Or “Seven Steps to a Successful Agile Collaboration” as published in Forbes.com
As organizations transform to more digitally savvy business models, I am seeing that it is more than business processes that need rethinking. I believe transformative digital business models require ecosystems of partners and a faster, more responsive way of working within these networks of business partners. Essentially, they need an agile way of partnering.
Agile, a 20-year-old mainstay in software development, has jumped out of its cradle and is now widely embraced by the business world as the key to thriving in these new business models. My company focuses on transformational partnering and helps companies find more value in their strategic partnerships and business ecosystems. I have seen first-hand how ecosystems have evolved and how companies are adopting more agile ways of working with partners to keep pace with change and disruption. Now alliances among large enterprises are seeking ways to become faster, more customer-centric and more responsive to change.
So what is agile partnering? First, the definition of partnering is a collaborative business relationship to create greater value for customers and the partnering organizations than what could be accomplished independently. Agile partnering reflects this business intent with an agile spin. Below are seven steps I’ve developed to help form successful agile partnerships:
1. Focus on teams and collaboration. Agile methodology at its heart is a collaboration model. Build small, empowered, cross-functional teams, and set them loose. Contrast this to the traditional hierarchy of highly siloed functions in which getting teams to work collaboratively can be difficult. In my experience, decisions that involve another silo frequently had to be escalated to the highest common authority, which can take lots of time and political maneuvering.
Partnerships and ecosystems are often operated by cross-functional teams and led by alliance leaders or partner managers who have the influence and authority to determine how the collaboration is operated and are empowered to make decisions quickly, collaboratively and by consensus.
2. Prioritize customer and partner value. Make delivering value to the customer your top priority. Most alliances and partnerships have a goal of delivering customer value that is over and above what can be created independently. They also seek to achieve greater business value in the partnership through that process. Ensure you and your partner(s) are both creating and gaining value in the collaboration. I advocate that’s the win-win that is foundational to a successful partnership.
Agile creates customer value through user stories. Think about how customers will use a feature of your product or service, how they will experience it, what problem it solves for them and how they will feel when you solve their problem. User stories are short vignettes that will help you in the next step.
3. Break project work into small digestible tasks. Agile working doesn’t mean you try to do everything according to a grand master plan. Work is broken into small, time-bound “sprints.” In my experience, a sprint tends to range between two and four weeks long and is focused on one user story. Each sprint cycle will also consist of four stages: plan, develop, deploy and evaluate. What you learn from the “evaluate” phase will inform where the team should go in the next sprint and allow you and your partners to advance toward the final outcome.
4. Embrace experimentation and change. The nature of the reiterative sprint enables agile teams to experiment at a small scale to prove or disprove a hypothesis. For example, do your customers want a blue widget or a red widget? You can deploy a blue widget in one sprint and see how it is received. In a partner collaboration, you might want to deploy a new, joint product for a target market and validate the value proposition. Based on what you learn from the evaluation, you might have to adjust the offering in the next sprint. I believe it’s important to embrace change in an agile collaboration because each change brings you closer to an ideal that benefits the customer and the partnering organizations.
5. Take small risks. The reiterative sprint and continuous evaluation mean that risk is not accumulated. Break up each risk into small increments that give the partner teams an ability to test and measure them at a small scale and reduce risks at each step.
6. Accelerate time-to-value. Getting to value is a key driver in a fast-paced, digital business model. Each sprint is designed to deliver an outcome. Because these are quick sprints, time-to-value is highly accelerated, and each sprint builds value on top of the former one. In the old model, it could be six months or two years before you brought value to the customer. The design of the agile sprint means you get to value faster and can continuously add value to your offer.
7. Think agile. More than anything else, agile is a mindset. If you dive into the agile literature, you will find the Agile Manifesto, which summarizes the values and principles of the agile way. You will also find the processes and tools that agile teams use to manage their work. All these things help. Yet, agile is not a religion — it is very adaptable, and it’s based on experimentation. Agile promotes “what works,” and what works might be different in your industry, your business and your collaboration.
There is a massive difference between “being agile” and “doing agile.” You will see some gains in your business and in your partnerships in doing agile, but I believe you will see transformative gains in adopting an agile mindset.