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Agile working: UK and Canadian mutuals share experiences

Sharing experiences of Agile working. Blog post by Robert Thickett, BSA Digital Policy Manager.

By Robert Thickett, BSA Digital Policy Manager

A small group of UK building societies recently met in London with Canadian credit union First West Credit Union (FWCU) to share experiences of introducing Agile working within their organisations.

Agile is an iterative way of working originally conceived over 20 years ago by the software development industry. The use of Agile within organisations has expanded rapidly across the world and utilised by many different industries and professions.

FWCU contacted the BSA to help set up the meeting as part of its own adoption of Agile working practices. The Vancouver-based credit union was set up in 2010 and it provides financial products and services to circa 250,000 customers with 50 branches in the British Columbia region.

Since 2020 FWCU has introduced Agile working practices internally and as part of that has been connecting with overseas organisations to share ideas and experiences.

Representatives from Nationwide, Skipton and Principality met with FWCU at Nationwide’s new office in Holborn to talk about the benefits and challenges they had experienced introducing Agile into their respective organisations.  

What is Agile?

Agile is an iterative and flexible way of working on products and projects, which contrasts with traditional project development where teams work in fixed phases.

As a concept, it came out of a meeting of software developers in America in 2001, who were frustrated at corporate culture and standard ways of bringing products to market.

Accounts from some of the people involved in the in this initial meeting show individuals looking to get away from self-serving corporate culture that focused on hierarchy and control over meaningful output, as described by the popular Dilbert cartoon.

Instead, they proposed an alternative company culture and values focused on delivering “good products to customers” and ways of working based on promoting collaboration and creating workplaces that people enjoy working.

Out of this meeting came the below four values as part of an Agile Manifesto:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation.
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
  • Responding to change over following a plan

Added to these values were 12 underlying principles, which included satisfying the customer through early and continuous development, harnessing change for competitive advantage, the promotion of sustainable development and that the best results come from self-organising teams.

While Agile working has its own lexicon and concepts, it also offers a completely different mind-set, values and culture towards products, processes and work in general.

Over the last 20 years, a broad range of organisations have embraced Agile and used it for everything from digital transformation to a permanent state of company wide reorganisation.

Well-known international examples of firms applying agile working practices on a company wide basis includes ING and telecommunications firm Spark New Zealand.

Agile at mutual organisations

At the meeting, FWCU explained that it had been on precisely this type of journey and explained to the assembled building societies how it has worked with consultancy McKinsey in 2018/19 on becoming an agile enterprise.

The credit union set up an agile response team to deal with the Pandemic, in particular the provision of services, health and wellbeing of employees. Then in late summer 2020, the organisation started to scale with additional Agile teams and expanding Agile working practices to more parts of the organisations.  

The building societies in attendance talked through their experiences of introducing Agile. For example, representatives from Principality Building Society talked through the productivity gains they had seen where Agile working had been introduced, with positive feedback from colleagues.

Nationwide explained that while its initial focus had been on managing change, this had expanded into different parts of the organisation such as audit, risk and operations, with colleagues experimenting with new ways of working. It has used these experiments to encourage greater adoption of Agile internally and the value this has generated for Nationwide has ultimately been better customer outcomes for members.

Skipton talked through how it had been focusing on educating leaders and colleagues about the benefits of working in an Agile way. It was also trying to improve transparency and visibility of cross-functional initiatives to ensure capacity and skills are used where they are most needed.

Overcoming friction

Attendees also talked about the friction created internally where Agile working practices were being used and the types of measures that had been introduced to help

Examples included the use of data to help senior teams visualise progress, where blockers in the system were slowing teams down and use this to fuel the next stage of improvements

Another example was encouraging senior teams to adopt individual “squads” and attend their meetings to better understand and support their work.

However, the pace of adoption of Agile within teams continued to challenge organisations. All firms were looking to find a path to better work with the traditional hierarchies and structures of their organisations.

Further collaboration in 2023

At the end of the meeting, all attendees agreed that regular meetings to share ideas and provide support for Agile practitioners in the mutual sector would be welcome.

The plan is for further meetings to take place in 2023 and gradually expand out the group to other building societies and credit unions who are Agile working practices.

For anyone interested in getting involved, please email robert.thickett@bsa.org.uk.