Digital transformation: 3 ways agile methodologies can help

Adopting an agile approach can ease your digital transformation journey in surprising ways. Read on for a helpful roadmap
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Employees working on agile on a laptop

Few CIOs would describe digital transformation as easy, and for good reason. Becoming a technology company is complex and often requires the organization to evolve its DNA and business model.

For better and worse, the pandemic has forced CIOs across all industries to embark on digital transformation journeys, and many best practices have emerged based on their challenges and successes.

One such best practice is the use of agile principles to assist technical as well as non-technical teams throughout the process.

Agile is a methodology traditionally utilized by technical teams to develop software. It features two primary tenets:

  • Breaking an initiative into smaller, iterative projects
  • Continuous feedback and improvement throughout the process

Together, these principles help developers collaborate more effectively to create better code faster.

[ Also read Digital transformation: 3 guiding principles for 2023. ]

It’s easy to see how smaller, more manageable steps coupled with constant communication and measurement can drive better outcomes when working towards a goal. With this in mind, agile isn’t a toolset beneficial to just developers; it can – and should – be applied to many other workflows, projects, and teams, from product and sales to recruitment.

While digital transformation initiatives are known to be rife with challenges, applying the following agile principles can help mitigate common issues encountered and enable CIOs to not only manage the process more effectively but create a lasting platform that elevates their profile and influence within the C-suite.

Establish alignment using sprints

A common tool used during agile software development is the “sprint” – a bite-size step towards completing the overall project or initiative. The beauty of sprints is multi-faceted and largely based on the transparency they foster. Given the complexity of digital transformation, defining several sprints creates a clear plan. It establishes alignment with both business leaders managing costs and resources, as well as with technical teams responsible for executing.

Sprints ensure traceable steps throughout a long process, so if something goes wrong at any point, the impact, or “blast radius,” is easily identified and contained with less risk to the overall initiative.

Another primary benefit of sprints is that they are purposely small in scope, making the change management aspect of a broad digital transformation initiative less daunting when approached through several incremental steps.

Grow trust and support by communicating progress more effectively

One of the biggest challenges facing CIOs while managing digital transformation initiatives is the deluge of questions about results. Sprints, combined with their counterpart “scrums,” help solve this organically.

Sprints are the actual work, while scrums are the ongoing meetings or “stand-ups” that track progress and address issues or roadblocks to completing the sprint. Sprints and scrums establish a cadence of iterative change coupled with constant communication and measurement.

Imagine if a weekly sprint successfully improves one percent of an organization in each push. Over several weeks, a compound effect will occur, delivering an even greater impact with each sprint but without a heavy lift or risk to business continuity. The scrum helps ensure sprints are completed successfully, and the results are tracked and shared continuously.

Demonstrate continuous business value

A highly impactful byproduct of using agile is that it establishes a culture of continuous improvement. Feedback loops created to measure sprints aren’t turned off after launch but are used to inform ongoing enhancements and even new initiatives.

This concept is especially relevant for digital transformation because there is no end to the “transformation.” CIOs can update their sprints and scrums to target new goals based on changing business needs and customer demands.

It’s worth noting that the key to fostering a culture of continuous improvement lies heavily on the CIO’s shoulders. CIOs must commit to participating in the process in perpetuity to ensure it remains a priority and is practiced. While the CIO may not participate in the engineering team’s scrums directly, they should host their own scrum to review all scrums and feed the continuous improvement machine.

Agile creates a long-term opportunity for CIOs

CIOs play a critical role during digital transformation initiatives bridging business and technical teams and leading them through a significant change in the company’s identity. If done successfully, a grocery store chain will evolve into a technology company that sells groceries; a news media outlet will become a technology company that provides an online newsroom, and so on. The necessary digital transformation doesn’t just improve business operations; they change the company itself.

This is a significant change for teams, but adopting an agile approach removes the perceived leap of faith involved with digital transformation by making the process more transparent, manageable, and measurable for all stakeholders.

Perhaps most importantly, agile principles create a platform for CIOs to unify technical and non-technical teams by building trust, removing friction, and demonstrating ongoing business value together.

[ Learn the non-negotiable skills, technologies, and processes CIOs are leaning on to build resilience and agility in this HBR Analytic Services report: Pillars of resilient digital transformation: How CIOs are driving organizational agility. ]

Wolf Ruzicka is Chairman at EastBanc Technologies. Wolf is a technology industry veteran with more than 25 years of experience leading enterprise business strategy and innovation. He joined EastBanc Technologies in 2007, originally as CEO.