The Agile Organization: Practices for External Units


The Agile Organization:
Practices for External Units
by Robert Ogilvie

While Agile is commonly considered a successful methodology to add value to software development, is it possible to adapt Agile to bring better beliefs and practices to other areas of the organization beyond IT?If sales, branding, operations, or other business units
were to be transformed for greater agility, what changes would be needed? By approaching Agile as a broad organizational solution to leading teams better, delivering value to customers, and responding to change, Agile beliefs can provide a set of best practices that
empower organizations to survive and thrive. These best practices include the following:

  1. How each unit should handle stand-up meetings, sprints, and backlogs to drive value
  2. The feedback worth collecting, analyzing, and contextualizing to enable data-driven iterative improvements in performance and decisions
  3. The role of management and culture in Agile business units

Ultimately, greater organizational agility aids organizations by maximizing the impact of human capital and providing better resiliency in the face of market shifts. Is your organization ready?

This Executive Update addresses three external-facing business units that have functions involving customers or field operations: Agile teams for sales, branding, and support operations. By their nature, these business units exist to add value to customers by analyzing the realities of products and/or services. To do their jobs effectively, these business units need contact with the market.
Stemming from the core Agile beliefs of frequent interaction and communication, delivering customer value, and responsive change management, there are three main Agile practices that organizations can use across various business units:

  1. Stand-ups — brief (less than 15 minutes) meetings to share past work, current tasks, obstacles, and solutions.
  2. Sprints and retrospectives — small periods of work (one to four weeks long) that break up larger potential work into clear lists of committed tasks to complete, usually noted on burndown charts. Each sprint closes with a team retrospective on successes, failures, and processes.
  3. Work backlog — an ongoing catalog of work to be done, grown via accumulating internal and external customer needs, and requiring prioritization to select the workload for the next sprint.

I’ll also list for each business unit a few other elements needed to make Agile work to help ensure a data-driven approach and strategic management value. These five elements, along with a brief explanation of each, are:
1. Sensors — the individuals, or perhaps digital entities, that collect feedback/data. Sensors interact
closely with customers or real-world usage of the
product/service and are the bodies, physical or digital,
that collect metric data. Sensors are an important
part of the data intelligence pipeline that underpins
data-driven strategy.
2. System — IT infrastructure to intake, aggregate,
and analyze feedback/data.
3. Map — the directional element that integrates and
illustrates data to aid in understanding strategic
4. Managerial role — the best perspective for the business
unit’s manager to have adopted (though not a
title, per se).

  1. Culture — the environment and attitudes within the
    business unit that must exist for Agile to flourish.
    A sales funnel (see Figure 1) helps contextualize the
    conversion rates at each step of the sales process. This
    means that, assuming updated sales information is
    used, both current conversion rates and the overall
    sales funnel conversion rate are known. The aim is to
    quantify and predict outcomes of the sales process, and
    particularly to point out when there are not enough
    contacts or when conversion rates at any given step
    drop too low. (For example, assume that recent company
    data shows 10% of contacts convert to leads, 30%
    of leads convert to opportunities, and 40% of opportunities
    covert to closed sales. Given a bucket of 300 contacts
    currently, can we achieve the target 12 closed sales
    required? As our sales funnel allows us to calculate
    only 4 expected closed sales, we can then determine an
    additional 600 contacts are required to generate the
    required 12 closed sales.)
    An Agile sales roadmap displays the targets that sales
    is trying to reach (see Table 1). A CRM tool is, at this
    point, a staple sales tool that takes in contact information
    and tracks various touch points with contacts/
    clients — usually phone calls and emails. An effective
    CRM tool uses inbound marketing contacts (or sometimes
    purchased lists) to create a continual inbound
    flow of contacts. These are assigned to the sales agents
    working the contacts/leads, and the CRM system
    allows the sales agents to manage their client contact
    workflow. This could be as simple as an ad hoc process
    using shared cloud spreadsheets or a full enterprise
    CRM tool. More advanced CRM tools often take more
    sales agent time to use than personal processes, but
    offer much more analytics and greater insight into
    individual and team performance — broken down by
    inbound, contact-generated campaigns or geography —
    and are critical for data-driven team performance management
    required for scalability.
    Stand-up meetings for the sales team allow the team to
    communicate around daily and pending leads (predicting
    sales velocity) and sales messaging feedback. Sales
    messaging will be the most commonly adjusted element
    within sales team activity, as it differs as inbound leads
    are pursuing different products or value propositions
    within a product and as messaging evolves through
    contact and success rates with clients.
    Sprints and Retrospectives
    These are both useful and necessary to sales teams.
    Sprints are usually one per month or biweekly, based
    on (often) monthly targets. Retrospectives allow the
    sales team to see what has been reasonably doable
    within a month so it can better estimate future sales

velocity. Assuming a sufficient pipeline of contacts to
mine for leads, sales teams should get better and faster
as sales messaging improves and sales team members
become better at gauging the warmest contacts and
pending leads. Retrospectives also offer the best
chance of ensuring useful intelligence gets back to
the marketing/branding team about campaigns and
value propositions that have been more effective at
connecting to customer needs.
Work Backlog
The work backlog in sales is, effectively, just the contact
list within the CRM tool. Fresh/recent inbound contacts
should be given priority over colder contacts, creating
a general triage of most recent to ever longer duration
since the inbound inquiry (or any meaningful touch
point). Because of the nature of the sales funnel, predictive
analysis can be used to calculate expected leads,
opportunities, or closed sales given this current size
of contact lists, or (often for quarterly or annual projections)
input analysis can be used to calculate if X number
of closed sales are to be completed, how many
opportunities, leads, and contacts will be required
to achieve that goal.
The sales culture needs to positively reinforce successes
and allow for recognition, creating as autonomous a
situation as possible for individual team members.
Motivating sales personnel between short-term performance
and long-term engagement can be difficult,
and sales is perhaps the area plagued by this the most.
Competition within the team is stress-inducing and
inhibits performance, undermining needed elements of
team relatedness and fairness, so goal setting should
deal with individual benchmarking and improvement
rather than a competition between coworkers. Feedback
from the sales team is shared with the marketing team,
which will craft future marketing campaigns based on
the market intelligence.
A branding roadmap, giving a sense of the values and
goals the organization wants to project to the world,
shows activity in the areas of marketing, social media,
and PR (see Table 2). The roadmap reflects brand strategy,
which dictates the common themes and the perspective
of the brand that people are encouraged to
adopt, breaks down work in these areas to enact the
chosen strategy, and contextualizes incoming data to
confirm that activities are coordinated with and aligned
to the branding strategy. Knowing the roadmap is
about upholding branding strategy, the pertinent question
is always “Does this action align with and enhance
our brand?”
A social and engagement dashboard collects the online
activities from social media and community management
for basic analyses. At this point, tools exist to integrate
data from many social networks and online trends
or trigger events. This dashboard is a useful central point
to collect data from all the relevant community and network
sources, and is a mechanical system with much less
strategy than the roadmap (hence, the branding roadmap
can contextualize data with strategy much better).
Stand-up meetings associated with branding are often a
daily communal intelligence briefing among team members.
Communications touch on the three areas of marketing
(formally involved with product campaigns and
generating inbound leads from webinars, white papers,
or on-demand content), social media/community
management (to stay engaged with and deliver information
to your target markets), and branding and PR
(to enhance social capital). These areas both stimulate
favorable public sentiments toward the company and
aid with possible specific downstream efforts like
Sprints and Retrospectives
Sprints and retrospectives are a good fit for branding,
given the brief, time-bounded nature of marketing and
response time in certain social media or PR efforts.

Sprints make it easy to examine the success of a marketing
campaign; for example, by looking at the number
of inbound contacts generated or the extent of social
media activity, teams can adjust based on past successes
or failures. Branding is a very broad activity, so it is difficult
to collect clear feedback compared to the discrete
durations and numbers of inbound contacts generated
from marketing campaigns or the measured activity
and viewership reached by social media.
Work Backlog
The work backlog in branding addresses the marketing
elements needed for marketing campaign materials
(white papers, slide decks, videos, graphics, emails,
etc.) and is about ensuring the right materials are
ready to launch when the time comes. Social media/
community campaigns often have less to plan — consisting
of an accumulated list of work to be done —
but may favor content based on seasonal and current
events trends. Social media management tools can help
to coordinate tasks to occur. Branding can take a longer
strategic view and teams must ponder what steps will
steer the ship in the right direction. This is where the
branding roadmap creates valuable impact.
The branding culture should be one of solving needs;
building client relationships; and creating a unique,
positive, and resilient mindshare with clients and
within the organization. The ideals and values of the
organization direct what needs it is solving, what customer
markets it is building a relationship with, and
what talent it attracts. Are we adding the right value
for the right people? Remember that both businesses
and consumers are drawn to experiences with shared
meaning and aligned values over simply another
widget. The right culture also helps preserve a Lean
business mindset of delivering business value (rather
than becoming obstructively process-driven with
internal habits over customer needs).
An operation goals roadmap displays the targets that
production and operations management are trying to
reach (see Table 3). As each of the component areas
improves over time, this roadmap shows progress,
which helps in getting a sense of strong, acceptable,
and weak areas by speed and accumulation of goal
An activity and quality dashboard is a short-term snapshot
of how operations are doing, perhaps per day or
by week. Assuming sufficient sensors (again, human or
digital), this dashboard provides a real-time sense of the
levels of the operations activities (defect rates, client
response time, etc.).
Stand-up meetings for operations resemble Kaizen circles,
where team members talk about the problems they
encountered that day and how they might improve the
quality/issue going forward. As such, doing the standups
at the end of the day (rather than at the start) may
yield better feedback. Having foreknowledge of the customer
issues likely to come up also allows the team to
better filter work to the strongest subject matter experts
to aid in offering high-quality service.
Sprints and Retrospectives
Sprints and retrospectives on the operations side help
improve client contact and provide useful feedback
to pass along to the product development or process
improvement teams. Sprints make the most sense
within a quality assurance mindset, where excellent
customer service and a high number of defects/
bugs/issues detected are both sought-after goals.
Retrospectives help clarify work expectations for
client service as well as error detections.
Work Backlog
The work backlog may apply only in certain instances
of service teams, such as in the asynchronous triage of using ticketing-based service systems. If one team plays
a role in the quality control of another team’s work, a
backlog establishes priorities for what areas to focus on
first. Also, given that customers are involved, the line
between an objective problem and what the customer
wants can be fuzzy, making the quality control role
here potentially both one of finding/taking on issues
and prioritizing issues.
The culture in operations should be one of serving
others and seeking perfection. Team members may see
customers at their worst and need to know their product
well enough to help in any situation. The process
and quality experts here need to model the perfectionism
the team requires and will need to possess the
skills to solicit feedback. From an operations and Lean
process standpoint, the focus should be on quantifiable
aspects of the service, including speed, cost, and reliability
(uptime, chance of crash, etc.). The other teams
designing the product will want this team’s feedback.
As the nature of external teams puts them at the greatest
risk for succumbing to the minutia of repetitive
day-to-day operations, finding a way to bring change
agility, data-driven insights, strategic initiative, and
a sense of personal meaning isn’t just good for productivity,
it’s good for morale and culture. These people
are both the front-line sensors, collecting much of the
intelligence firsthand, and the people leveraging those
insights and strategy as customer contact points representing
the company.
A culture that listens to that front-line feedback,
empowers employees to enhance strategy, and cherishes
the role they play in innovation and customer
service is much more resilient, agile, and productive
than a firm that has made an elite executive decision
that one solid strategy will save everything. Even if
collecting much more front-line information produces
the exact same direction and strategy as a strategic
planning team would have chosen anyway, this process,
in contrast to the non-Agile approach, has created
much more buy-in from the organization. And, as a
bottom-up decision process, it more accurately reflects
real-world risks and operational constraints and therefore
helps ensure a more pragmatic execution.
Agile isn’t new and neither are many of the techniques
and terms I’ve used in this Update. Used well, however,
these techniques add more value and provide greater
risk mitigation over time than do other methods. The
strongest value-add of any Agile team over time likely
is not that their capacity to do more has increased (done
well, it will likely increase a bit) but that their ongoing
ability to adapt has improved, so that a set of small
adjustments now prevents the need for major adjustments
and heightened cost much further down the
timeline. The closest thing organizations can get to
timelessness and not needing to change is creating
a state where change and improvements are the
permanent norm and can sustainably continue forward.


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