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Agile: how can Learning & Development get buy-in from CEOs?


Agile has been transforming technology since the early noughties when the birth of the Agile Manifesto gave rise to a new approach for developing software. Now others understandably want to get in on the Agile action – if the significant benefits experienced in IT can be replicated elsewhere, then the potential opportunity for organisations is huge.

Increasingly we are observing the spread of Agile methodologies in industries and functions beyond Technology. For example, Sainsbury’s are now using Agile across all their online teams (whether they are tech or not), and Santander are using it for Marketing.

We often talk with CEOs who remain hesitant about Agile – understandably concerned that it is another business ‘fad’ with limited application outside of IT.

And we also regularly talk with Executives who profess to know what Agile is, and yet their action often suggests otherwise.

They continue to launch multiple initiatives instead of focusing on a few key priorities.

They demand that individuals work across multiple projects, to gain maximum efficiency. They become excessively involved in projects, often reversing decisions made by teams.

And they berate mistakes, adding in bureaucracy to prevent their recurrence. Inadvertently, Executives often undermine the value that Agile has been proven to deliver.

Learning is a core aspect of Agile, which makes L&D functions well positioned to advocate its potential outside of IT.

So how can L&D truly engage CEOs in why Agile is worth considering and how can this be achieved in a way that CEOs act to create an environment where Agile can flourish?

Here we set out three key areas of focus:

1. Bring the benefits of Agile to life in the Learning & Development function

A lot of research and insight already makes a strong case for Agile innovation beyond the realms of the IT function, and we encourage you to gather and share this as you build your business proposal for Agile in your own organisation.

However, what better way to bring these benefits to life than by demonstrating them in operation within your business, and where better to start than in your own function?

This requires embracing the Agile fundamentals of small, empowered teams who are accountable for developing L&D innovations that add value to employees and the business.

‘Innovation Owners’ (typically called ‘Product Owners’ in software development) within each team are responsible for gathering requirements or opportunities from stakeholders and prioritising them with the team according to their relative value.

And together the team develops their programme or offer through a series of cycles or ‘iterations’ – trying things out and learning at each step to inform further innovation.

Through this transparent process, L&D innovations are developed ‘live’ using real information about what does and doesn’t work, instead of individuals and teams investing time and resource in creating something which is launched to the business only when it is ‘ready’, without really knowing how it is likely to be received by end-users.

Team productivity and satisfaction increases, along with wider employee engagement in L&D.

Wasted resource is minimised through the avoidance of unnecessary meetings and approval processes, excessive documentation, and time-consuming and costly re-works.

Many of these benefits are quantifiable which will add to the strength of your case for change.

2. Help CEOs and Executives experience how Agile really works

So, you’ve showed them all the evidence and reinforced it with quantifiable success in your own function. But is this enough to encourage leaders to change their behaviours to enable its success?

For CEOs and Executives to move beyond cognitive awareness to the genuine understanding of what it means to work in an Agile way, they need to experience it.

This is because Executives often have deeply-held assumptions about Agile that simply aren’t true and that information alone is unlikely to shift mindsets. For example, some think it means an absence of structure and allowing people to pursue whatever they want, while others do not see its compatibility with longer-term planning.

There are many ways to create an experience of Agile for Executives. An L&D function in a FTSE 100 organisation sends its Executives and other senior leaders to India to see established Agile technology teams in action.

Participants are then required to take their learning back into the day job, applying it to a piece of work to deepen their understanding.

Other organisations are also incorporating Agile into C-suite activities, for example one large UK retailer has embraced it in strategy development.

Executive teams who learn about Agile by experiencing it together are well resourced to lead its implementation across the business.

They develop new capabilities that they can draw on to address multiple business issues as a team. And together they learn how they need to adapt their own behaviours to enable their teams to work successfully in this way. 

3. Acknowledge its weaknesses as well as its benefits

Building buy-in to the potential of Agile and getting Executive permission to try it in the organisation means being realistic about where it can add value.

Agile has shown to be most powerful in solving complex problems, where the end-customer can gain value from incremental developments and is available to collaborate and provide feedback throughout the development process.

Where the solution is clear at the outset, regular customer collaboration is not possible, and interim mistakes could have damaging repercussions, traditional project approaches will be more appropriate.

Inviting the CEO and Executives to explore the conditions required for Agile will enable them to identify where in the business they can make a start.

And we encourage organisations to start in one or two places initially, using their success to generate excitement and eagerness to have a go in other parts of the organisation.

Agile innovation has transformed the world of software development over the past twenty-five years. Now it is time for other industries and business functions to reap the same rewards through productivity breakthroughs and enabling teams to achieve more with less.

But for Agile to truly flourish, CEOs and Executives need to genuinely understand what it means to work in this way and adapt their behaviours accordingly.

L&D functions are well placed to enable this shift required in leadership understanding and behaviour. Organisations that are fastest in making this transition and succeed in transferring Agile beyond the scope of IT are those who will enjoy the rewards of market beating productivity, and rapid and profitable growth.

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