“Being able to adapt quickly, flexibly, and proactively to new situations” – the significance of agility is not disputed. But how to achieve an agile digital agency definitely is. In the middle of the transformation of hmmh, we take a break and look back: what are the most valuable experiences from our change process with 300 employees up to this point and what questions should agencies ask when they move in the direction of agility?
Independent of industry, many employees today expect being able to realize themselves in the company and being able to show off their skills in interdisciplinary and exciting projects. Questions like “Why do we go to work in the morning” and “What is our mission?” demand clear answers. The objectives of companies are also clearly defined: finding creative solutions for the ever-changing needs of customers quickly, to keep up, and thus growing the company’s success and consequently their own. Achieving this while staying competitive requires more autonomous working methods and an agile structure. In addition to the will to change something, one must also raise internal awareness for the subject in order to be able to get all employees on board. And it requires a company structure with as few hierarchies as possible. However, the whole thing will only work within predefined boundaries for the entire team which leave enough room for creativity and autonomy for each individual and provide mutual trust. Once the change has been decided and the general direction laid out, the right strategy for the agile transformation must be found.
1. What is the right strategy for the transformation?
First of all: There is no “one right” strategy. Depending on industry, business size, and the willingness of the team, we decide whether the culture and structure should change gradually or in a short time. For companies with different service areas, only partially agile customers, and employees who are not yet completely convinced we recommend putting together a small group of promotors. As representatives of the different departments, they collect requirements, wishes, and concerns of the entire company, take care of the framework conditions, and accompany the process. The more varied the opinions, the better. Routines are deconstructed and then new paths found together. In 2015, after interviews and open spaces and after finding a strategy task force consisting of elected representatives for each area who accompanied the process, at hmmh this meant saying goodbye to functional pillar structures and “departments”. As the word already indicates, it is derived from parts (“de-part-ment”), the exact opposite of the objective. In this phase, hmmh formed agile customer teams in order to be able to address customer wishes faster and more flexible.
2. Creating initiative – How does one do that?
The developer, creative conceptioner, consultant, graphic designer, copywriter, HR, or management: each person in the company has different responsibilities and roles which require different skills. Breaking up all structures and redistributing responsibilities requires large-scale T-shaping in the company. This means that for instance developers also need to take on leadership roles for customer projects and internal tasks: either as member of a temporary SIG (Special Interest Group) created for a specific question or of a COP (Community of Practice) which tackles specialized topics across the company. Most of all, one must get adapted to the new spirit in order to focus on the positive aspects of an autonomous working method. Transparency and the involvement of each employee is the main point here in order to achieve the needed acceptance. This also includes education concerning the new possibilities and duties that come with such a change. The management must lead by example, delegate responsibility, and trust in its team and give them space to work. However, this also means that the management should initiate this process, guide it positively, and sometimes provide additional impetus. Courage to change serves as a role model and is contagious. The main foundation and guarantee for a successful transformation is a team that knows the objective.
3. Do the internal systems still fit the structure?
While the type of organization, the thinking, and working methods change it is important to check the internal systems for their fitness. How agile are the tools and programs which are a part of everyday work? Be it for internal information exchange, scheduling, or budgeting. The tools have to fit the organizational structure and permit agile work. No matter whether you use Confluence, Rocket Chat, or Bit Bucket – the decision for or against a tool should be based on the opinions of the internal experts and a reconciliation of all important requirements. One must also consider that compatibility with customers is also important. Tools may vary, but the focus should not: one must always ensure that the customer gets the best solution, the best service, or both. This means that agile work requires the transparent use of software, tools, and systems. Internal working methods can and must be adjusted: whether open spaces, lean coffees, or Kanban boards, the implementation must fit the structure. This also applies to the management.
4. How can you convince less agile customers?
At the moment, digital agencies usually are a lot more agile than its customers. This poses a great challenge in working together, since rigid structures and routines are often firmly anchored in the customer’s procedures. These customers want security and a perfect solution at a fixed price. When dealing with less agile customers it is important to let them know that they not only receive a tailor-made result but also tailor-made service which adapts to all their requirements in order to achieve the best possible result without compromises. Ideally, the price moves within a target range. Transparent processes, a sometimes cheaper but always better solution, and measurably better productivity as well as enjoying your work often also makes customers think twice. Agility is contagious.
5. When is the agile process completed?
Once the strategy and the roles have been found, the first agile projects implemented successfully, and new agile projects are added continually, then the acceptance of those who were not quite convinced of the model also increases. Employees who are unhappy with the new environment will leave, but make room for new ones. This is normal. It is important to reflect, verify, and adjust – as part of everyday work – internally and externally. This path is a permanent process that is never completed. And that is a good thing, since stagnation is boring.
Agile working is not just a method that makes businesses more efficient and flexible in order to achieve better results. Agility is a business philosophy. It requires clear and transparent communication, both with colleagues and with customers. It requires a great deal of initiative, mutual trust, and space for development. A complex process that not only need to be initiated well, but also continually supported, reflected, and adjusted. It is essential to find the right strategy for the respective business, give employees space to develop their own responsibility, adjust internal processes and roles, and get customers excited about the method. Only then can the entire company react flexibly to new challenges. There is no path to becoming an agile business without a change in culture. This piece of wisdom is well-established: “Structure follows strategy but culture eats strategy for breakfast”.
How agile a business really is does not depend on the management but every team member. Agility is not an end in itself and also no cure-all. But it is necessary today and even more in the future in order to be able to act successfully in the market in disruptive times.