Q&A: Creating a More Agile Organization

Why is agile so important to organizations, and how does an organization get to an agile state?

What's driving the push to agile, and once the benefits are recognized, how does an organization adopt the agile model? For perspective on what makes for a successful transition, we turned to Maureen Clarry, founder of CONNECT: The Knowledge Network, a member of TDWI's faculty, and a frequent and popular instructor at TDWI's World Conferences.

[Editor's note: "Creating an Agile BI Environment -- Delivering Data at the Speed of Thought" is the theme of the 2010 TDWI World Conference in San Diego.]

BI This Week: Agility is the theme for the San Diego TDWI conference. Why is agility so important from an organizational perspective?

Maureen Clarry: Organizations are systems and systems must adapt to their environment. Research shows that one of the critical factors for business success is the organization's ability to scan the external environment to anticipate changes required for survival. In business, this implies making informed predictions about markets, economic trends, product opportunities, demographics, and social changes. By paying attention to the external environment and anticipating the future, the business can adapt its products and services to fit not just the current market but the future market.

In business intelligence organizations, this implies making informed decisions about those same trends. Additionally, it means we also need to pay attention to the role of technology and the uses of information to support our organization's ability to anticipate and adapt to changing market conditions.

It's not enough to be financially stable, consistent, and efficient, nor is it sufficient to have great employees. We need all of those things and the ability to look ahead.

Why is it so difficult for some organizations to be more agile?

In my experience, I think some organizations have difficulty with either/or thinking as opposed to both/and thinking. Some think they need consistency and efficiency; i.e., let's put more processes, structures, and standards in place so that we are better organized to manage our business and business intelligence.

Those organizations place emphasis on data standards, data governance processes, and repeatable development techniques. Other companies focus on being adaptable and quick -- they might perceive process and standards as too restrictive, cumbersome, and slow. Then the tension begins; we focus on either consistency or adaptability. In my opinion, it order to be agile for the long term, you actually need to focus on how to be both consistent and adaptable. That requires a balanced perspective on how to put appropriate standards and processes in place that can support speed, change and consistency.

What's the role of leadership in creating more agile organizations?

There are three things leaders need to do to support agility. First, they need to get clear about how they personally experience change so that they can be personally effective. Second, they need to have a holistic view of the organization and how to balance competing demands so that agility can be supported by other factors such as stability, internal focus, goals, and objectives, etc. Third, they need to enable others to adapt to waves of changes by managing the human dynamics.

What are some of the biggest mistakes organizations make when trying to become more agile?

Confusing Agile with a capital A and agility is a common mistake. Agile as a methodology is a small piece compared to organizational agility. Closely related to that, we sometimes see BI organizations that use Agile methodology as an excuse so that they don't have to define standards or document anything. This is another example of trading speed and adaptability for standardization and reuse. It does not need to be an either/or proposition.

What are some of the "best practices" for creating more agile BI organizations?

A little planning upfront goes a long way toward being agile in practice. Lack of planning creates ambiguity and that does not support agility. Constant "change" is the new normal, so organizations that lack agility need to learn how to embrace constant change.

There are several best practices related to project management, program management, and development methodology, but from an organizational perspective you'll need change management approaches that incorporate awareness and motivation, communication plans, sponsor plans, and training plans. These do not need to be hefty notebooks that take months to produce.

Essentially, if you want people to move quickly and adapt, they need to have an awareness of why the change is important and a desire to make the change. In fact, lack of awareness of why the change is happening is the most common cause of employee resistance. You need to create the "burning platform" of motivation. If you're changing priorities, changing source systems, changing strategy, changing architecture, changing technologies, or changing budgets, the same holds true: you need to create awareness of why the change is essential and facilitate the desire to make the change. A variety of available tools can be used to assess a team's readiness to change.

Communication plans help us gain clarity about how to communicate the right message at the right time to the right audience. One best practice in this area would be to develop a matrix that describes the content, the target audience, purpose, frequency, and method. For example, an organizational change (content), needs to be communicated to the project team and key stakeholders (target audience), to define changes in responsibilities (purpose), one week prior to the effective change (timing/frequency) and in a group meeting with senior leadership and face-to-face meetings with supervisors (method).

A sponsor plan can be a month-by-month roadmap of tasks and expectations required from the sponsor in relationship to the BI initiative. For example, in September, the sponsor needs to finalize funding and set priorities with the project team; they need to educate managers on the business need, they need to make a presentation at an all-hands meeting. In October, the sponsor needs to approve the project charter, and so forth. Too frequently we see sponsors that are sponsors in name only without a clear set of responsibilities in a designated timeframe. That leads to ineffective sponsorship and ambiguity. Ineffective sponsorship and ambiguity do not support organizational agility.

People resist changes when they feel they lack the skills to be successful. Frequently in BI initiatives, there is a "build it and they will come" mentality that is ineffective and expensive. A training plan identifies the skills and capabilities that are needed; it identifies the appropriate audiences and defines the best methods for knowledge transfer. For example, it's not enough to teach the BI tool; you need to define the particular reports, graphs, drill downs, etc. that the finance analyst needs and they need to integrate it into their workflow. For that particular audience, determine if it better to provide knowledge transfer in a classroom setting, one-to-one sessions, written documentation, intranet, or some other channel.

"Change management" seems to imply that we have control over change. How does that make sense?

We don't have control over the changes but we do have control over our response to those changes. Perhaps a better term to adopt might be "change enablement." How can we become more flexible and agile in responding to the changes required for success both personally and in helping our teams and organizations respond to more rapid change cycles? It's interesting to note that most change happens because of business necessity; however, most resistance occurs personally. We can lead changes that are good for the organization but we have to be prepared for individual resistance.

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