Get agile faster through pilot programs

While a strong foundation is essential to become a nimble organization, establishing a well-designed pilot program can serve to initiate agility. With the right leadership, focused pilots can move along much more quickly than enterprise-wide changes.

Five specific practices seem essential for successful agile experiments, assuming they have senior sponsorship to protect them from the traditional bureaucracy that might otherwise kill them. These experiments can help leaders grasp what agile looks like and provide a taste of what it can deliver to help win over hard-nosed skeptics.

Pilots also can generate great stories and examples to excite the broader organization about what’s possible. Many of the companies McKinsey has worked with on agility have seen pilot programs that reduced cycle times by 50 percent, cut costs by over 30 percent, doubled productivity– and all while improving customer satisfaction, quality, and employee engagement.

So why wait? Once you have an agile pilot in mind, adopt the foundational practices within the pilot’s scope. Set a North Star direction and purpose, build a strong performance orientation, create information transparency, accelerate decision making, and empower your teams through leadership that serves them. Then you can focus on the five “pilot” practices to help make these agile experiments successful: fit-for-purpose cells, sensing and seizing opportunities, flexible resource allocation, rapid iteration and experimentation, and continuous learning.

Here are some tips:

Figure out your fighting unit. These are your “fit-for-purpose performance cells”. They possess several common features. The most basic cell unit is usually a small, semi-autonomous team, often cross-functional in nature, with seven to 12 people. In addition, there is often a super-unit, think “Tribe,” of between 100-300 people to help orchestrate and coordinate across the smaller teams.

The optimal number is roughly 150. This comes from the Dunbar’s Number. The theory of Dunbar’s Number posits that 150 is the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships.

One agile organization, W.L. Gore, the makers of Gore-Tex, found that, in their factories, once a building contained more than 150 people they were less likely to work together as a team.

Just-in-time “emergent” (re-)planning. Keep strategic planning and resource allocation evergreen by constantly scanning, assessing and revisiting decisions. This emerges in two of the dynamic agile practices: sensing and seizing opportunities and flexible resource allocation.

Sensing and seizing relates to watching for and adapting to changing circumstances, emerging customer preferences, and new developments in the external environment. It requires actively using customer insights to shape, pilot, launch, and iterate on fresh ideas, features, initiatives and business models.

Flexible resource allocation involves a fast, simple process to evaluate the progress of work and decision to either ramp it up, put it on hold, or shut it down entirely.

Test and learn, FAST. The final two agile experimentation practices — rapid iteration and experimentation and continuous learning – are perhaps the most crucial for an agile pilot.

With rapid iteration, new ideas and innovations are delivered with speed and productivity and developed through fast cycles of building, field testing and learning. Just barely-good-enough prototypes are frequently used. These offer the ability to get feedback on something nowhere near ready for prime time, yet good enough in the time available to give users or customers a sense of what the final product might be to get their input quickly.

Continuous learning means that people spend dedicated time looking for ways to improve their deliverables as well as their business processes and ways of working. A culture of cross-organizational learning must be supported with resources, processes and tools.

If you do jump head first into agile experimentation and pilots, even if the results are amazing, recognize that you will not be ready to scale your newfound agility across the enterprise if you haven’t addressed the foundation. While you can skip it and go straight to pilots, a firm foundation remains essential for scaling and sustaining agility.

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