2011 Agile Australia Conference in Review

The 2011 Agile Australia product afternoon was an enlightening experience. Well done to the team at Slattery IT for organising such a stimulating event. If you don’t know the principles of Agile, it is best understood as the new age method of software development and product development. It is an alternative to the traditional and widely used Waterfall method – its main difference being the focus on adaptability, incremental improvement and the end user, the customer.

These principles bring to mind those of the lean manufacturing method derived mostly from the Toyota Production System (TPS). Similar emphasis is on the reduction of waste (‘muda’) or non-value adding tasks. You may be familiar with the terms ‘kaizen’, meaning continuous improvement, and ‘kanban’ -just-in-time delivery (JIT) or no waste. All of these principles inform the agile methodology, and are relevant for any enterprise looking for a model for change, improvement and growth.

Nigel Dalton, Partner at LunaTractor recalled his years as Deputy Director of Digital at Lonely Planet, in which the Agile method was implemented in order to regain lost market share to online travel guides. Agile guided their business to experiment with new processes, which ultimately led to a new publishing model based on customer research and feedback, cross-functional teams and collaboration. The built in flexibility and customer centricity in the new process enabled them to cut out inefficiencies and reduce time to market from 2 years to 9 months. Nigel’s was a great example of how Agile can assist businesses to maintain the relevance, credibility and profitability of a product in a climate of rapid technological development, two-sided consumer relationships, globalisation and the convergence of markets.

We heard that Agile has been the saving grace for a number of successful businesses in Australia. Chief Information Officer, Daniel Oertli, from REA Group delivered his “5 Kick Arse Principles” of Agile, which is facilitating growth at realestate.com.au. These included the ‘democratization of design’ and ‘team based sketching and drawing’- both of which were ways to encourage collaboration and unleash the ideas of the whole team in order to create better solutions. At REA these practices have also been successful in increasing ‘buy in’, accountability and ownership of the product from all team members involved in the product process.

Daniel also sought to clarify the meaning of ‘customer focused’ in Agile. In his view, many mistakenly take this to mean ‘customer driven’ and put the customer in the driver’s seat – much to the detriment of the product and business. Daniel reminded us that as product managers it is our job to understand the customer, their needs and desires and then use our expertise to deliver products that meet these needs. “The customer cannot provide the solution for you- it is our job to create the solution for them,” he reiterated. Additionally, he suggested the whole team should seek to understand the customer through regular touch points with them.

Doug Blue, Product Director at SEEK, asserted that at their company the customer comes before revenue. This guiding principle that the ‘jobseeker is king’ informs each and every product decision – from whether to put display adverts on the home page to whether to have a salary search function – and how that function should be designed and displayed on the page. Most recently SEEK has dissolved the SEEK Executive branch of the business, due to customer feedback.. Though they lost some 10% of revenue in doing so, they believe it is essential to maintain the integrity and trust of their customers. Thus, in their business the jobseekers are their primary market, and advertisers and corporates are their secondary customers. Juggling the needs of both requires discipline to put the jobseeker first each and every time, data driven metrics (“measure everything!”), and a constant cycle of testing and learning (“think, do, review”).

The key take-away for me however, came from John Sullivan, Head of Technology at Jetstar. With 20 years’ experience in companies that practiced agile, John bravely admitted that some of the principles of Agile have lost their lustre or simply aren’t relevant and workable in some business environments. A simple example is that of the daily ‘scrum meeting’, whereby teams stand in a circle and communicate what their working on and so on. At Jetstar, John has done away with this practise, deciding it did not yield results. John’s message is clear: blindly following Agile and not being discerning to mould it to your specific business unit goals and product environment, is of no value. For Jonn, Agile is about keeping his team engaged in the overall business goals (the bigger picture whereby the customer is at the centre), and free to work creatively.

I would agree. No model should be followed for the sake of it. The businesses that thrive – Lonely Planet, REA Group, SEEK – are the ones who have adapted Agile and created their own rules.