Becky Davis presenting at the Agile Business Conference 2017

Building the Magic and Agility to Transform

19 October 2017

Published first in Public Sector Focus, September/October 2017 Issue 12

Reviewing the Agile Business Conference 2017

From retail, government and insurance to marketing, leadership and budgeting, the power of an Agile approach to transform organisations was highlighted at this year’s Agile Business Conference.

Chaired by Daniel Thornton, an Agile advocate and Programme Director at the Institute for Government, the two-day conference focused on:

  • Transformation and Leadership;
  • People and Culture; and
  • Digital Services.

Keynote speakers introduced each theme, with follow-up presentations and Q&As further exploring key elements.

Moving beyond silo thinking for leadership

The importance of leadership as a catalyst for transforming both public and private sector organisations was stressed by keynote speaker Chris Roebuck, Visiting Professor of Transformational Leadership at Cass Business School London.

Chris set out the simple steps employers can take to motivate employees and improve productivity.

Stressing the importance of communication, collaboration and commitment, he said that at its most basic the key to galvanising staff was about bosses showing they cared about the people who worked for them.

“Getting success is mainly emotional,” he said. “It’s about creating an environment where people want to give of their best. Why should people care about their boss and the organisation if their boss and the organisation haven’t cared about them?”

Chris stressed organisations needed to move beyond traditional silo thinking and instead adopt an holistic approach. Agile, he said, and the Nine Principles of Agile Leadership ( provided the framework needed to survive and thrive in challenging times.

The theme of Leadership and Transformation was illustrated in case studies given by Paul Shepheard of Deutsche Bank and Becky Davis of AXA, while Dr Steve Morlidge addressed the importance of non-hierarchical leadership in implementing more efficient, responsive and flexible budgeting.


Targeting Digital Services ripe for transformation

Hugh Wallace, Transformation Lead at the Scottish Government, outlined how the new Digital Strategy for Scotland, launched earlier this year, sets the context for work within the Digital Directorate but also touches on all areas of government.

The strategy’s four high level ambitions are to:

  • Deliver inclusive economic growth
  • Reform public services
  • Tackle inequalities and empower communities
  •  Prepare children and current workforce for the workplace of the future

Hugh said: “What we are trying to do is target areas of government we think are most ripe for transformation and taking a partnership approach to how we deliver Agile. It’s about running projects and demonstrating new processes, sharing budgetary responsibility, sharing governance and trying to hothouse skills and move things forward by showing actual delivery.

“We want to make sure services are designed with users in mind and that users are involved in their development.”

Examples given of public services that have benefited from a digital-first approach included meeting challenges such as the transfer of social security benefits from the UK government as well as devising a user-friendly, integrated digital platform for the granting of licences and grants.

Summarising his team’s (evolving) approach to their work, Hugh highlighted Agile principles such as:

  • We put users first
  • We work as a team
  • We consider the whole service
  • We make decisions
  • We release early and often
  • We keep things simple
  • We work in the open

Digital transformation was also the theme of presentations by John McGrath of the Dublin Institute of Technology; Jai Whiting from TV and online retailer JML; and Christine Hull and Anna Urbaniak from high street – and now online – retailer John Lewis, which has used Agile techniques to deliver greater numbers of digital products, eight times more quickly with a smaller team.

Digital services and the public sector were explored further on the second day of the conference, which offered delegates the opportunity to attend in-depth workshops and roundtables. Geof Ellingham, chair of the Agile Business Consortium, outlined the work being undertaken to support Agile in government through a new course and qualification, Agile Digital Services, which integrates Government Digital Service (GDS) guidance with established Agile project management practice.


Creating magic and agility

One of world’s 20 most influential business thinkers (Thinkers 50-Awards), Dr Patrick Dixon, took the lead in the People and Culture session of the conference, taking a ‘journey into the future of retail’ to look at how embracing technology and adopting new ways of working can help businesses respond quickly to market trends and customer needs. Using the examples of waiters who didn’t make eye contact and menus that were hard to read, he said small, low-cost things often made all the difference.

“Tiny things create magic and agility, and transform your business,” he said.

He also discussed how officer graduates of the Sandhurst Military Academy were trained to always have in mind the school’s motto: Serve to Lead.

Before leaving the Academy and taking up their postings, graduates were told that the first time they stood in front of their new charges, the soldiers would want to know two things: “Does he or she know what they are doing? Can we trust them?”  Two qualities, Patrick said, that business leaders should also possess.

Other critical issues he highlighted were the importance of speed, the value of there being trust in a brand and the readiness of consumers to boycott retailers which behaved unethically.

Further insights were given by: Anne Rød and Nairy MacMahon, who looked at how organisations function; Jeremy Renwick, who unveiled the thinking behind his concept of the Minimum Viable Organisation and how structure drives behaviour; and David Taylor and Katie Taylor who showed how bosses can unlock three times more value, confidence and agility by unleashing the talents and passions of their staff.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

Charles, Darwin, 1809 (quoted by John McGrath in his presentation on Delivering Digital Transformation Projects)

Published first in Public Sector Focus, September/October 2017 Issue 12