Financial Services: We need to talk about Agile
Digital Transformation, Innovation Labs, Agile adoption are all examples of terms and subjects that have become more and more prevalent in Financial Services within the last decade. These concepts have become increasingly prominent as large scale Banking and Insurance giants from across the globe continue to make strides in adopting ways of working which let them deliver faster and provide truly customer centric products.
However, repeatedly these same giants run into issues when their Agile teams face blockers which negatively impact their ability to deliver the way they want to. Product Owners who are working with a core Agile team and against tight delivery dates are often left bashing their head against a wall when Agile meets business as usual (BAU) or traditional practices.
Here are a couple of examples:
- An Agile team is working to 1 week sprints and designs are being produced in this cadence - frequently, and to a very high standard. The problem is that the design approval BAU process in Company X requires 3 stages of hand off and multiple team approvals, all of which can take up to 3 weeks and a lot of effort to coordinate.
- An Agile team is comprised of a Scrum Master, Product Owner, Technical Lead, Designer, 4 Developers, an AQA (Agile Quality Analyst) and a Copywriter. This team is co-located and set up to be highly efficient at delivering good quality product enhancements quickly. However, everything they need to get done, from approving the initial product concepts right through to signing off on the final copy, requires Risk & Compliance approval. This is a department where their representative is working on 12 projects simultaneously and simply cannot tie in with the rapid responses needed to support two week Sprint plans.
These examples are likely familiar to anyone who has been involved in Agile delivery teams working in a highly regulated industry. While Financial Services recognize the burning need to alter their change management practices, this is more often than not superseded by deeply entrenched attitudes about risk management.
For decades, multi layer processes have been developed and built up to ensure nothing falls through the cracks which could be reputationally or financially damaging. Changing these processes would likely be met with resistance and in some cases, simple rejection. However, there are approaches that can be taken to break down walls and enable robust, risk averse Agile led change.
In an ideal world - ok, we all know we don’t live in an ideal world, so what steps can Financial Service companies take to pre-empt the issues and blockers outlined above?
It can be broken down into 3 areas:
- Consistent Communication
Any move to adopt Agile delivery methods will likely represent a huge mindset and skill set change for many. Even in highly experienced and knowledgeable Product teams, many still find it hard to move away from traditional waterfall delivery methods. And this is coming from a team where delivering change is at its core.
When looking to adopt Agile, it’s vital to incorporate this checklist:
- All impacted departments / divisions / teams are identified at the outset.
- Affected department leads / Executives are introduced to Agile ways of working and fully understand what is required to make it a success.
- This includes demonstrating the value of Agile to each area of the business and, where necessary, should include any required behavioural training.
- With Executive members onboard with Agile, it’s time to properly train and onboard any individual who will need to adapt their ways of working.
- Those building the team(s) need to consider:
- Who is on the immediate team sheet?
- Who will need to support this team throughout the organization?
- Are they new to agile?
- Is co-location doable?
- Agile may not be for every individual and that is ok!
Once we have confirmation that department leads and prospective team members have been identified, onboarded and are, in principle, bought into the challenges ahead, the focus can move to alignment.
In moving the focus to alignment:
- Ensure that targets / OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) are aligned across functions - evidence to teams who are new to Agile that the importance of their work is recognized and will be measured against.
- Equip the team for success:
- Adopt agile support tools where possible
- Ensure that teams have the technical infrastructure and support they need across the organization to be successful
- Ensure communication channels are agreed upon and that all team members can and will access them
- Provide training on the above where needed
- It’s likely that some departments simply don’t have the resources to support co-location and teams who may only have one product deliverable. This is when senior leadership can work together to find workable solutions.
- Can a Risk & Compliance Manager go from supporting 12 projects to 5 and allocate one day a week to sit with the Agile team?
- Can this person be given the ability to focus solely on one initiative on this day?
- Can one Risk & Compliance colleague be empowered to make approval decisions without the need for peer / committee review?
- Ideally there is a business case to recruit a new hire who can support agile, across single or multiple initiatives.
So now we have identified all departments / teams and individuals affected by the move to Agile. Leadership and team members have been trained, set up for success and have team and individual targets which support the overall aim of delivering excellent quality change.
How can we ensure that this momentum is maintained?
- Once the team is up and running have a laser like focus on ongoing communication.
- Take time to properly onboard any new team members
- Listen to your team - ensure the team has the chance to call out where improvements can be made or blockers have arisen
- Have an Executive prepared to support agile consistently and not as a one off
- Celebrate small wins as well as the achievement of large milestones - reinforcing the positive changes a team delivers will only enhance productivity
- Demonstrate the wins from a Product and Customer value perspective but also in terms which align with other department’s targets.
“We were able to launch in 3 months with zero compliance breaches reported in the first quarter in market”
As outlined in the intro, most people involved in the transition from traditional change delivery to Agile in large scale Financial Services companies will have come into conflict with ways of working which are just inherently not agile. And while many companies will try and get things right the first time, the reality is transition (never mind transformation) takes time and refinement to get right.
Where teams do happen upon processes they can’t align with I recommend the following:
- Identify & Communicate
Identify & Communicate
- As soon as issues are identified, call them out. Make sure that Sponsors or senior leadership understand the issue at hand and it’s impact.
- Let them know you are going to work together to present suggested options to mitigate the issue.
- Seek confirmation from Leadership that they support you in this.
- For each issue, gather those involved / impacted, ideally face to face.
- Map out the issue - this could be simply -
a. Mapping the employee journey
b. Highlighting pain points and their impact on what the business can deliver
c. Highlighting how employees feel along this journey.
- Brainstorm steps that could be taken to improve the ‘as is’ journey.
- Prioritize options the team have identified and map favoured solutions to each issue.
- Present the team’s findings back to the leadership team to get buy in.
Approaching the above steps with an open mind, clear open communication and a combined commitment to deliver what is best for the business should lead to improvement if not issue resolution.
In summary, change of any sort can evoke strong emotion, as is shown in this widely shared view on how people can be prone to react:
The above cycle can also be applied in a less emotive sense to large scale Financial companies going through the process of adapting their approach to Change Management. But the good news is all is not lost.
The dream scenario is acceptance and co-ordination across the company from the start. What is far more likely is that over time any onboarding, buy in and target alignment will take time and iterative refinement.
1 - There's immense value in having a truly effective Agile rollout plan at outset and ensuring that all impacted by a move to that delivery method are onside and aligned before delivery starts.
- Consistent Communication
2 - All is not lost however, if this has been missed or a robust roll out simply was not possible. There are steps you can take to overcome issues effectively as and when they arise.
- Identify & Communicate
With clear consistent communication, ideally at all organizational levels and covering all divisions of the business, moving to Agile can be made easier, collaborative and at times even FUN!