Flexible approach suits business

Edwin Smith looks inside the agile company to discover how to make the transition to a better way of working

To put it simply, there is no blueprint for the paradigmatic agile business. In fact, according to Layla Foord, general manager at Melbourne-based online creative network Envato, any sort of cookie-cutter approach is anathema to the very concept.

“Agile is just a set of repeatable methods for achieving something,” says Ms Foord. “It takes the focus away from deliverables and switches it to outcomes. So you really have to work out the nub of what you want to achieve, instead of getting hung up on ticking boxes.

“The old, traditional business case is when you plan to get from A to Z and specify that you are going to stop at B, C and D on the way, in exactly that order. With agile, you have an idea of where you want to go, but it’s much less rigid. There aren’t many things that you have to do to arrive at the outcome; you’re open to the possibility of the plan developing as you go along.” But, she adds, that doesn’t mean there is a total lack of strategy or planning.

While the method’s flexible nature might initially make it seem difficult to pin down, it also means that, once apprehended, the concept can be applied to businesses of any type or size.

Ms Foord, who has used agile business techniques to build an online marketplace for skills inside six months, says that she has seen the principles applied in all kinds of contexts from her own high-growth tech business, where every employee has bought into the idea, to Sensis, the longstanding publisher of the Australian version of the Yellow Pages, which created a whole new department to work on mobile. Sensis then used that department as a Petri dish to grow agile methods.

Back in the UK, agile has been embraced by companies as big as Aviva. The insurance giant, which generated revenues of £40 billion last year, introduced agile methods into small teams in different call centres before encouraging the techniques to spread like a benevolent virus through the organisation – more of which later.

Ms Foord says that for any business, agile processes will only work if people have a clear and unified idea of what they are trying to achieve. It’s essential that good communication allows individuals to make informed decisions of their own accord, take responsibility and become more efficient.

Work is carried out according to a system of priority that fast-tracks easily achievable, high-value ‘chunks’ and may even totally disregard previously identified tasks if they are both difficult and add little value to the overarching outcome

In order to get everyone in her team on the same wavelength, she advocates having a “stand-up” or quick status check every day. This offers an opportunity for team members to look at the “agile wall” or billboard, which displays the progress made on each bite-sized chunk of the outcome that has been targeted. For the benefit of those who aren’t able to attend the physical meeting, Ms Foord uses Trello software, which creates a desktop version of the agile wall.

Work is carried out according to a system of priority that fast-tracks easily achievable, high-value “chunks” and may even totally disregard previously identified tasks if they are both difficult and add little value to the overarching outcome. Ms Foord admits that, from above, this can look chaotic. So trust and communication are absolutely vital.

For insurers Aviva, agile methods were introduced through Systems Thinking, an initiative designed to help the company respond better to customer demands coming into call centres. “We had forgotten that it should be about customer service,” says Systems Thinking director, Rob Brown, who explains that, under the company’s previous model, a preoccupation with targets often compromised the work.

Operators would be tasked with limiting their time on each call to four minutes. They would field a customer’s call and then pass the work on to someone in the back office before picking up another call again as soon as possible in an effort to keep things moving and keep costs to a minimum. But like a game of Chinese whispers, with each degree of separation, and sometimes there would be two or three, the process became less efficient and meant that 60 per cent of queries didn’t meet customer demands.

So, focused on the outcome of improved customer service, the company scrapped the distinction between front and back office by training its call centre staff to deal with inquiries themselves. Average call times became longer, but the proportion of customers calling back dropped markedly. Complaints were cut by as much as 80 per cent and customer satisfaction averaged 90 per cent in some departments. What’s more, staff became more engaged and turnover rates dropped from 40 per cent to 15 per cent.

But Mr Brown admits that initiating a transformation like this can be difficult. At Aviva things began slowly in 2009 with small numbers of people in a few call centres being converted to the agile way of doing things. “We needed to try it out to prove it was a better way of working,” he says. “Then we could get people to understand by showing them the numbers – the data doesn’t lie.”

However, if a business is to benefit fully from agile working, Mr Brown says that senior people throughout the organisation must buy into it. “Leaders have to understand what agile business looks like on the ground. They have to roll their sleeves up and get close to it, because when the big decisions need to be made, they should be based on what is really going on – not on a high-level view from a meeting room.”

After being introduced in small pockets, this agile approach has been rolled out across all Aviva’s UK call centres. It will continue to evolve, but Mr Brown says that it has already paid dividends. “In terms of reduced expenses and increased sales, we reckon it has made a £100-million impact – and counting.”