Interview with Professor Stijn Viaene
In today’s rapidly-changing corporate world, it’s imperative for businesses and organisations to respond and adapt more quickly than ever before. Digital transformation provides opportunities by optimising resource usage, innovating capabilities and creating lasting relationships with customers. Throughout the organisations’ journey in digital transformation, agility is one of the most important aspects to be looked at. In this interview, we had the pleasure of a conversation with Vlerick Business School’s Professor Stijn Viaene, who talked to us about the importance of agile transformation and how it drives and delivers digital transformation.
Scaling agility is a huge topic right now, especially to organisations during their digital transformation journey. Could you tell us exactly what this is about? Does it matter to all organisations?
Agility is what is required from organisations that want to thrive in turbulent environments, like the digital economy. It implies speed, flexibility, and most of all, responsiveness to change.
Today, people almost automatically associate agility with the introduction of self-organising, multidisciplinary teams. These teams are empowered to decide autonomously, without having to escalate decision making all the time. Publicly available models for implementing agile teamwork, such as Scrum or Kanban, have become increasingly popular.
Now, if you only have one such team, which is not too big, composed of highly competent people, and a team with a great team dynamics, then these agile setups can really work miracles. It is what fuels the success of digital start-ups.
On the other hand, what if you have 10, 20, 80 or more of these agile teams all running initiatives at the same time? With all sorts of dependencies amongst the teams and the projects, some teams may need the work of others as inputs. Projects of different teams may work with a common data asset. Teams may fight for the same scarce resources and talent. And, what if there’s a great deal of legacy around, which the teams need to somehow work with?
This situation easily ends up in chaos, especially when the change has to come fast or very fast as in the digital age.
You will have to find ways to align the different team and project objectives, coordinate resource allocation, and manage to integrate the results without jeopardising the agility of the teams and that is quite a challenge. The challenge is referred to as scaling agility or creating agility at scale.
You have mentioned the need for aligning, coordinating and integrating work as critical to making agility at scale work. These things are essential in achieving the goals and focus of organisations. Over the years, what changes did you notice in terms of the goals and objectives of different organisations?
The importance of aligning, coordinating and integrating work is not new. It goes back to the very essence of making organisations work.
What has changed though, is the backdrop against which we are organising: turbulence, catalysed by digitalisation.
At the risk of oversimplifying things, you could say that in the past, we organised for focus, cost, efficiency and stability. Today, we are still aiming for focus, but with emphasis on creating speed (speed-to-market), flexibility and choice.
It does not mean that the former set of objectives is less important in turbulent times, quite the opposite I would say, but the challenge has shifted very much towards combining these former objectives with the latter ones.
This immediately brings us to the paradox involved in scaling agility: introducing fast flexibility as well as stability at the same time. That is what makes it so hard to get it right. We’ll have to effectively figure out where stability matters and where it can be relaxed.
However, one thing is clear: with the speed at which things are moving today, we are no longer able to achieve the right balance between flexibility and stability by relying on our human abilities alone. We’ll have to work creatively with digital technologies to help us find and install the right balance between stability and flexibility.
As you have said, stability and flexibility are two major components that should be achieved through scaling agility. How will leaders be able to apply the concept of scaled agility in their respective organisations?
There are several practice frameworks available for scaling agility to the enterprise level. They are all relatively new.
For example, there’s “SAFe” which stands for “Scaled Agile Framework,” but there’s also “LeSS” – for “Large Scale Scrum,” DAD which is “Disciplined Agile Delivery” and more. Each of these frameworks has its own origins and scope.
One alternative, which many people could have heard about is the so-called “Spotify model,” named after the way digital music streaming service, Spotify organises for agility at scale. A few years ago, it got a serious boost when Dutch banking group ING announced that it would emulate the model to accelerate its digital transformation. Spotify’s model is a nice example for showcasing an organisation that is looking or a “minimum viable work and organising model.”
In Spotify’s model, the whole organisation is reconceived into relatively small autonomous, multidisciplinary teams – or “squads.” A team has a “product owner,” who represents the customer and who helps the team prioritise work. Each squad has end-to-end responsibility for a particular customer value mission.
Squads with closely related missions are grouped into “tribes;” groupings that are not too big, in order not to jeopardise agility. A “tribe lead” – a squad member himself – is responsible for connecting the dots between the squads.
People in the squads are also networked across squads and tribes based on their expertise or discipline. These are called “chapters.” Chapters are groupings that create economies of scale.
Arguably, chapters are light-weight, light-touch functions. Light-weight, because their experts are supposed to operate from within the squads. There’s no big central function team somewhere high-up into the organisation. Light-touch, because the discipline that the experts install for achieving economies of scale should not come at the expense of the squads’ ability to deliver customer value fast and frequently. In practice, that’s a hard balance to strike.
Finally, Spotify also talks about “guilds.” These are essentially, communities of interest or practice. They work more organically than chapters. They allow people who share a common passion, interest or practice to come together to share experiences, cases and challenges, and even create shared best practices to follow. Guilds promote learning with a bottom-up drive.
With all the diversity of frameworks and methods for scaling agility, in your view, what is the most effective way or mechanism that organisations should implement to become more agile at scale?
What all the frameworks for scaling agility have in common is that they are suggestions. They are works in progress.
Now, for a work in progress to effectively progress, you need constructs in your organised model that stimulate learning, particularly learning by doing. You need mechanisms that allow you to iterate back and forth between acting and thinking to find new and better ways of working.
Personally, I believe that working with communities of practice – or “guilds” – can be a great mechanism to help organisations effectively learn how to become more agile at scale.
It goes something like this: People start by looking at their agile practices and routines as real-life experiments, they regularly come together to share their experiences and discuss challenges related to their experiments, they then together evaluate which practices work and which don’t. They decide to replicate what works and stop and take note of what doesn’t work.
This cycle gets repeated at a steady rhythm, a rhythm at which the organisation is able to absorb the proposed changes. The idea is that you get better at this routine over time, allowing you to increase the learning rhythm. This way, the rate of change inside the organisation can be gradually synchronised with the rate of change on the outside.
Working with communities of practice also helps to make your agile and digital transformation inclusive, rather than exclusive. It allows you to shape the transformation as an open invitation for everyone to contribute. This way, the organisation can collectively learn how to do things differently and better, in view of winning together.
I would be happy to call these people who effectively take up that glove to help drive this collaborative learning journey, leaders. Not the kind of leadership that you’d find in the how-I-changed-my-company stories featuring superstar CEOs, but a much more humble, servant interpretation of leadership.
As you have mentioned, scaling agility is one of the hardest phases in organisation transformation. What are the common difficulties that organisations could face in their journey to transformation and what advice could you give to leaders for them to succeed in their digital transformation?
It will be crucial to get the whole organisation to work together in the same agile ways. That means introducing agility at the level of individuals, teams and the organisation as a whole. Only then will your digital transformation succeed.
All too often, unfortunately, the notion of agility and its implementation at the different organisational levels are done in a very unorderly fashion. There is no common frame, no common language, different support teams, little governance, etc.
That’s a proven recipe for disaster. Leadership has a vested interest not to let this happen.
My advice is this:
1. Introduce customer-centricity as the number one unifying principle for your transformation.
2. Organise around customer value missions. Make small multidisciplinary teams, working iteratively and with fast customer feedback, responsible and accountable for creating and delivering customer value within the missions.
3. Learn how to make agile teamwork successful. Also, and most importantly, invest in learning how to align, coordinate and integrate these agile teams into an agile organisation that is more than the sum of its agile teams. Use communities of practice in accelerating these learning processes.
4. Invest in the power of digital technologies to create future-proof agility at scale.
Thank you so much Professor Viaene, it’s a pleasure speaking with you.
About the Interviewee
Stijn Viaene is a full professor and partner at Vlerick Business School in Belgium. He is the director of the school’s Digital Transformation focus area. He is also a full professor in the Decision Sciences and Information Management Department at KU Leuven University in Belgium.