Why Australia Post and NAB have adopted agile methodologies

Urgency, corporate angels, executive buy-in and peer-to-peer learning were just some of the topics raised by Australia Post and NAB transformation managers as they shared their agile adoption stories with attendees at this year's Agile Australia conference

Adopting an agile approach to business innovation requires a sense of urgency, commitment to change, organisational vision and an ongoing focus on momentum and support.

That was the view of Australian Post general manager of the Digital Delivery Centre, Cameron Gough, and NAB capability uplift manager, Dylan Verheijden, who joined forces to present their real-life experiences of agile at the Agile Australia conference in Sydney on 19 June.

The duo outlined four overarching principles for anyone looking to bring agile methodologies into their organisation. These are: A sense of urgency; clear vision around what it is you want to change; support for helping staff along the journey; and regular progress reports and ‘quick wins’ to sustain momentum.

“Anyone can rationalise the need to get a 5 per cent increase on sales, but what really gets people are matters of the heart,” Verheijden said. For NAB, agile was a grass roots approach that evolved within existing teams, and first took hold in its Wholesale Banking business in 2010. The banking group now has 50 teams delivering using agile methodologies.

Australia Post is going through one of the most fundamental and challenging times in its 220-year history as people shift from physical to digital communication, providing all the impetus it needs to embrace agile, Gough told the audience. Forty-one per cent of its customers interacted with Australia Post digitally last year.

The group’s agile adoption has been driven from the top down, and kicked off across its recently established Digital Delivery Business. Gough said it decided on a four-layer approach espoused by Gartner: Pace layered IT; systems of innovation; systems of differentiation; and systems of record. The team was given the green light to innovate using agile methodologies on the first two of these layers and has an 18-month window supported by its CIO to “nail it”, he said.

“We have been allowed the freedom to explore different ways of working, learn from them and then take these practices to the mothership in the long run,” Gough said.

NAB’s agile delivery meanwhile is based on Carnegie Mellon’s Software Program Improvement Infrastructure best practices. “This gives us the process and metrics if we need them,” Verheijden said. “With our teams, if you have a good idea and can convince your peers, then you get the backing.”

Staff can spend four hours a week working on process improvements and innovations and everyone is welcomed to join agile-led teams, he added.

When it comes to supporting agile teams, NAB has taken a “butterfly approach”, promoting education through peer-to-peer training and support. In contrast, Australia Post chose to form a new team of eight experienced in agile methodology to drive its approach. Gough’s top priority was finding people who were the right cultural fit for the business. However he admitted teething problems when initially bringing together individuals that hadn’t worked together before.

Australia Post found it necessary to appoint a dedicated iteration manager to manage the reporting and progress components of its agile delivery and cited dramatic productivity improvements as a result.

“Once the team is in place, the job becomes having to remove the friction points on the wheels,” Gough continued. “In our first iteration we weren’t trading well and by the third iteration we knew something wasn’t right. We discovered two things: One was fixing the fundamentals that weren’t working [like the development machines and that the proxy blocked too much and slowing down the team]; the second was continuous delivery.

“With a waterfall approach you have three or four months to get to the first stage and have often worked things out along the way, whereas with agile you’re reporting every week.”

Staff challenges cited by NAB included balancing peer-to-peer learning with practices procedures, and articulating what the agile teams needed to achieve on an ongoing basis. In both cases, rewarding progress and success at an individual and team level, while taking a constructive approach to failure, was a vital part of retaining momentum, the two speakers said.

Both organisations have established a pipeline of projects and ‘enhancements backlog’ to keep agile teams busy, as well as better prioritise workloads. Having a “corporate angel” or sponsor within the organisation that can meet agile sceptics head-on and support the work being achieved is another must if you’re to keep making progress.

“Without the support of our CIO and COO, we would have struggled,” Gough said. He added his team have established a ‘brand’ for the way it delivers agile. “It’s about the ‘how’, not ‘what’.”

To ensure agile practices can meet the needs of all organisational departments, Verheijden and Gough built in scalability and enterprise-grade capability across their teams from day one. While it’s not surprising to see agile now at the heart of emerging business areas such as mobile, even the traditional payments team are looking at how the approach can improved their products and services, Verheijden said.

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