Accelerating Digital Transformation: The Agile Way

This post first appeared in ETCIO (July 2021)

‘Digital Transformation’ is quite the buzzword these days, and has only gained more traction courtesy of the global pandemic. Even if you were on the fence earlier, chances are, you now agree that Digital offers unmatched cost & efficiency advantages for both organizations & customers, alike.

The adoption of Digital typically happens due to novelty, necessity or natural affinity.

For many, the novelty of “going digital” is itself a goal worth pursuing, although this represents the least sustainable path. Necessity can play a role too, but only as long as favorable circumstances remain. Natural-affinity driven solutions, however, tend to offer the longest-lasting benefits.

Take the case of Financial Services – they have a natural affinity towards Technology, when it comes to the delivery of products and services. Customers can typically choose from a wide variety of offerings (online), establish their identity (digitally), and pay via a variety of (digital) modes of payment. The ecosystem is fast, cost-effective and helps eliminate many of the inconveniences associated with wait-times, intermediaries and physical visits to branches or outlets.

Such advantages not only apply to Banking, Financial Services and Insurance, but to a wide cross-section of industries and customer segments, as long as the solutions on offer are well-suited for online delivery or consumption.

If you have decided to embark on a journey of Digital Transformation, you will find that the adoption of Agile practices can aid significantly in accelerating the timelines involved, and building a sustainable edge. In fact, some would argue that Digital Transformation success depends on adopting an Agile approach to change.

Here’s a quick guide to reimagining processes and systems using Agile tools, that can help accelerate your Digital Transformation journey.

  • Prioritize, Re-prioritize

Start with a compelling Digital-First vision for your enterprise. Then, use your Program Management Office (PMO) to establish cross-functional Agile Squads, and provide them the training they need to familiarize themselves with the Agile framework. Once the Squads are up and running, empower them to deal with what comes next.

Prioritize and re-prioritize on a regular basis, based on your assessment of opportunities. Squads should periodically review progress with key stakeholders and regularly seek agreement on upcoming work, to ensure sync. When prioritizing, the focus should always be on elements that add value for the customer.

  • User Stories

Once the priorities have been clearly defined, the next step is to create “User Stories” – natural language descriptions of the key functionalities that the team (Squad) will ultimately develop. The advantage of a ‘User Story’ approach over a Business Requirements Document (BRD) is that user stories focus on the Customer Experience – what the person using the product or service should be able to do.

As a rule, smaller user stories are easier to plan for, develop and test. Keep in mind that everyone in the Squad should have a clear understanding of “definition of done” and the acceptance criteria.

  • Build MVPs

An MVP (Minimum Viable Product) is a product with just enough features to gain insight from actual users. One of the key principles of Agile is to test lean products at early stages by involving all the stakeholders. This MVP-approach of Product Development helps drastically cut-down time to market.

  • Sprints & Scrums

Sprints are at the very heart of the Agile philosophy, and getting it right is a key determinant of success. If you are new to Agile, start with a 2-week Sprint cycle, always starting on the same day of the week (say, every Tuesday), across all Squads.

Sprint Planning sessions and Daily Scrums, when conducted regularly, help Squads update on their progress, discuss & resolve bottlenecks, showcase achievements to stakeholders, and seek feedback to identify improvement opportunities. Rinse and repeat until it becomes the way any project is tackled.

  • Retrospectives

Having an Agile mindset means trying, failing, learning, keeping what works, adapting. So, Squads need to regularly reflect on what they are doing, and how they can improve on it.

Retrospectives should ideally be carried out at the Squad level, but are also encouraged at the Program (PMO) level, especially after the launch of any critical initiative. Multiple Squads collaborating at frequent intervals via a ‘Scrum of Scrum’ is another great tool to help tackle cross-squad dependencies required to deliver on enterprise objectives.

The Agile Manifesto clearly outlines guiding principles that put a premium on individuals and interactions over processes and tools, as well as focus on the ability to respond to change.

In an age where Technology and Digital are practically par for the course, Agile practices allow organizations to remain nimble and respond to ever-changing market situations by building small, collaborating fast, failing early and scaling quickly.

Now, isn’t that an edge worth striving for?

‘‘Next Gen’’ Customers need Next-Gen Solutions

This post first appeared in Outlook Money (March 2021)

No, this is not an article on Covid19, or on the importance of planning your finances to meet unplanned contingencies – enough and more has been written on that subject already. Instead, it is an attempt to articulate what ‘Next Gen’ customers are looking for, and how those needs can be met with a new-age mindset.

Some of you may belong to categories we commonly refer to as “young millennials” or “digital natives” or “Gen Y”, while others may struggle to get a peek into their behaviour. Yes, there are many differences among them, and these labels don’t always mean the same thing. But, when it comes to the modern-day Customer, there are some behavioural insights that cut across these differences.

What ‘‘Next Gen’’ Customers Want

Customers all over the world are embracing the abundance of Technology that now comes embedded in most platforms, products and services. And, that is even more true for those we think of as the “Next Gen’’ tribe…

  • They want lesser clicks, faster page loads, shorter queues, reduced turnaround times, smaller forms
  • They want more and more to happen via Digital channels, so they can access these services on-the-go
  • They want more self-service options (Starbucks?), and want less IVRS interactions (Your call is important to us?!)
  • They want their interactions with brands to be relevant, useful and enjoyable
  • And, thanks to online forums, reviews, ratings, and Social Media exchanges, they probably know more about the product or service (before purchase) than even the sales agents do!

‘‘Next Gen’’ Solutions…

Most of us know that it takes much more effort to acquire a new customer, than it does to retain one. Yet, organizations are usually focused on “new business”, often pouring considerable resources into a leaking funnel.

‘Next Gen’ organizations, however, work on what really matters…

It all starts with a clear idea of who the customer is, and what it means to engage with them, in a meaningful manner.

‘Next Gen’ organizations establish mechanisms to listen to their customers – not just through annual surveys, but on an ongoing basis. They understand their “tribe”, and their needs and wants. Then, they work on creating relevant products and services, making the trade-offs that matter. They know that competition does not matter, only customers do.

Significant sums are spent worldwide on focused groups and the measurement of metrics like C-SAT & NPS. But, great Customer Experience is built on a foundation of consistent Service Delivery, not just found in pockets of excellence.

‘Next Gen’ organizations know that back office, middle office, front office – all matter when it comes to ‘moments of truth’. They pay attention to their employees, empower them, and then build robust processes with their help.

In the quest to provide more bells & whistles, or more personalization, businesses sometimes can lose sight of the fundamentals. Sadly, more does not always mean better.

‘Next Gen’ organizations see Technology as a means to an end, not an end in itself. If their customers seek (Technology-led) convenience and self-service, they are given that option. If they find it daunting, then it is dialled-back.

‘Next Gen’ organizations aim for a consistence experience across channels – after all, their customers expect them to do so!  They try to understand every channel that their customers interact with, and strive to provide an amazing experience on each medium.

Finally, ‘Next Gen’ organizations don’t have mobile customers and desktop customers – they only have customers. They connect the dots – across devices, channels and teams. They nix silos and unite incentives, so that their customers can experience the brand in a unified, engaging manner.

The Changing Landscape

Today, customers are voting with their thumbs! Access to low-cost Internet is no longer a problem, attention spans are at an all-time low, and choices are aplenty.

The lines have also started to blur: More and more customers can now experience world-class design, and already compare their banking apps with their ride-sharing ones. The good news is that organizations across industries have started to acknowledge the gaps, and have also begun bridging them.

In the context of Financial Services, some of the recent examples of taking a customer-centric approach includes the introduction of Video-based Medical Evaluations, and interactive chatbots that can peer into structured & unstructured data to answer most of your questions, thereby eliminating wait-times and reducing physical inconveniences.

As Walt Disney once said, “Do what you do so well, that they will want to see it again, and bring their friends.” And, the truth is, unless businesses align with the needs and wants of their core customers, the alternatives are only a swipe away.

This post first appeared in Outlook Money (March 2021)

The Say-Do Gap

Life is filled with examples of the Say-Do gap. And, work life is no different.

Take the case of wanting to improve on existing standards. Most organizations – and senior executives – would ‘say’ that they would like to see an improvement in the status quo. Some would even argue that significant improvement is the only way to beat the competition – after all, change is the only constant. However, most avenues of feedback and improvement are often ignored by well-meaning folks.

No, I am not talking about Customer Satisfaction surveys or NPS numbers here. There is only so much that a ‘formal’ system of feedback from a select set of customers can tell us about how, where and when we need to improve our products and processes.

Let me take a few examples that may seem strange to entertain at first…

  1. Subtraction

    Take any business conference you’ve attended in the past few years. Most will hand you a docket at the registration desk that is filled with sponsored content, marketing collateral and white papers on topics of industry relevance. Each item is carefully crafted by Sales and Marketing folks who do this for a living. Yet, at the end of the conference, the tables will be littered with leaflets and brochures that were left behind by the attendees – material that was not relevant enough for them to carry all day, or take back with them.

    Imagine how insightful this information really is – your target audience telling you by the end of the day what doesn’t really work for them! But almost every conference organizer (or client) ignores it.

  2. Addition

    Take the case of the auto accessories industry. We buy cars, and then we buy accessories that fill the gaps that the new vehicle didn’t already address. Nowhere is it more apparent than in India which is famous for its jugaad approach.

    The accessories industry fills these voids on many different levels, from basic elements like floor lamination (hygiene in monsoon-affected markets) and leather-like seat covers to luxury elements like parking cameras and Android Auto enabled touchscreen infotainment systems. In each of these examples, either the equivalent does not exist with the original dealer, or is only offered as a bundle when you buy the next variant, or is available at a price point that is unacceptable to the customer.

    Each element is an example of what the customer really wants – and is willing to pay for it, if the price is right. But, almost every auto manufacturer (or dealer) ignores it.

What is ironic is that, in both these examples, the enterprise in question spends a considerable amount of resources in collecting ‘Customer Feedback’ through formal systems that hardly ever yield such insights.

As I said before, Life is filled with examples of the Say-Do gap. If you really want to do something about improvement, there is plenty of opportunity all around us… All we need is to open our eyes and minds.