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5 lessons on bringing an ‘agile’ approach to any workplace

We’re tech and HR leaders at UBS. What we learned from adopting agile working can help your company, too.

5 lessons on bringing an ‘agile’ approach to any workplace
[Photo: Atharva Tulsi/Unsplash]

The world around us is constantly changing, and your clients’ needs are changing rapidly, too. Companies and departments need to adapt, be more responsive, and be more innovative than ever. That’s where agile working comes in.

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In a nutshell, the agile model brings together small multi-disciplinary teams including designers, developers, business analysts, software architects, and testers; marketing, product, and content specialists; and legal, and compliance experts to work on a common product or service. They have the autonomy to come up with ideas, test, and adapt as they go. Here at UBS, where Stefan leads human resources and Mike leads technology and digital, we’ve seen agile transforming not only how we deliver value for clients, but also how we attract, engage, and empower employees in an increasingly competitive environment. (We detailed how we “do” agile in this earlier piece.)

Many of our teams already work in an agile way today. We’re now building on those experiences, and more than a quarter of our total workforce will migrate to agile working by the end of the year. So, what have we learned on our journey so far?

Consistency is key

Agile is not new to UBS. We’ve had various pockets across the bank working in agile ways for a number of years. But each of these areas used different terminologies and different approaches. This worked well for the teams involved, but we needed a consistent model to scale up across the organization.

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Our first focus was to develop a playbook that outlines a clear UBS agile way of working. Since then, we’ve focused on making sure that the model is adopted consistently. For example, we created an agile academy to train employees and established a community where colleagues can share their experiences.

Fail fast for better outcomes

In an agile working environment, teams are trusted and empowered. They run small safe-to-fail experiments, which allow them to identify errors early on and avoid headaches down the track. The process is iterative and enhances transparency throughout.

We don’t get everything right first time. But the beauty of agile is that we’re able to recognize mistakes and course correct in real time. It also gives us the opportunity to test and incorporate client feedback throughout the process—rather than wait until a big-bang launch and risk missing the mark.

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It makes work more fun

Past surveys have shown us that agile teams feel more empowered than teams working in traditional structures. They’re closest to the client feedback, trusted to make decisions, and find it rewarding to work in this way. We’re convinced that this approach will help us retain our best people and attract the best talent in an increasingly competitive market.

We need diversity of thought, experience, and skill set to be successful. We’re competing for talent across industries. Being able to offer an agile working environment is an important differentiator for us.

And, although it’s fun, don’t mistake it for a lack of structure. At times, agile has been incorrectly characterized as unstructured. That’s simply not the case. In reality, it’s a well-defined way of working with clear rules and goals that allow teams to speed up innovation, provide better outcomes for clients, and lower risk.

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You need to be fully committed and go all in

At UBS, we’ve decided that our first teams to migrate to our consistent agile model are our “delivery organization.” These are the teams that develop and maintain banking platforms, tools, and services. You can’t “do” agile halfway for those teams—it’s 100% or nothing. This means accepting the consequences and the required changes on areas such as organizational structure, decision-making authority, reporting lines and how you develop and deliver your products.

But that doesn’t mean we’re adopting a one-size-fits-all approach for all parts of our business. It’s important to recognize that not every role or function is well suited for agile working. We’re introducing our agile working model thoughtfully and we will expand to other businesses and functions step by step where it makes sense to do so.

It requires a mindset change—especially for leaders

As a metaphor for the change to agile, we talk about the move from traffic lights, as a central control system, to a roundabout. In central control, individuals follow specific instructions–but when something goes wrong, the consequences are severe. On the other hand, the roundabout provides clear guidelines on who has the right of way, yet empowers people to take decisions.

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Change at this level requires an organizational overhaul but, arguably most importantly, a mindset change—especially for leaders. You need to shift decision-making away from the organizational hierarchy into smaller, more autonomous units. Instead of telling people what to do, leaders must trust teams and empower them to make decisions themselves.

All of this means it’s important that you take leaders with you on your journey. That’s why a large part of our approach has been making sure that all leaders across our organization are familiar with our path and understand how agile will benefit our clients and teams. For example, we’ve held several virtual leadership conferences bringing together the top 2,000 leaders to hear examples and exchange experiences.

We firmly believe that agile will transform our business—in the way we operate, how we develop our people, in attracting top talent, and providing our clients best-in-class services. Yes, it requires a mindset shift that won’t happen overnight, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t grasp the opportunity ahead of us. We are committed to success.

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

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