Agile in Professional Services by Miriam Gilbert

In 2012, the renowned management guru and business book author Steve Denning wrote an article entitled “The Case Against Agile" which had almost 80,000 views and caused a lot of debate in management circles.

Here, Denning debunked the top ten objections put forward by organisations as to why Agile cannot possibly work for them.

In the intervening years, the phrase “Agile” has become much more of the commonplace, but the old objections still persist in many areas. Even more so since it has become clear that agile only works if teams are afforded a high degree of freedom and self-management, something many managers often feel uncomfortable with.

So what about professional services? Has the industry that lives of its smart and committed workforce embraced agile? And should they embrace it or stick to tried and tested tradition?

Atholl Duncan, Executive Director of ICAS, UK and Global, states in a recent article for CA Magazine: “The spread of Agile raises intriguing opportunities,”… and “The very thought could send some CAs (Chartered Accountant) spluttering towards the Tanqueray. Agile is the antithesis of command and control; a frightening sight to executives weaned on traditional hierarchy.”

The state of agile in the professional services sector

This article picks the top 5 original objections from Steve Denning’s piece and investigates if they apply to professional services—do they hold much water?

Objection 1: “Agile is only for stars”

“Agile was designed for experienced, smart, and high-achieving people like its creators, i.e. stars. […] Not every group can be motivated, experienced, and skilled enough to self-organize into an efficient team. We have to work with the staff we have. They need close supervision. So Agile is not for us.” (quoted from the original article)

Wow, that is quite a damning statement and surely cannot apply to professional firms? Unfortunately, phrases to similar effect are still common when we mention agile and self-management.

What is insidious is the implicit assumptions that your people are mediocre and cannot be trusted. For professional services firms, who pride themselves on having highly intelligent, skilled and committed staff, this shows a dissonance between the glossy picture presented to the outside world and the management mindset.

And it is the mindset that needs to shift.

Agile and self-management assume that your staff is competent and responsible–and if you agree that they are, then the objection doesn’t stand.

If they are not, however, review your hiring, training and staff engagement approaches.

Objection 2: “Agile doesn’t fit our organizational culture”

Many in professional services would agree that multi-coloured hair and (visible) tattoos, or other stereotypical depictions of start-up culture, do not convey the kind of image their firm wants to portray to clients.

Luckily, a culture where agile can flourish is not defined by visual appearance.

Instead, an agile culture is characterised by its ability to sense and adapt to changes, breaking down silos, free information flow and switching roles as needed. The client comes first–bureaucracy and processes second*.

In today’s marketplace, this ability is essential for survival.

Objection 3: “Our firm’s individual accountability systems don’t fit Agile”

Given that most professional services firms are partnerships, you’d think that is a valid concern. How can you cut across the silos created by expertise and equity partners’ priorities?

Given that many of the services provided will be disrupted by technology advances, firms can only hope to make the most of their people’s unique human abilities: creativity, empathy, ingenuity, passion and collaboration skills.

But how can we set free these abilities if we insist to keep staff in silos via reporting lines and performance reward systems that incentivise them NOT to collaborate or come up with new ideas? 

That is a problem with firm structures and processes – not with agile. And there is a simple solution: start changing the structures, processes and incentive schemes to allow

Objection 4: “Agile requires co-location and our staff are geographically dispersed”

Fair enough, agile works best with frequent, if not constant face-to-face contact, so co-location would be ideal.

However, with the development of collaboration tools, progress in video communication and a plethora of chat tools, this is a lame excuse.

Objection 5: “Agile lacks [project] management processes.

“Most agile methodologies do not define any project management processes. Whether we’re agile or not, we need to manage project scope, planning, budgets, strategies, and reporting. So Agile can’t be the answer.”

(quoted from the original article)

I hear this objection (sans the emphasis on project management) frequently. And it makes a good point. Agile does not solve ALL management issues, only certain ones.

You might very well need other processes in addition to agile. That does not stop firms to combine the principles of agile with those processes.

When a firm adopts agile principles, especially those around self-management, they find that many of the traditional management concerns, like budgets, planning and reporting become simpler. Meetings become fewer, email chains shorter and staff happier and more productive.

Why is corporate life simpler with agile self-management?

Because agile and self-managing organisations attract people who are inspired to contribute their full potential, with all their passion and creativity. These organisations provide the systemic environments where such people can thrive.

Agile organisations thrive on transparency, which cuts down on rigid reporting and internal processes like, e.g. the annual back-and-forth negotiations to agree on budgets, cost cutting targets or staff numbers.

In agile organisations, staff are responsible to ALL members of the firms, not just their boss. This creates positive social peer pressure and builds greater engagement and accountability, eliminating blame cultures (it’s hard to blame someone else if everyone can see your actions and behaviours).

In fact, control is stronger in agile organisations as it is not limited to a small group of people. This is highlighted in the research that found observed misconduct in 27-69% of traditional organisations vs only 4% of self-managing ones.

Performance is higher in agile firms, with the research showing 98% in agile firms vs 41-81% in traditional organisations falling into the “high performance” category for market share growth and business results. One factor for this is because Agile firms receive feedback in very short cycles, which means adjustments can be made immediately, not months after the event or only following an annual review.

Question: how agile and self-managing is your organisation?

#self-management, #agile #futureofprofessions

*this does not mean that essential processes, like compliance processes, are ignored–instead, agile governance can be more effective than traditional approaches.


Miriam has been helping organisations for over 20 years to design and implement agile ways of thinking and working that bring real-world benefits.

As a Chartered Accountant with international consulting experience gained with PricewaterhouseCoopers, she has spent 20+years advising organisations in Financial Services, Transport, Construction, Charities, the Travel industry and the Public Sector, delivering quantifiable bottom-line results.

As a near-term futurist, she helps CEO’s and business leaders plot their course through complex, uncertain and changing environments and devise practical strategies for business success in the digital world.