OPINION4 May 2022

Confessions of an agile sceptic

Data analytics Finance Opinion Trends

Adapting to an agile way of working requires a wholesale commitment to change, but it brings countless benefits to the insight function, as NatWest Group’s Ian Goulding explains.

Hand turning dial from traditional to agile methodology

I took up my first full-time insight role in 2003 which, frankly, feels like a lifetime ago. Back then, I was far more concerned with trying to figure out what Scarlett Johannsen said to Bill Murray at the end of Lost in Translation than I was with thinking about systems for optimising how I did my job.

I spent the guts of the next 15 years working in pretty much the same way every day; prioritising as I went, working quickly, and spending large chunks of my time flying by the seat of my pants. What’s more, this became a routine way of working for me. In my experience, this is how most people, teams and companies work – yes, there is a veneer of control and order but, deep down, people are just doing their best to stay on top of things.

Even more worryingly, I actively enjoyed working like this; there’s something exciting and engaging about working at pace – in fact, it can be a slightly addictive experience.  

The process of conversion
When agile was proposed as a new way of working for our insight team at NatWest, I was a firm sceptic. In fact, I was such a hard-line sceptic that I actively and repeatedly pushed back. I was wedded to the way of working that I’d enjoyed in my career to that point; I’d moved from agency to client side and had kept up the same frenetic pace that many of you will know all too well.

I’d read about agile as a way for technology teams to unlock potential for collaboration, prioritisation and a better culture, but I hadn’t seen any direct evidence of it working in an insight environment.

At this point, you might be asking yourself: so what changed? Well, my conversion to agile principles has taken time but, looking back now, there were some key drivers (and a general sense of unsustainable workload) that couldn’t be overlooked. Our team was far too busy, which I appreciate will be a common challenge for many insight functions and agencies, but it was one which, as a senior leader, I began to find extremely concerning. 

Reducing the burden 
Although we were managing capacity relatively well, it was increasingly piecemeal, something that meant we veered into the red too frequently, with limited systems and processes to rectify that quickly and prioritise dispassionately. This was creating a burden on our people, who were doing their best to cope with increased demand, particularly when the pandemic broke in early 2020.

More fundamentally, our team was trying to do far too much for too wide a population of stakeholders. Our insight team covers the research needs for all customer types at NatWest Group, which is an extremely broad church. It wouldn’t have been uncommon for a member of our team to be analysing data from retail, commercial and private customers in a single day.

This resulted in a relatively surface level knowledge of our various customer types, as well as an inability to input into key decisions at the right moment. We weren’t doing a bad job by any means; we just weren’t doing as good a job as we could have been.

However, the true catalyst was the strategic goal to embrace agile communicated by our director of insight, Paul Smith, and our new chief marketing officer, Marg Jobling. It might seem a little trite to call this out as a motivating factor but, in reality, senior sponsorship is critical to the success of adopting the agile mindset.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that senior leadership buy-in (alongside having a strong release train lead) is the single most important determining factor as to whether teams can be successful working in agile methodology. This group is key to adoption, engagement and adherence to the underlying principles.

Tangible advantages to the fore
Now that agile is embedded in our ways of working, we’ve seen tangible, scalable benefits for our team, our stakeholders and our customers. In the space of this short article, I can’t possibly do justice to the mindset and culture shift we are seeing in the team, but we are far more collaborative, better prioritised, and more efficient than at any other point in the past five years. 

For the first time, we have a centralised view of our objectives and capacity across the entire function, which is interwoven with the same information for our agencies and any internal dependencies.  This allows us to plan our objectives (at the highest level) for months at a time, not weeks or days, and means we can offer greater certainty to our stakeholders about delivery dates and schedules.

Such planning is central to success in agile and gives us the ability to ruthlessly prioritise throughout our 12-week cycle, defined by the business area/stakeholder key objectives.

These practical elements are coupled with a visible cultural shift. We are consistently talking about the impact and pace of our deliverables and this is combined with genuine subject matter expertise, built through working with the same stakeholders over time.

We’re now plugged into the business in a way that makes us trusted partners, meaning we can embed into projects and workstreams as required. Too often in the past, insight has been an afterthought, whereas we’re now getting further upstream on projects and working iteratively with our stakeholders and agencies.

The continuous improvement cycle has meant that we’re not standing still. Experimenting with new approaches is hardwired into the agile approach and we are regularly embracing this as an agreed way of working. We’re focusing on ways to get quicker through rapid research and the delivery of minimum viable product and we’re also T-shaping our skillsets, making them broader while retaining deep individual expertise.

Agile has given us a framework to try new things, both in terms of our technical delivery and wider cultural aspects; we know we have a licence to fail, learn and try again.

Commitment to change
As a senior people leader in the insight function it’s difficult to overstate the benefits of our continuing adoption and adaption of agile methods. We’ve been able to take the principles and finesse and augment them to work very effectively for an insight function, while continuing to keep up the pace of delivery. That said, it hasn’t all been sunshine and roses; this type of move isn’t for the faint-hearted and it does require a genuine commitment to change. 

Challenges have included an initial lack of buy-in from some and practical issues with technology, plus difficulties in ruthlessly prioritising work when there are different agendas at play. After going through this journey, I can honestly say that it is a case of all or nothing:  agile requires wholesale adoption to fully realise the benefits.

We’ve had to adapt some processes to make them suitable for insight delivery, but the embedding of an agile mindset has been the most important part of this transition. As a former sceptic, I can now happily admit that I was entirely wrong: agile thinking and methodology have a very important part to play in the insight teams of tomorrow.  

Ian Goulding is head of insight operations at NatWest Group.