The Agile Design Approach & Management of the Human Dimension of Change

The Agile Design Approach & Management of the Human Dimension of Change

Insight of the Boulder Digital Transformation of MFIs Programme by Violette Cubier (Fondation Grameen Crédit Agricole) – Weeks 9 & 10

The Agile Design Approach

This week’s module was on the Agile design approach. It was presented by Lesley-Ann Vaughan, who is one of the creators of the M-PESA for Vodafone, from concept to launched service. Following M-PESA, she was Head of Product at a Fintech start-up venture focused on emerging markets digital MFI solutions. In the last 5 years, she has been working as an independent consultant focusing on Africa, Myanmar and Indonesia, working with CGAP, & Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, IFC, Telcos, Banks, MFBs & Fintechs including M-KOPA Solar. Recently she has been working with Microsoft’s emerging markets team. 

Throughout the module, Lesley-Ann Vaughan presented us in details the Agile design approach, specifically for IT projects. When one realises that IT projects result, 30% of the time in a failure to coordinate across units, and 40% of the time in a failure to align, the Agile methodology appears to be an interesting alternative to achieve a project’s goals. The Agile methodology is made of various, incremental and iterative improvements on a solution/product, with a continuous delivery of the solution(s) and products, multiple tests and deployments. It is therefore very different from the usual / more traditional “waterfall methodology”, where the requirements for a product / solution are determined from start, and where the product/solution is delivered at once, in a “big bang” approach, at the end of the project. Using the Agile methodology has many advantages, one of them being that it is much easier to quickly identify problems and to fix them earlier. In contrast, the traditional “waterfall” methodology can be challenging, because it usually means that risk accumulates over time, up to the moment where the product/solution is delivered at the end of the project. The fact that the product is only tested and launched at the end of the project increases the risk of the product not truly fitting the users’ needs.

The Agile methodology can however also be challenging, in particular if there is a lack of design from start (in which case some important elements can be left out), or if one loses sight of the business outcome that is targeted (what is sometimes referred to as a “North Star”). The Agile methodology can also be very complex to implement if one tries to do too much, or to change everything all the time. Stakeholders usually tend to add more and more priority initiatives, everything being “important yesterday”, so it is crucial under an Agile methodology to prioritise requests, and sometimes to give up on some improvements. 

According to some statistics from the International Digital Centre (IDC), around 60% of IT projects have in the end little or no impact, 20% are a big success, and 20% fail. This high percentage of projects with little or no impact might be due to the fact that very often, during an IT project, our instinct is to jump right into building things instead of getting clear about the “why” before the “what”. This can lead to products bloated with features that do not solve a clear need for users/customers. This can even be reinforced when working with a vendor, because it is not unusual for vendors not to fully understand the outcome needed by their client and not building the right product, which can lead to disputes, change requests and delays.

A focus was made during the module on how to work through the Agile methodology with vendors, which was really practical and insightful. Lesley-Ann Vaughan notably explained how a clear vision or project charter helps claryfing the purpose of the project for all parties. It is also important to specify in details what is expected to the developers, or they can misunderstand and develop something that does not match the needs. Lastly, it is crucial not to rush into a solution, and to prioritise improvements / developments in terms of outcomes and impact on work, rather than just on number of features developed. In an IT project, it is always possible to build more, but the additional impact of some features might be very limited.

Some insights were also shared on a how to develop teamwork under the Agile methodology.  Ensuring psychological safety is essential for team members to feel safe to take risks, speak up, share ideas and ask all the questions they have.

Managing the Human dimension of change

This week’s module was on “Managing the Human dimension of change”. It was presented by Sahana Arun Kumar, from Amarante Consulting. Sahana Arun Kumar has over 12 years of experience in the digital and financial inclusion space, with robust expertise in the fields of digital transformation and financial inclusion in emerging market contexts.

The module was about stressing that in a digitalisation project, not all is about technology: it is also about processes and people. As highlighted in a publication from Harvard Business Review[1], 70% of all digital transformation initiatives do not reach their goals. Of the $1.3 trillion that was spent on digital transformation in 2018, it was estimated that $900 billion went to waste. The reason? While most digital technologies provide possibilities for efficiency gains, if people lack the right mindset to change and the current organisational practices are flawed, digital transformation will simply magnify those flaws.

Change management within an organisation is particularly key, when one knows that 61% of employees admit feeling anxious about the introduction of new technology, and 59% believe that automation threatens their job security. According to Sahana Arun Kumar, one of the first pillars to secure for a digital transformation project is therefore the confidence, commitment and trust of one’s employees. In a time of crisis and disruptions due to the pandemic, the notion of “care management” is particularly useful: managers can no longer behave only like supervisors in charge of controlling the work. To keep employees motivated, they must act as “coaches”, ensuring that the conditions (human and material) allow the employees to work as optimum as possible in their environment. Two common elements among organisations who succeed in their digital transformation are also (i) the adoption of solutions that facilitate access to information internally (ii) the setup of platforms that allow internal and external stakeholders to collaborate easily.

Besides this human dimension relative to employees, another crucial element for the success of a digital project is to maintain a customer centric approach. Very concretely this means (i) understanding the customer needs; (ii) designing and deploying adapted products and services, segmented by target clients. Some tools in doing so include feedback loops (constantly asking for feedback from clients, meeting with clients on the field, focus group discussions…), regular prototyping to make sure products are aligned with clients’ needs, or the Agile methodology (to test and learn).

What was really insightful in this module was the hands-on experience from faculty. Sahana Arun Kumar gave several examples from her experience in the field where a customer centric approach proved really useful. She gave the example of a project for the development of a market place connecting smallholder farmers, where the app’s functions were not fully used by the farmers and where some focus group discussions revealed that some simple changes in the iconography of the app could improve things (smallholder farmers were just not understanding some icons). She gave another example of some “tontine” groups in West Africa, where the financial contribution of each member was kept secret. Digitalising these groups without having this very specific feature in mind would have led a complete failure (members of the groups would have rejected digitalisation for sure).

In conclusion: in any digital project, it is crucial to understand: (i) what is the level of exposure and comfort of the clients / staff when it comes to digital terminology / norms; (ii) what human behaviour or practice needs to continue even via a digital channel; (iii) what added challenges staff will face when shifting from paper/manual processes to digital ones, and whether or not it is worth mapping their user journey prior to choosing digital channels and confirming process change.

[1] Digital Transformation Is Not About Technology by Behnam Tabrizi, Ed Lam, Kirk Girard, Vernon Irvin, Harvard Business Review