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Agile isn’t just for software developers. It’s a compelling way for companies to work

Any business that wants to improve collaboration across teams should consider an agile approach, write UBS’s top digital and HR executives.

Agile isn’t just for software developers. It’s a compelling way for companies to work
[Illustration: Dmitrii_Guzhanin/Getty Images]

Over the last two and a half years, we’ve seen companies around the globe embrace hybrid working and technology like never before. But embracing new ways of working shouldn’t stop there. Beyond the flexibility of where you work, and beyond the digital tools to help us work and collaborate better, there is a model and mindset to fundamentally shift the way we work. That’s agile working.

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Consider the traditional organization: There are barriers created by structures, titles, processes, and legacy issues. There are often large, long projects that start with the best intentions and urgency, but by the time they’re delivered, conditions have shifted and requirements may have changed.

We were all too familiar with this scenario at UBS, the 72,000-person global wealth manager. Then, several years ago, we began experimenting with an agile way of working, a proven approach based on testing, learning, and adapting. And after seeing the benefits in pockets across the firm, we’re accelerating our plans: The entire change organization, which is more than a quarter of the workforce, will move to agile working by the end of 2022.

How we do it

At UBS, agile begins with our “pods,” which are small, multi-disciplinary teams of around five to ten people. They are aligned to a product, with shared objectives. Think of a pod like a smartphone: All the things you need, in one place, working together.

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The pod has the autonomy to generate ideas, test, improve, and deliver. This means you can fail fast, through small safe-to-fail experiments, then correct your course. And, in turn, deliver incremental business value earlier, make adjustments based on client feedback, and consequently lower your risk in achieving a successful outcome.

Next, we have “crews,” which bring together several pods to ensure alignment and coordination. This bigger, broader group has a clear strategic vision, so that we’re working together effectively at scale.

Then, we have “chapters,” which provide a community for professional development. Each pod member is part of a chapter that best reflects their skill set. The chapter lead is an expert who spends some of their time being a line manager and the rest within a pod.

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A case study

In one recent example, we created a pod to work on delivering personalized trading ideas to clients, with a seamless experience from ideas to investment.

The pod we assembled included members from the entire value chain: designers, developers, business analysts, software architects, and testers; marketing, product, and content specialists; and legal and compliance experts, just to name a few. This enabled the pod to be fully self-sufficient, make decisions quickly, progress work rapidly, and connect ideas for a holistic solution.

They created a minimum viable product (MVP) to deliver value to clients as soon as possible, incorporating regular client feedback and adjusting the product accordingly. This agile approach enabled fast decisions, effective prioritization, and speedy delivery. And the end result? We’ve seen higher client activity and engagement and received positive feedback from clients. As for employees, they described their experiences as “collaborative,” “challenging,” and “rewarding.”

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Model and mindset shift

To develop our model at UBS, we’ve focused on two areas of expertise: technology and people. Implementing agile at scale requires building on past experiences.

Many of these were led from our technology space, working in close partnership with our business. We’ve collected best practices from our experts to establish one consistent approach. And, in the spirit of agile, we’ll improve this iteratively over time.

While agile originated in the tech world, many firms like ours have realized the value of bringing together the right skills and capabilities to solve problems across different functions–not only business and technology, but also marketing, risk, and finance. Agile is about embracing diverse thinking and empowering decision-making to those who are best placed to understand clients’ needs.

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In our view, successful implementation needs to involve employees and requires a fundamental culture shift. That’s why we’ve held various events for our leaders, aligned our HR processes, and crafted training modules. We have an agile playbook to explain the principles, an agile academy to provide training, and a growing community to allow employees to share experiences and connect with colleagues.

It might only be the start of our journey to agile working, but we’re convinced of the benefits for clients, colleagues, and firms who want to set themselves apart in an ever-changing world.

Mike Dargan is chief digital and information officer and a member of the group executive board at UBS. Stefan Seiler is group head of human resources. Seiler also is adjunct professor at Nanyang Business School, Singapore.

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