• Prateek Duhan
  • Published: 21 April 2023


Part 4: “Paying the Toll”

Down the ages, agility – whether mental or physical – has allowed human beings to adapt and thrive against a background of changing conditions. That agility requires an unsentimental willingness to accept new ideas – a principle that applies equally to individuals, societies, and businesses, with financial institutions being no exception. 

Most financial institutions are accordingly moving beyond older, legacy change delivery methodologies with a view to adopting modern delivery frameworks to accelerate value capture, reduce costs, and improve product quality. They have experienced varying degrees of success –and those that struggled the most with this evolution are typically afflicted by a combination of four factors. 

1. Failure to Make it Stick 
Modern delivery frameworks, like Agile approaches, are so different than traditional methodologies they demand a sea change in an organization’s ethos to get right. Most organizations stumble on this path, as they direct all their focus on implementing the mechanics and processes while bigger picture changes to their operating model and culture are largely neglected. Some common symptoms include: 

  • Dressing up legacy processes in Agile colors – Most organizations without a functioning Agile operating model tend to regress into old habits quickly. Stand ups become discussion meetings, backlog refinement sessions become prioritization forums, and demos and retrospectives fall off calendars because no one is sure how to fill the time slots with high quality material. While the ceremonies often exist in name, there is nothing Agile about them as old ways of working continue to dominate the conversation. 

    Subject matter expertise in the form of experienced scrum masters will largely alleviate this issue while the methodology matures. In the early stages, scrum masters and influential change champions play the most important roles, as they drill discipline and culture into teams and the surrounding organizational elements until the change agenda develops a self-sustaining momentum.
  • Perpetuating the divide between technology and business – While expedient and high-quality product development is one of the hallmarks of effective modern delivery, most organizations ignore the piece that enables teams to build the ‘right things right’. 

    At their core, most organizations struggling to implement modern delivery methodologies have a team or delivery structure where technology resources don’t truly understand the business needs. Likewise there is a disconnect between the rationale behind the product and product resources who do not truly understand the technology functions and capabilities required to support the business goals.

    The result is a perpetuation of a proxy layer commonly made up of Business Systems Analysts, Business Project Managers, and IT Delivery Managers who must translate business goals into workable technology requirements.

    Eliminating this proxy layer and empowering agile delivery teams to produce the best possible results requires conscious decision making in how business and technology resources collaborate in a team setting. Establishing more formality in the scope definition, prioritization, and refinement processes can go a long way in integrating the business and technology components of delivery organizations into cohesive units.
  • Solutioning provided by non-experts – Traditional project delivery is controlled by the business, from the business case to the solution architecture through more detailed design and development. Plain as day, this is sub-optimal, as it takes away solution control from the experts. Technology leads and agile delivery teams have all the relevant expertise to define and deliver solutions that will help the organization realize its desired business outcomes.

    Surrendering this control is not easy. It can be driven top down by management, but the easiest way to enable this is by building trust through integrating a modernized operating model with modern agile delivery mechanics.

    Ultimately, where organizations will find the most traction in enabling lasting change adoption is allocating the right functional responsibilities to the right resources and codifying new ways of working in their operating models and organization structures. 

2. Ineffective Tooling Use
While all modern delivery methodologies are unique in their mechanics, nomenclature, and idiosyncrasies, they share a common need for tooling to enable efficient scope management, execution governance, and reporting. 

  • Forcing Persistence of Legacy Tooling/Platforms - Unlike legacy projects that can be managed via large enterprise platforms like ServiceNow, Clarity, or HPPM, Agile teams and their work are managed using new tools such as Jira and Confluence, Version One, or Azure Dev Ops. These new tools are not typically recognized by most organizations as auditable, compliant platforms. This usually means teams are forced to exist in a dual environment, using one set of tools to satisfy legacy organizational project management requirements and another to effectively track and execute their work. 
  • Building Standardization and Boosting Adoption - Additionally, as these agile tools have not been formally incorporated into the enterprise ecosystem, usage is not standardized nor optimized from team to team or portfolio to portfolio. This further reduces confidence in a shift to modern delivery and entrenches legacy behaviors. 

3. Imbalance Between Training and Execution
Learning a new methodology is rather like learning to drive. You can’t get on the road without a basic understanding of the rules – but you won’t learn to drive until the rubber hits the road. Most organizations get the first part correct but can overdo investment in classroom training, making individuals sit through hours of mandated training which soon becomes tedious without adding much additional value. 

  • Optimizing Classroom Learning with On the Job Training - Brief training on the key concepts, followed by hands-on learning under the guidance of experienced practitioners (Scrum Masters, Coaches, and Change Champions) keeps excitement from dissipating. Undertaking initial sprints, especially for new teams, under the guidance of an experienced leader, can solve most teething issues without tamping out the creativity that is key to forming the ways of working and processes best suited to individual teams or units. 
  • Plan for the Reality of Learning New Skills - Preparing for mistakes along the way while encouraging leaders in your organization to provide space for continuous learning is vastly superior to a multiplicity of long training sessions that employees will most likely sleepwalk through.

4. Lack of leadership buy-in - As with all things, clear leadership is critical when implementing a new methodology. Most new modern delivery organizations suffer from top-down pressure for expedited project delivery and activity-based reporting, rather than concentrating on realistic assessments based on throughput or incremental value delivery. Most organizations are so focused on project-based plans, they force their tech teams to react to the plan as opposed to anticipating and reacting to change. 

  • Downward Pressure of Ambiguous Deadlines and Milestones - This leads to dis-optimal product development, the minimum viable product being abandoned, corners being cut, and technology debt accumulated as teams rush to meet artificial timelines. 
  • Organization Structure Modernization - The persistence of legacy organization structures which empower and encourage middle management layers to drive top-down project plans and exert control over their functional domains – be it in the business, technology, or delivery space – is a significant hurdle for financial institutions to clear in building and maintaining the right balance between modern delivery teams and business management. 
  • Empowering Product Owners - A more reliable alternative is to enable strong product managers who are accountable for establishing and curating the business vision; and effective product owners who act as gatekeepers for delivery teams and are able to create transparency and predictability in team throughput.

History is littered with examples of trade-offs made and costs paid in the name of increasing agility.  For financial institutions looking to be successful in their agile transformations, it is high time they reconcile the true cost – in people, processes, and technology – of this next wave in their evolution.

In our final instalment in this series, we will look at how financial institutions can leverage real-time value capture and reporting to create an effective feedback loop and drive continuous improvement across both their strategic planning capabilities (building the right things) as well as their tactical delivery models (building the right things right).