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Promoting the Adoption of Agile Practices within Large Financial Institutions: A Guide for Improvement
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Tom Rich
Business Consultant
The journey towards agility marches onward. Across industries, businesses are increasingly adapting their change capabilities to become more agile. A trend that first in software development has now spread its wings to consume everything from Uber and Spotify to the National Art Museum of the Netherlands. But there is one area in which the adoption of Agile methods and practices has lagged far behind: large financial institutions.

What is causing this resistance? What benefits could Agile bring and ultimately what are the steps required to increase and drive adoption? 

The resistance and concerns relating to Agile from large financial institutions are complex, but two of the major sticking points concern the below:

  • Predictability: Whether it be in cost or outcomes, predictability is especially important to financial institutions, where small mishaps can lead to large regulatory or financial impacts. Firms want to know what they are doing upfront, often leading to extensive requirement documentation. Agile is sometimes perceived as having a lack of outcome predictability as it emphasises deliverables rather than documentation, however this is not correct. Agile does require documentation and governance, but only a necessary and sufficient amount so as to provide the transparency and visibility necessary for project success.
  • Hierarchies: Financial institutions are often traditional places of work. This mean hierarchies are entrenched, with a long legacy of top-down, Waterfall decision making. Adopting Agile practices changes the power dynamic within an organisation. Allowing teams to be self-organized and trusting them with more autonomy in decision making is a seismic culture shift and one that can be difficult for management to see the value of.

What can Agile do to help? 

However, these concerns are often misguided and Agile can be of great value to financial services firms. To begin with, it removes much of the needless bureaucracy that slows down projects to a glacial pace. It will be a familiar feeling to spend months documenting requirements only to realise upon delivery that the end-product does not meet them. It’s a frustrating process, draining cost and resource that leads to an end date that slips indefinitely into the future. An Agile way of working, with iterative delivery and continuous improvement, allows value to be implemented early in the lifecycle with tangible benefits rolled out. Rather than a lack of predictability, we should see more desirable outputs delivered in a cost-efficient and timely manner.

Furthermore, Agile also allows you to identify early winners while letting losers fall by the wayside. Financial institutions can deploy their considerable resources across multiple ideas and only move forwards with the most successful: a luxury that not all can compete with. Bringing better products to market and doing so faster allows big financial institutions to compete and outgun the new and nimble competitors in the market.

Take retail banks, one area where Agile has been more widely adopted. An influx of new digital-only banks put huge pressure on established, high-street banks to lower their costs and increase their offering. Consumer loyalty can no longer be relied upon to maintain a customer base.  Therefore, to maintain competitive these institutions had no choice but to evolve. Adopting agile practices proved to be an excellent way of doing this.

There is also a final aspect here which cannot be overlooked: people. Empowering teams and individuals to make decisions and feel trusted inspires self-confidence, boosting performance throughout the workplace.

So how do you get started? 

For me, the first and most important step for moving towards increased adoption is to have sustained commitment from the top down. Culture needs to change to allow Agile to flourish and that needs to start from above, setting the standards to foster a culture of trust and innovation. Senior and middle management must be championing and engaged in the shift towards self-sufficient teams working with increased autonomy.

Resisting the urge to deploy a big bang approach to Agile adoption is paramount. It takes time to develop the Agile competencies and mindset required and an incremental adoption will help nurture this. Changing culture and working practices can’t happen overnight, so introducing concepts gradually via small change projects can both deliver early wins and prove the value of the approach.

However, Agile is not a silver bullet. Realistic expectations must be set, and limitations recognised. Similarly, a sound business strategy that drives growth and performance is still essential and the addition of Agile will help achieve this. It cannot define it alone.

The cultural and capability shifts required to benefit from Agile require a sustained and committed effort but there is no reason to think that Agile cannot reap valuable benefits for large financial firms once embedded.

People, products and profits all stand to gain, and what more motive is there than that?