Lessons we've learned since launching Agile

4 lessons we’ve learned since launching Agile 4 years ago.

This may come as a surprise, but Commerce Bank is an Agile organization. You wouldn’t expect a regional bank founded in 1865 to have adopted a framework often associated with innovative technology companies. And yet, four years ago we began Agile trainings at Commerce. What began as one IT team using Agile for online banking software development has since become a company-wide movement. It turns out an old dog can learn new tricks, and here’s what we’ve learned along the way:

  1. It doesn’t have to start as a top-down initiative.
    At Commerce, Agile started as a grassroots effort. Some might say it “infiltrated” the company, one team at a time. In the early years, only IT teams attended Agile trainings. “Over time, other leaders began to notice how productive and happy the Agile teams were,” said Paul Carter, Agile enterprise solutions coach and trainer. Driven by genuine curiosity, teams from Treasury Sales, Marketing and Legal began to attend Agile trainings. Teams haven’t been told – they’ve been empowered to adopt Agile, and, as a result, they’ve taken responsibility for applying Agile principles in a way that makes sense and ultimately has the most impact.

  2. Agile is a mindset, not just a project management tool.
    Agile is more than a set of tools, though it has plenty of those. It is a mindset focused on getting results that mean something to your customer. In order to do that, you have to change how you think about your work.

    “It’s about breaking down siloes, increasing collaboration, really understanding customers and then using the framework to increase productivity and deliver the right solutions to customers,” said Carter.

    At the heart of Agile are several core values: collaboration, customer focus, iteration and prioritized action. We’ve found that not only adopting those values, but also reinforcing them with our own company values, has helped establish Agile. At the same time Agile was gaining traction, a program called EDGE was reinforcing company values through actionable concepts and trainings. “We definitely attribute our ability to reach people to the EDGE culture shift happening at the same time,” said Whitney Vanderstel, Agile enterprise solutions coach and manager. “We could point to Commerce’s values and say these are practices for implementing the values.”

  3. Lessons learned since launching Agile at Commerce Bank

  4. Becoming agile doesn’t happen overnight.
    In trainings, Carter and Vanderstel emphasize Agile is a journey. It takes time to figure out how to apply the framework to a team’s unique workload. How Agile is applied can depend on how a department is structured, what deadlines they may have and more.

    Carter and Vanderstel recommend taking an iterative approach to implementing Agile. “Prioritize one aspect of Agile that you’d like to apply, and try that for two weeks,” said Vanderstel. “Then regroup and see what worked and what didn’t. Keep retrospecting and experimenting to continuously dial up your agility.”

    Some aspects of Agile may work better for some teams than others. For example, the principle of relative sizing can help some teams estimate how much effort a project might require. That concept is especially useful for teams who structure their work by projects. But it isn’t as applicable for teams with recurring tasks, like Branch Operations.

    The key to becoming agile is to stick with it, troubleshoot and continually recommit to the Agile values of collaboration, customer-focus, iteration and prioritized action.

  5. Get executives’ buy-in.
    Although Agile at Commerce has grown organically, ultimately support from the executive level solidified Agile’s presence at the bank. In 2016, Commerce executives went through an Agile training. Like the trainees before them, they raced to iterate the best paper airplane design, excitedly sending each version across the room on test flights.

    This has helped ensure top-level decisions are being made through an Agile mindset. They are able to help prioritize resources and support ideas that meet a customer need. They can also help break down siloes to ensure people are collaborating – across the bank.

As of 2017, the Agile Enterprise Solutions team has held 104 training sessions for more than 1,200 participants across the bank. We’re four years into our Agile journey, and there’s plenty of room to grow still. But we’ve already seen positive returns from adopting Agile principles, as reinforced by our company values.