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Surprise: Your Corporation Can Be Both Big and Agile

Pinak Kiran Vedalankar
Pinak Kiran Vedalankar

Established businesses face two major threats in our digital world: shifting customer expectations that demand real-time, digital-first, personalized services; and competition from smaller, nimbler, digitally native rivals that can innovate and bring products to market much faster.

To mitigate these threats, established businesses have the benefits of scale (money, resources, millions of customer relationships), but also several disadvantages (an often bureaucratic, risk-averse culture that finds it hard to move quickly and fears making mistakes). But in today’s environment, they cannot afford to wait until an innovation is perfect: they must go from idea to production, from concept to customer, as fast as possible by continually releasing, testing, learning and improving. In short, they must adopt an engineering mindset.

Established organizations who adopt the principles and practices of digital natives may beat these companies at their own game. Our work with a major European banking group demonstrates how big organizations can take advantage of the benefits of their size and overcome their disadvantages by learning to think and act differently.

Different shapes and lines evolving in the same direction

How did this company learn to be both big and fast?

We focused on the experience by adding value for the customer at every interaction and improved quality by closely monitoring feedback and responding to it quickly.

We moved away from the traditional triple constraints of project management (time, scope and cost) and replaced it with an iterative test and learn culture that continually measures success through productivity, quality and value. A senior technology leader at the bank said, “Nowadays, we’re more about progress than we are about perfection. We’re responding to customers more rapidly and learning more about them in the process.”

Here are some ways the company achieved an engineering mindset:

Smaller teams: rather than trying to convert an entire digital division of 1,500 people as a unit, we created a team of teams, working in smaller, more manageable clusters of around 200 people aligned to each service line.

Specialized structures: for each cohort of 200, we put in place a core of agile coaches, engineers, operations people, creative designers, strategists, business analysts and other champions. They liaised across the different service lines, acting as a kind of guild of technical professionals—the modern world’s master craftspeople.

Different culture: an engineering mindset is intensely creative, focuses on rapid problem solving and requires open sharing of ideas so that the entire team can align with best practices in order to keep improving. We encouraged experimentation and autonomy, continual feedback and “playful competition”. Engineers compete with their own abilities in a single team with a single goal–a bit like the way NASA scientists work together to launch a mission. The common goal matters more than individual performance, but individual performance is recognized.

“This approach changed the way we structure teams,” said the senior tech leader. “Our customers now enjoy a richer digital experience, we understand our customers better and more deeply, and importantly, we now have the right culture and digital structure in place to respond to them quicker and more effectively. Adoption of an engineering mindset has led to cultural transformation here and is allowing us to roll out across other operations.”


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