started on this journey. What we get by taking that kind of approach is passionate people that want to make a difference for consumers,” said Bowen.

It’s hard to find good Agile staff but businesses with interesting products and a good culture will be key to attracting the right talent, added Australia Post’s Gough.

Follow CIO Australia on Twitter and Like us on Facebook… Twitter: @CIO_Australia, Facebook: CIO Australia, or take part in the CIO conversation on LinkedIn: CIO Australia

Follow Byron Connolly on Twitter:@ByronConnolly