Agile starts with leadership, not a textbook

Lessons from SiteMinder’s agile transformation

Embracing agile ways of working at SiteMinder, which for years had established itself as a global market leader through technical innovation and pace-to-market, has represented a fundamental shift in how we work. It has exposed vulnerabilities and pushed people from their comfort zones, but ultimately is building a stronger team for the long-term.

As we scale, my challenge has been to build a product development framework that strikes the right balance between delivering more customer value at speed on the one hand, and taking the time to invest in the right foundations for our people and technology on the other; a change that hasn’t happened overnight.

The critical ingredients have been mindset and support.

The truth is there is no one-size-fits-all approach to how an organisation should shape its product development process, but we wanted to make sure that we engaged with our ways of working consciously. Our goal was to create a high-level structure that would provide structure where needed, but allow for flexibility where possible, and stay true to the value of “Individuals and Interactions Over Processes and Tools”.

It was important to me that we took an inclusive and patient approach throughout implementation; one that acknowledged our history and fostered an understanding that we will continue to iterate and adapt – or “Respond to Change Over (Mindlessly) Follow a Plan”, if you like.

Below are 5 key learnings to share from SiteMinder’s journey so far:

1.    Eat your own dog food: We approached our effort to capture and refine our ways of working in the same way we wanted our products teams to tackle their initiatives: we did our research to understand the problem.

Over 70 interviews across the business uncovered pain points, unconscious biases and also what was working well. These insights gave us a clear way forward in terms of what our teams valued, and where things needed to change.

So, we harnessed the inputs and drafted an initial product delivery framework that was unique to SiteMinder. Named RuDDEr, it provides a structure for our teams to be guided by and ultimately make decisions within. Crucially, it also helps us all to pivot around shifting customer expectations and the changing business landscape.

2.      Provide everyone with a voice: Only when fully integrated into an organisation’s DNA and when everyone has a voice to call out what is and isn’t working, can agile become truly effective; an environment where all feel comfortable to take ownership, experiment and adapt.

With RuDDEr in place, practical application and buy-in then became paramount to executing our strategy in a meaningful way. No matter how beneficial a process is to our wellbeing, it’s instinctual to put up barriers to new routines. It’s vital from the outset to ensure that everyone feels heard and properly equipped to work productively within your agile structure. Today we do this via a series of scrum ceremonies, starting with the daily team scrums and culminating in a portfolio-level scrum of scrums.

3.      Follow the tension: Following implementation, we have seen two broad sets of people challenges:

·        Some like rules and structure and excel in the clarity that comes with it. They find it daunting to live based on principles alone.

·        Some prefer less structure and revel in ambiguity. They can find even the high level framework too prescriptive.

RuDDEr is not the same across all teams and across all types of work, and teams need to be allowed to find their own patterns within the framework. In spite of openness and transparency being core values of agile, we are deliberately taking our time to provide different levels of information, at different points in time, for different people.

Reminding them about the pain points ultimately being solved, and encouraging visualisation of the work to foster the right conversations at the right time, are other helpful tools that we utilise to keep teams on track.

4.      Invest in your people: Investing time in capability-building, learning opportunities and employee feedback for our team has proven pivotal to growing self-confidence. Today our teams recognise that our product operations team is a key enabler, with coaches operating across the teams to help address our challenges and review and evolve our ways of working.

The next challenge is to ensure that our recruitment is aligned with our principles. This is key to how we reinforce our commitment to creating great work practices and an environment in which we seek to continually improve.

5.      It’s a journey: Changing the way people work won’t be easy, and won’t be universally loved, at least initially, and that’s okay! Rather than obsessing about how easy or fast the transition is, you should measure success on the outcomes and the engagement of your teams. For us, the goal is to create a shared way of working and a culture in which change is welcome, the customer is the focus of the work, and the work we produce is aligned with our business needs.

Encouragingly, we are beginning to realise a great number of positives: higher morale, greater transparency and, for me, the biggest reward has been seeing teams and individuals develop new skills and create solutions from exciting new perspectives.

So, where to next? Remembering that it’s about constant iteration and is never “done”, we are working through feedback from the teams continually and assessing the maturity of our ways of working.

We will be tackling new things like surfacing and managing dependencies between teams and will increasingly ensure that our prioritisation decisions are more data-driven.

Finally, by evaluating the impact that delivered software has on customers and the business, we will be able to improve our efficiency and better determine our focus in both the short and long-term.

Inga Latham is chief product officer at SiteMinder


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