In September, the Cloudbusting Podcast team held a roundtable discussion with CxOs from seven enterprises at different stages in their cloud journey. The conversation covered several topics, including what it takes to adopt an agile mindset in your organization and how to adjust to a more customer-centric, product-led business model. Ultimately, they set out to answer the question: What does it mean to be an adaptable organization?

When approaching your cloud journey, it is easy to get bogged down in the technology and ‘how’ you are going to transform. With the Secret CxO roundtable the goal was to investigate ‘why’ businesses are adopting cloud and how they are adapting to unlock the benefits that the technology can unleash.

All of the participants on the panel came from businesses that have recognized the need to adapt in response to changing, challenging markets. Likewise, all have wrestled, and continue to wrestle with, the often-unknown, internal, day-to-day challenges that come from enacting large-scale digital change in their organisation.

The conversation covered both these issues – with our CxOs sharing successes, failures and lessons learned from their own, unique experiences.

You can listen to the roundtable discussion using the player below. If you don’t have the time, we have picked out our key takeaways from the discussion.

1. Change in leadership approach

Throughout the discussion, it was clear that effective and reflective leadership is a pivotal part of becoming a more agile and adaptable organization. Many of the CxOs explained how they needed to completely rethink the leadership approach down through their organisation, from a more hierarchical, change-averse system, to a more networked-based system that prioritised empowerment.

CxO 1:“I think there’s a need for leadership and management behaviors to change. Traditionally, leaders provide direction and managers take pride in the fact that they are in control of taking us in a particular direction. In a more responsive, agile organization, leadership is very different. They should see themselves as enabling the organization to go its own way. Rather than a manager being proud of being in control, they become somebody who’s proud of allowing other people to step forward and achieve an outcome for their business.

CxO 2:“Ultimately, leadership moves from this paradigm of ‘control’ over to ‘influence’. If we’re able to empower our stakeholders by ‘influence’, we’re able to drive better decision making. I think that allows us to move the needle. “

As a part of the leadership discussion, we also spoke about the importance of servant leadership…

CxO 7:“It’s a fundamental rewriting of everybody in leadership and management’s responsibilities. I had a member of my team come to me recently as Head of Application Development. He said, “you’ve been talking to me for six months about my new job and I just realized what it is. It’s completely different”. Two years ago, I would look to him to be in control of all of the things that his team was delivering. Now, I look to him to make sure that he’s hiring the right people, that he’s enabling those people to grow and develop, and that he’s supervising the quality of what they’re doing. He shouldn’t really care exactly ‘what’ they are doing and ‘how’ they’re doing it.”

A point that everyone agreed on was that, for transformation to be successful, leaders need psychological safety to be able to communicate honestly with each other.

CxO 6:“Leadership teams need to be really honest and open with each other. And I think that’s a big cultural change for a lot of businesses. I think that openness, honesty and taking the time to really understand where they are taking some of those basic teamwork concepts that make all teams function well together, is critical. These kinds of changes are really hard. I think recognising that’s really important.”

2. Agile is a cultural shift – not just a tech change

Another common thread was understanding that these sort of transformations are often less about the technology, the methodologies/tools used, and the teams owning the technology. It is more about the culture that needs to be fostered to make the transformation a success.

CxO 1: “These paradigm shifts are typically seen as owned by technology or that Agile is the adoption of a toolset or methodology. Actually, it should be seen as a DNA and cultural shift. It has to be driven top-down. Execs have to own it and cascade it through the culture of the entire organization. Right now that’s a bit of a mind shift from most organizations today.”

CxO 3:It’s been quite a journey to take the bold step from having this command and control environment, where there’s an absence of trust, to doing something totally different. Not only that, we’re going to openly say how differently we’re doing it. We’re going to explain to people how it’s different, why it’s different and what we’re trying to achieve. And we’re gonna make our success or failure public.

Everyone agreed that a successful transformation to a more adaptable, product-led organisation requires business-wide, cultural change.

CxO 1:“The way we’re trying to be more agile, and be more accepting of it, is through reevaluating our processes and our part in that value chain. This includes everything from going from an annual budgeting to a monthly budgeting cycle and to a monthly code release on the tech side. Even our strategic review and business case prioritizations are now on a monthly process. So it doesn’t just start with tech. It needs to be org wide.

CxO 2:“It’s that movement towards a product-led organisation that affects everyone in the entire company. And actually, once we explain it in a very simple way to people, the business people, the marketing teams, the legal team, procurement teams – throughout the whole organisation – you start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. You start to go on that journey. That’s when you really start to see change.”

3. Have patience – you can’t rush change

Guiding cultural change is vital and you can’t rush it. Your transformation into an adaptable organisation won’t happen overnight. You need to manage expectations at a leadership level and put a roadmap in place to get your organisation where it needs to be in terms of skills, understanding, and processes.

CxO 7:“There’s no shortage of clarity about the need to be more digital in our customer experience. We need to do things that are different and better for the consumer. But it’s almost assumed that you can just will it to happen. Snap your fingers and magically the organisation will become more agile and more digital. You’ll get the outcomes that you want if you can just push it through. Somehow it will happen. But of course, that doesn’t happen. You do need to take the time to build the skills, build the understanding, allow people to experiment and so on. You can’t just wave a wand.”

4. Customer focus is key

Many businesses are coming to terms with the need to disrupt or be disrupted. The core benefit of being an adaptable organisation is the ability to sense and respond to your market and rapidly build and test new products for your customers. This was a topic that emerged on several occasions during the roundtable.

CxO 4: “Where we’re talking about putting the customer at the middle of solving solutions is really the crux of the product-centric mindset and the inherent benefits of moving from a software development lifecycle to a product development lifecycle.”

Dave: “I think the sense here is then that there is an expectation being set by the market, irrespective of your organisation, that you all of a sudden, whether you like it or not, you need to match up to. And then the cadence that your business needs to run on is going to define your tech speed.”

CxO 4: “The only competitive advantage that we have, outside of our brand, is speed to market. And we have to ask ourselves that if we don’t transform towards an agile organisation and be more like Amazon or other companies like that: Will we have the speed to keep up with what consumers actually require? When you’re looking at what the consumers require, I think it’s important not to look just in our industries but looking at other customer journeys that our customers go on. They are going to expect us to be at that level of agility. Our framing of product release isn’t defined by our organization but by how our customers are consuming other services.”

CxO 2: “Being nimble as an organization isn’t an end in itself. It’s a means to be able to respond to your customer. And if you forget the customer, however quick your response is, it’s not going to be the right one.”

5. Find the agile way that works for you

It was clear from the roundtable that there are often very emotive responses in the IT community to what ‘agile’ is , and how to do ‘agile right’. A key takeaway from the discussion was that individual organisations need to find their own way to make agile work for them and avoid buying into myths and pitfalls.

CxO 4: “In the earlier discussion, we had someone referred to as: “having the agile manifesto tattooed on their body”. These people who can’t deviate in even the most minuscule away, from the pure way of approaching it. That’s a major issue. We live in the real world and every organization is different. You need to find the way that is going to work for you.”

CxO 4: “You talked about Agile becoming kind of almost a religion and people holding it up as a shield against doing real work. Saying “we can’t do that. we’re agile!”. It’s worth remembering that being good at Scrum is not achieving anything. It’s a discipline. It’s a routine.”

CxO 2: “There’s this other myth about Agile, which is that it’s all massively unpredictable. But that doesn’t absolve you from having to hit a target or a timeframe or hit a release date or whatever that may be. Actually, it is just that the exploration is different and the level of creative freedom is much higher.”

While it is important to find your own approach to Agile, we also discussed the pitfalls of adopting a Waterfall/Agile hybrid model where you are juggling two different sets of expectations

CxO 5: “I went into marketing and I was freed from all of the constraints of the governance and the process that I.T. loves to put around things. So actually, that gave me the opportunity to start to experiment with different ways of delivering (agile), getting much closer to the customer. And what we found was that, because it was working, because we were getting stuff out there faster, because people like to use it, other departments started taking notice. The I.T. team then started to look at replicating it. That’s when we started seeing this kind of ‘wagile fall’ happening. Let’s take the waterfall approach and stick a bit of agile in the middle. But all of the complexity and governance makes it hard because you’re trying to manage two different sets of expectations.”

Dave: “In that scenario, you’re providing that promise of waterfall, which is the control fixed budget, fixed scope etc. And you’re also promising the agility and all of the benefits of agile, the ability to change direction. You are actually getting the worst of both worlds!”

An almost contradictory view emerged that there is still a place for more structured planning – and elements of a sequential, Waterfall approach are still useful in an adaptable organisation. However, these need to be in the right context and on the right project.

CxO 3: “We’ve shifted from Waterfall over to Agile. I think it’s really important to remember that planning stuff still has a place when we want to respond quickly to market change. Agile is brilliant. If we want to do a major infrastructure project. However, if we want to build a new weapons system, let’s not fail fast. Let’s plan properly.”

As Dave mentioned in a slightly uncharacteristic sporting comparison:

Dave: “Being intentional with what you want to try and do and not kind of go bumbling into the wrong type of shot with the wrong golf club.”

CxO 2: “Be really deliberate about the approach that you’re choosing to take to solve a particular problem. I think people can also confuse agile with this approach: “Let’s have our whole technology stack, and how we’re going to deliver things, and what we’re going to deliver, be a bit of a free-for-all”. It absolutely can’t be like that. You need to really focus on what is your architecture is going to be. How do you want this organization to operate from a technology point of view? Then deliberately choose what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it.”

By the end of the session, the prevailing view was that agile transformation is, primarily, an organisational change rather than a departmental change. This isn’t just happening to your IT team, it is impacting your whole business. As such, a leadership-led cultural transformation has to occur for adoption to be successful. It needs time and patience to have an impact and you need to be prepared to iterate and discover how agility can work for you.

It is clear that shifting to an agile and adaptable organization requires some significant changes to your operating model. For some best-practice advice on adapting your organization’s operating model for the cloud, check out our white paper on the topic here.