Speed, adaptation and the pace of change

Responding to the top threat facing future business leaders.

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Threats and change

We live in interesting times. Political, environmental and global turmoil seem to come at us relentlessly. We are just beginning to come to terms with one headline when a new tweet takes its place and grabs our attention. Uncertainty and angst seem to be the new norm. What might businesses and business leaders think about this?  Is this new norm our biggest business challenge? 

Not quite. In a recent survey of the graduates of top international business schools, the pace of technological and digital advance was rated as the top threat facing global business leaders, surpassing the current churn of economic, political, and environmental changes. Sixty-eight percent of the respondents – over two-thirds – felt this was the most important threat they would face. The businesses we serve are already pressured by quarter-to-quarter profitability challenges, and the pace of technology change – which was perceived as a global challenge – adds fuel to the fire.  

For those of us in technology, how do we address these concerns? Stephen Hawking once said “intelligence is the ability to change.” Are we willing and able to change the way that we work to address these threats?

The pivot

The projects we work on can be extremely complex. In our last article, we discussed how to overcome the challenge of hidden issues through inspection. Adaptation is critical skill that we need to be able to apply, regardless of whether we are working in a large financial institution or a fail fast start up. Like slalom ski racers, we need to be able to adapt and pivot quickly in response to changes in the landscape and new information. Scrum gives us multiple opportunities and venues for adaptation.

The first type of adaptation is a response to a deviation within a sprint. According to the Scrum Guide, if we “determine that one or more aspects of a process deviate….an adjustment must be made as soon as possible.” This type of adaptation is an immediate response to an issue through inspection. It is far better to adapt than to let issues and problems fester.

The second type of adaptation that we leverage in an agile cadence comes from valuing working software over comprehensive documentation, one of the four agile values. Scrum does this in sprints, which are typically anywhere from one week to four weeks. At the end of each sprint, we engage our customers in the sprint demo to show them working software. While this does not sound like a dramatic shift, the discipline of delivering working software and showing it to customers frequently is significant. Bronwyn Clere, Executive Director for Capital Planning & Delivery, at Telstra Corporation, puts it this way in the PMI’s 2017 annual report:

We are implementing features and products and using technology that were not invented 18 months ago. No longer can we afford these large monolithic programs that go on for two to three years. We know that what we set out to do at the beginning of that time is not what we will finish out doing. So, we are focusing on very rapid delivery cycles, asking ourselves: How do we mobilize a project very quickly? How do we use the right delivery techniques to work through it quickly? How do we get product into market or to customers or into the business?”

This second type of adaptation is part of the reason why agile delivery rates for technology are higher than with other processes. We have a chance to pivot, turn, and adjust as frequently as the business requires. This stands in stark contrast to starting a project with a stack of documents and taking months to deliver. Change is now continuous in business, and we need to keep up – or our businesses will suffer.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a way of working that adapts to constant business change fosters a collaborative and creative relationship between the business and technology teams. The business sees delivery occurring faster and finds their needs being met, and as a result is more open and willing to partner with their technology teams. The movement from order taker to partner changes careers and drives profitability. As discussed in the Partner pattern in Leadership Patterns for Software and Technology Professionals, “instead of being a cost center and drain on the organization, these technology teams drive competitive advantage for the entire business.”

A choice more important than ability

In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Professor Dumbledore tells Harry, “It is not our abilities that show what we truly are. It is our choices.” Undoubtedly technologists have amazing abilities. However, we may need to choose to work differently. Adaptation is essential to the survival of small startup companies, as their exposure to the whims of the market cannot be ignored. Larger organizations have more time and money and can withstand some failures in technology and software delivery. It is important to keep in mind that both types of organizations are fighting for their survival.

Are we committed to fighting for the survival of the organizations we work for? If so, pivoting and adapting to their needs and the pace of change is essential for the future of both our companies and careers. Otherwise as Professor Dumbledore reminds us, our abilities will not matter – and even worse, we may be left behind.

With this post, I wrap up my stint as a blogger for CIO.com. I am grateful to IDG for this opportunity to share my ideas with you in this forum and appreciate your continued support. Beginning next month, I will be writing the Agile for Everyone blog at Genesis10, where you will find new posts on Agile Transformation as well as blogs on other technology topics that may also interest you. Let’s keep the conversation going. See you in October!

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