Thriving amidst change: can agile methodology be an answer?

By 11 December 2023 No Comments

The pace needed to respond to increased regulation, tech disruption, changing client expectations, and global competition is frenetic and, in our experience, most businesses move too slowly to keep up with the changing landscape. On the flip side, agile financial advisory businesses, that can adapt quickly to change, will thrive.

The tech industry is constantly in flux, especially now, which is why the leading tech businesses have adopted agile, innovative, client centric, design thinking approaches to thrive amidst change. This agile management approach can and is being adopted by financial advisory businesses globally.

Agile management is a set of principles and practices that originated in the software development industry, but have since been applied across various domains, including financial services. The Agile Manifesto, published in 2001, states four core values of agile management:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation
  3. Client collaboration over contract negotiation
  4. Responding to change over following a plan

“That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more”.

These four core values are supported by 12 principles that guide agile teams to deliver value to clients in an iterative and incremental way, while embracing change and feedback.

Time for a change?

Agile management is a project management framework that emphasises flexibility, adaptability, and continuous improvement. It is characterised by its iterative approach, which involves breaking down projects into smaller, more manageable tasks that are completed and delivered in short cycles. This allows for continuous feedback and adaptation, as the team learns from and responds to the changing needs of the project and its stakeholders.

Agile management has gained popularity in recent years, as it has been shown to be effective in delivering high-quality products and services in a timely and cost-effective manner. It is particularly well-suited for projects that are complex, uncertain, or have rapidly changing requirements.

The financial services sector is a highly regulated and risk-averse environment, which has traditionally made it resistant to change. However, there is a growing recognition that agile management can be a valuable tool for financial businesses that are seeking to innovate and adapt to the changing landscape of client expectations, technological advancements, and regulation.

What can financial advisory businesses adopt from Agile Software Development

One of the most popular frameworks for implementing agile management is Scrum. Scrum emphasises getting the most important jobs done incrementally, in quick (usually two week) bursts, by a multidisciplinary team. There is a well-defined process of activities, the client is at the heart of driving the process, and the idea of ‘failing faster‘ is celebrated. Getting client feedback quickly on a rough draft (minimal viable product), that can be enhanced, is more important than delivering a more polished draft that takes longer to get in front of the client. Client feedback drives the scrum process.

Before agile developments begins work is done talking to clients and framing the problem, generating user stories and point of view or problem statements, knowing what exactly the client needs and why (who needs a way to do what and why?). This research leads to a prioritised list of tasks (the product backlog) that need to be done to deliver the product or service the client desires most .  

The scrum team works in (generally two-week) sprints, taking the next most important task(s) from the prioritised list (backlog) that they can deliver in that timeframe. There are daily standups, brief meetings, where each team member quickly outlines (usually in a minute or less) what they did yesterday, what they will do today, and any issues they face. Everyone on the team knows the state of play, every day, and the Scrum Master addresses any issues the team faces.

Once something is developed (the definition of done) feedback is sought from the client so the prototype can be improved or scrapped immediately, and the process iterates. At the end of each sprint the team meets (retrospective) to discuss what went well, what didn’t go well and what can be improved. The team acts on this feedback learning continuously to get better with each sprint.

This video outlines the scrum process in more detail.

The agile focus on delivering the most value to the client first, building minimal viable products to get feedback from the customer quickly, daily stand-up, speed, flat multidisciplinary teams, definition of done, and retrospective could all be adopted by financial advisory businesses when addressing rapid change.

The benefits and challenges of being agile

Agile management can bring many benefits to financial advisory businesses, such as:

  • Increased client satisfaction and loyalty by delivering products and services that meet their needs and expectations
  • Reduced time-to-market and costs by eliminating waste and focusing on value-added activities
  • Improved quality and innovation by incorporating feedback and testing throughout the development process
  • Enhanced collaboration and communication by fostering a culture of trust, transparency, and empowerment among team members and stakeholders
  • Higher employee engagement and retention by providing opportunities for learning, growth, and autonomy

However, agile management also poses some challenges, such as:

  • Changing the mindset and behaviour of leaders, managers, and employees who are used to traditional ways of working
  • Balancing agility with compliance and governance requirements
  • Aligning agile teams with the strategic vision and goals of the organisation
  • Managing dependencies and coordination across multiple teams and functions
  • Scaling agile practices across large and complex organisations

Some tips on how to implement agile management in your financial advisory business

If you are a Practice Manager or an Owner of a financial advisory business who wants to adopt agile management practices in your organisation, you may wonder how to get started and what steps to follow. Here are some tips and guidelines that can help you implement agile management successfully:

  • Start with a clear vision and strategy: Before you embark on your agile journey, you will need to have a clear vision of what you want to achieve and why. You will also need to align your agile goals with your business strategy and objectives. This will help you communicate the value and benefits of agile to your stakeholders and employees and gain their buy-in and support.
  • Assess your current state and readiness: Before you introduce any changes, you will need to understand your current situation and capabilities. You will need to assess the maturity and performance of your existing processes, systems, and culture, and identify the gaps and opportunities for improvement. You will also need to assess the readiness and willingness of your leaders, managers, and employees to adopt agile practices, and address any barriers or resistance that may arise.
  • Choose an agile framework and approach: There are various agile frameworks and approaches that you can choose from, such as Scrum (mentioned above), Kanban, Lean, XP, SAFe, etc. You need to select the one that best suits your business context, needs, and goals. You will also need to decide whether you want to implement agile in a pilot project, a specific function, or across the entire organisation. You may also want to consider hiring an external coach or consultant who can guide you through the agile implementation process.
  • Train and coach your teams: One of the key success factors for agile implementation is having competent and motivated teams who can deliver value to clients in an iterative and incremental way. You will need to train and coach your teams on the agile principles, values, practices, and tools that they will use. You will also need to empower them to self-organise, collaborate, and make decisions within their scope of work. You may also want to create cross-functional teams that include representatives from different functions, such as a Practice Manager, Financial Advisor, Paraplanner, Administrator, Marketing Executive etc.
  • Establish feedback loops and metrics: Another key success factor for agile implementation is having frequent and effective feedback loops that enable you to monitor and measure your progress and performance. To this end, you will need to establish feedback mechanisms that allow you to collect feedback from your clients, stakeholders, and teams on a regular basis. You will also need to define metrics to help you track and evaluate the outcomes and impacts of your agile initiatives, such as client satisfaction, quality, speed, cost, etc.
  • Inspect and adapt: The final key success factor for agile implementation is having a culture of continuous improvement that encourages you to inspect and adapt your agile practices based on the feedback and metrics that you receive. You will need to review your results and learnings at the end of each sprint or iteration and identify what worked well and what can be improved. You will also need to implement the improvements in the next sprint or iteration and keep experimenting with new ideas and approaches.

Dip your toes?

One possible way to dip your toes in agile management is to start with a small pilot project that can demonstrate the benefits of agile methods. Select a project that has a clear scope, a motivated team, and a supportive sponsor. Then apply some of the core agile principles, such as defining user stories, prioritising the backlog, conducting sprints and retrospectives. Also use some of the common agile tools, such as Kanban boards, burndown charts and daily stand-ups. Then measure the outcomes of the project, such as quality, speed, cost, and client satisfaction and compare them with the traditional approach.

By starting with a small pilot project, you can:

  • Test the feasibility and suitability of agile management for your organisation.
  • Learn from the experience and identify the challenges and opportunities for improvement.
  • Use the pilot project as a case study to communicate the value of agile management to other stakeholders and gain their buy-in.
  • Scale up the agile approach to other projects or teams gradually, while ensuring that you have the necessary resources, training, and support.

The scrum guide states that successful use of Scrum depends on people becoming more proficient in living five values:

  1. Commitment
  2. Focus
  3. Openness
  4. Respect
  5. Courage

Isn’t that a good place to start your agile journey?

The Agile Manifesto was a response to the frustrations of working within the inadequacies of traditional software development. Do financial advisory businesses need to adopt similar changes to thrive today?

Barclays: agility is key to better business outcomes | London Business School

John Smart Head of Development Services and Agility Lead at Barclays Group talks to Prof. Julian Birkenshaw Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School about Barclays Group better ways of working.

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