Applying the art of Agile

Having spent 12 years in digital teams in a number of different roles both on the business and IT sides, David Leach is now head of agile practice at Reed Online (which owns job site, helping coach the organisation to greater agility and long term success.

We talked to David about how agile works at Reed, and what it takes to succeed using these principles.

Let's start with some definitions: what are Agile, Lean, Scrum and kanban?

"Agile" is a set of values and principles that try and steer organisations towards greater autonomy within development teams, leading to more timely decision making, the ability to adapt solutions and create valuable products for our customers.  

"Lean" is really what underpins the thinking within Agile. While agile has its roots in software and lean in manufacturing, the principles are very closely matched. Focus on providing value to your customer, expose and mitigate risk, test assumptions early and reduce business cost by removing waste. Lean also places the utmost importance on empowering employees to make improvements. We have taken a lot of inspiration from the teachings of Deming and the Toyota Production system - we are hoping to visit their plant in Derby later this year.

The importance of reducing cost is greater than ever as we can no longer simply choose the price of our product or service and then minus cost to determine margin. Customers will define the price that represents value. Margin is only created and increased through reducing cost in the process of creating that product or service.

"Scrum" is a framework that helps gives teams some loose structure in embracing and utilising the agile principles. Scrum aims to gives teams greater control on the how, when and what of the particular piece of work. It places importance on the team understanding and challenging the "why" and working together as a team to find the best solution to solve the problem or meet the customer need, rather than having the exact implementation specified to them. 

"Sprints" allow focus and regular delivery of value to the customer. Ceremonies such as daily "standups" and reviews place importance on everything being visible and open to inspection and adaptation. The "retrospective" is also very important as teams are encouraged to discuss how they are feeling and how they can improve.

"Kanban" is for some simply a board of work items moving from "to do" to "done" and while perhaps for some of our teams using scrum it still is, we have worked hard with teams to make sure we highlight the value of kanban. 

With non software teams and more operational teams we have found a focus on flow, changing WIP (work in progress) limits, reducing handoffs and visibility of how work is prioritised is leading to a better customer experience, reduced lead times and waste, greater clarity of the value stream and reduced tension between departments.

How do you run agile at Reed Online and what are the key roles?

We are fairly typical with five scrum teams in our product development department. We have scrum masters, product owners and cross-functional development teams, sales, marketing, finance, legal, HR and service delivery.

Given our teams are cross-functional it's really hard to single out key roles, but I would say one is product owners who are pivotal to ensuring teams remain focused, clear on the value we are delivering to customers and that we are aligned with our overall company strategy. 

Product owners are pivotal to ensuring teams remain focused, clear on the value to customers and that we are aligned with company strategy.

We are also building a team of onsite coaches to make sure teams and the organisation as a whole are continuously finding ways to be more efficient and effective and continue to understand the principles of agile.

I also see our head of finance as key. His grasp of lean and enthusiasm for change means our budgeting and accounting processes are being evolved to better suit an agile organisation.

What sort of products do you create at Reed?

Our main products serve three types of users: course seekers, jobseekers and recruiting companies/agencies. Our revenue comes from course seekers via our ecommerce offering and recruiters buying access to our CV database or posting jobs. We also have inventory that can be sold - ie banners on our channels and solus emails, etc.

We have set our strategy to align our people in a 70-20-10 split so that we support continued development of mature products, give support to growing products and explore disruptive and innovative ideas. 

We recently launched a startup hub in a separate office with complete autonomy and no distraction to try and give them the greatest chance of success. Clear goals and visible metrics and three-monthly gates required for further investment ensure we can track progress and be brave to stop failing startups. Expecting and being accepting of failure is something we are keen to teach. To create a cross-functional team we have used archetypes such as "hustler", "visionary", "hacker" and "creative" to avoid pigeonholing people with specialist job titles like tester, database developer or project manager.

We recently launched a startup hub in a separate office with complete autonomy.

One startup - Reed Commercial - has graduated to a part of the main business. Another two - MetroDesk and Startup Startup - are currently still working hard to ascertain their audience appetite.

Is all of Reed's digital development run using agile methods?

Yes, we use agile principles for all development: focus on the value proposition, strive to continuously make yourselves more efficient and - our number one priority - to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of value. 

We are becoming less precious on the framework teams use and even the ceremonies within - so if a team would be more effective doing "scrumban" and doesn't see the need for standups then let's try it. 

I believe that most problems can be solved or assumptions validated or ideas executed using an agile approach. Not using agile is really an acceptance that the work has no risk, no assumptions and no requirement to learn through the process of developing. 

You used to be a business analyst - how does that role fit into this new agile world?

That's a tricky one.  I believed so strongly that agile and scrum would deliver long lasting benefits to Reed Online that I actually for a while thought that no PMs and no BAs was what was required for successful "transformation", as per many agile books and courses. I led the BA team and I moved into a scrum master role and the other BAs over time became more commercially focused analysts and less product focused.  Most left the company as this was not their passion, which was sad to see. 

Recent years have taught me that teams need all the required skills to be successful. The value of project management and analysis skills hasn't gone away so we must place importance on training and cross skilling.  

Some teams do still say we need a BA, and perhaps they do, but it's worth digging into why. Bringing an individual in to do a specific task for the team can mean we create knowledge silos and this can harm the benefits of being collaborative and cross-functional.

The classic example of a BA being the interface or bridge between the business and IT is no longer relevant, particularly as we have no IT department. No longer must BAs produce 100-page specifications that assume we know all there is to know at the very start of a piece of work, when actually we have to be brave and admit we know very little for certain and let teams explore and learn and iterate to constantly deliver better products and in turn we have happier, more satisfied customers. 

No longer must we produce 100-page specifications that assume we know all there is to know at the very start of a piece of work.

What are your top tips for agile success?

Speaking in a language that the whole organisation understands is important and also having empathy for the existing roles and ways of working. Agile for some can been seen as just a fad or worse something that sweeps into an organisation changing roles and ways of working, putting everyone at risk.

Risk is another important thing. We must understand the reasons why some organisations haven't yet embraced agile or only do so within small pockets of the organisation. Generally it's related to a perceived control and reduction of risk if we pretend that we know everything at the start of a piece of work.  

If I can get a team or individual to commit, even if under duress, to a set of "estimates" I can then plan every step of the work in exact detail. I can then get a project manager to manage this and ensure we deliver on time, to scope and within budget. Part of agile success is realising that delivery with these factors ensures a real lack of customer focus. How can we really be sure that the delivered piece of work or new function or feature really delivered the value we anticipated?

Risk and failure need to be acceptable and sensible conversations within all levels of the organisation.

There's a famous saying that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. In this case the "enemy" is actually our customer and very much a friend! However much we pretend we know everything up front we must be honest and accept that we do not. Risk and failure need to be acceptable and sensible conversations within all levels of the organisation. Our agile journey has been made a lot easier by a very open and honest culture with a very supportive board. 

What challenges are you focusing on this year?

Despite lots of success on our agile journey we still see some issues with the company vision being successfully translated into strategic objectives and then product goals. We do at times seem to have departmental silos and a clash of priorities.

Work with the balanced scorecard will be key to that this year, ensuring a small number of leading measures that align all teams and departments across the perspectives of finance, customer, internal process and growth.

Like most companies, we also have a strategic focus on operational excellence. This is taking shape through value stream mapping, bringing teams together to focus on the end-to-end activity that produces a product or service for a customer, rather than teams making local optimisations. This embraces lean and encourages a sharp focus on customer value and satisfaction.

Do you have any reading recommendations?

I have been collating all books and online resources that have influenced my thinking within the lean and agile principles and values on my website.

Here are some to check out:


Header photo by Adam Cranfield: Susumu Koshimizu's "From Surface to Surface" in the Tate Modern.