Many Telcom Companies continue to face revenue stagnation or outright declines. Competition remains fierce, as does pressure on costs and prices. Telcom Companies are also battling to develop, and succeed with, new offerings and business models ahead of their competitors. By fostering collaboration, adaptability, and speed, agile helps companies respond better and faster to evolving trends. To put it simply, the agile way of working is just what Telcom Companies need. And need to do well.
Agile is expanding beyond its origins in software development, now telecommunications companies are actively exploring agile ways of working beyond their software delivery teams. OEM and Telcom Companies globally are running agile pilots or developed port¬folios of agile teams. Only a few have made the complete transition to agile at scale—applying agile to the operations of a full business unit, to their network delivery, or to the enterprise as a whole.
Telcom Companies and agile are a natural and necessary fit. Few industries, if any, are as rapidly shifting as the telecom business. And few methodologies, if any, are as responsive to change as agile. To be sure, more Telcom Companies are taking more steps to implement this new way of working. Agile requires that companies examine the work in progress, identify adjustments, make the changes, and iterate. “Agile” has become code for a range of activities that involve test-and-learn methodologies, cross-functional teaming, and decentralized and empowered decision making, which are all essential workplace tools. With a concerted push, the telecom industry could move past the tipping point and achieve the benefits of agile at scale.
Making the shift, however, required a faster operational cadence. It needs the company’s management to make the bold decision to implement agile work practices company-wide and, effectively, to take an agile approach to go agile. It’s not for lack of results, Telcom Companies increase process development speeds while reducing costs. Some have increased release cycle times for new products and reduced marketing expenses.
THE CHALLENGES TO AGILE IN TELCOM COMPANIES
All companies encounter plenty of hurdles and risk falling into various traps when trying to scale up agile.
Agile is hard, but When large companies get agile right, the results can be stunning. Productivity can improve by a factor of three. Employee engagement, measured in quantitative surveys, increases dramatically as well. New product features can be released within weeks or months rather than quarters or years. Rates of innovation rise, while the number of defects and do-overs declines. Done right, the transformation affects everything from internal processes to how employees spend their day to how people in the organization interact with one other. It requires rethinking structures, reporting, compensation, and career paths.
But most established organizations like the status quo and fear change. So they try to kill the transformation before it gains traction. Transforming your company to Agile needs years of planning and execution, if a company is not committed to putting the time and energy they are likely to fall into one of three traps.
Labeling an organization agile and not making fundamental shifts in ways of working—establishing cross-functional teams adopting a try-and-fail approach. In large and complex companies, speeding things up means reducing reliance on hierarchies, and leveling hierarchies require reliance on collaboration. Empowered employees can collaborate and make great things happen, but most companies continue making decisions the way they always have—slowly.
A variation on the Label-only trap is the two-tier trap. This happens when a company shifts some functions to agile while other functions continue operating in the old ways of working. In either case, if the transformation is successful, the organization, or parts of it, moves much more quickly and nimbly. But the benefits are lost when the results of agile teamwork—a product innovation, for example, or a faster internal process—run hard into traditional processes and deliberate, drawn-out management approvals.
Companies that fall into the half-measures trap get agile partially right. They are successful at cross-functional reorganization. Multidisciplinary teams start to work in scrums and sprints. But these companies do not follow through with critical organizational enablers such as redesigned career paths and incentive programs. Employees adopt the new ways of working only to encounter uncertainty about the impact it will have on them as individuals. The initial enthusiasm stalls.
Outsourced Support and Vendor Management.
Partners or vendors manage many layers of the telecommunications stack—and for agile to be successful, all of them need to be involved in the change, which can create thickets of complexity that must be cut through. A full transformation requires alignment with vendors and partners.
These mistakes include taking half measures or ending up with a two-speed organization or ways of working that are agile in name only. Telecommunications business’s unique structure and features lead to a set of industry-specific challenges, including those related to team structure, vendor management, risks and interdependencies, consistency, and culture and leadership. This last hurdle is especially high because many Telcom Companies have been doing business in much the same way for decades.
START YOUR TRANSFORMATION
Value principles over the process. At its heart, agile is a set of values. People talk about sprints and scrums and tribes, but the principles of iterative, empirical, cross-¬functional, customer-focused, continuous improvement are what makes agile powerful. How companies should apply these principles depends on what they need to accomplish, given their particular history, technology, maturity, and culture. For example, an agile team using the scrum methodology typically works in time boxes or sprints of one to two weeks. But there is no rule that says sprints can’t be longer or that all teams need to be scrum teams. In the telecom sector, given the high costs of failure and companies’ large base of interrelated fixed assets, it often makes sense to lengthen sprint duration or embrace a multispeed approach to agile with sequenced sprints among teams.
For example, one team might develop a feature of a digital customer-facing app after a two-week sprint, but another might need several months to work out a major enhancement or adjustment to an operations or business support system. Telecom companies can follow a two-speed approach – depending on the complexity of its tech stack different network teams can execute sprints at different speeds. Another method is to maintain a two-week sprint cycle but uses tags to hold off on releasing the final activation until all of the work was completed and integrated across the dependent systems. While having some differences, aligning on a few KPIs allows management to better understand what is going on, so they can help teams make decisions. Comparing the progress of different teams can help in surfacing issues and targeting solutions. Adopting a consistent approach to agile ensures that individuals can move among teams without having to relearn practices each time.
Plan around the existing infrastructure. Companies do not need to have perfect IT and Telecom systems in place before starting the agile journey, but they should invest continuously in improvement. Owing to the interconnected nature of the IT and Telecom stack and most Telcom Companies heavy reliance on legacy systems, planning around the stack is essential. Generally, the more digitally mature the stack, the easier the agile transformation—but every telco has a different starting point, and before a full agile transformation can take place, leaders should carefully consider the maturity of the stack and plan on that basis. Forward-looking Telcom Companies start by looking at their digital stack’s targeted architecture and then plan the tech upgrades and the agile transformation together. Because of the sensitivity of network technology, some companies continue to manage this area in a traditional way, integrating an agile approach to the most sensitive software and technology tasks only very late in the transformation process.
Cross-¬functional teams, squads, and tribes are another fundamental feature of agile. Because of their customers’ interdependent customer journeys, Telcom Companies need to embrace this cross-functionality more broadly than most other companies do. To ensure that they have an end-to-end view of a technical change, companies should include upstream functions such as product, marketing, and sales channels in teams composed predominantly of technical staff, as well as downstream functions such as security, channel and change readiness, and networks. Often, increasing the number of voices in the room can slow the cycle and increase the time required to reach consensus. To ameliorate this tendency, planners should carefully assign, communicate, and adhere to decision rights. This cross-¬functional capability increases in importance as products and services become more interconnected.
MOVING TO SCALE—FAST
Recognizing and planning for the telco-¬specific hurdles involved in moving to agile can help smooth and speed the transformation process. But once the planning is in place, demonstrating success is largely a matter of leadership and determination. How companies select and execute their first few agile tribes—groups of teams tasked with solving specific problems or needs—is where the agile rubber meets the road.
We have worked with several Telcom Companies recently that passed the test, establishing agile tribes, creating a track record of accomplishment, and accelerating the start of their transformation. Such success is most often achieved through careful selection of the first tribes to be created, with an emphasis on predictability and transparency of information, rather than on the velocity of transformation.
With agile, visibility is just as vital. Agile is all about reacting quickly and decisively to change. Without the ability to see how agile is working and how it might work better, Telcom Companies won’t be able to react and innovate as quickly as they could. Or as quickly as those digital players they’re up against already can.
Inconsistent or absent KPIs make it difficult to understand the root causes of bad results and then adjust in the next iteration. Companies get to a solution, but they are less likely to get to the optimal solution—or get to it in the optimal amount of time. Telcom Companies must be vigilant in tracking team-specific KPIs. But they also need to find ways to measure agile’s overall impact. One idea is to focus on ultimate business outcomes, such as customer satisfaction and Net Promoter Score. Consistently—and continuously—applied, a measurement framework lets Telcom Companies evaluate and improve agile-based work.
Telcom Companies seem to be having trouble assessing the impact of agile. They haven’t hit on a standard set of KPIs for measuring success. Metrics are important, not only because they let you gauge how things are going but because they can show you where and how to make adjustments. The idea of a course correction—and Telcom Companies’ difficulty in leveraging the right metrics to do it well.
Changes in How—but Not How Much—Telcom Companies Spend on IT
Telcom companies are on the right track, putting more emphasis and resources into their agile transformations. But they must redouble their efforts, taking a focused approach instead of a fragmented one and deploying agile and its enablers more broadly across the organization. They need that better visibility, too, in order to see how agile processes are connected to results—and how to make that connection stronger.
In a market where traditional mobile offerings are often commoditized and under price pressure, moving up means branching out. For Telcom Companies, agile can be a differentiator: a way to quickly get new capabilities—and innovation—in front of customers, but the data shows that, overall, Telcom Companies are taking a fragmented rather than a focused approach to agile, not fully committing themselves or their employees to the new paradigm. They also seem to lack sufficient visibility into agile’s impact. These findings raise some alarms because, without focus and visibility, Telcom Companies risk ending up with a watered-down version of agile: one that brings benefits but never unleashes its full power.
Our assessment finds that, overall, Operator employees have a good handle on agile’s mechanics. They understand and employ agile’s core concepts and practices, such as daily standups, minimum viable products, incremental development, frequent feedback, and collocation of team members. They also tend to have a good understanding of their telco’s purpose, strategy, and priorities—and how their own work fits into that. measuring agile’s output and leveraging the tools, platforms, and architectures that facilitate an agile way of working (such as continuous delivery, automated testing, application programming interfaces, and modular architecture). Employees working in agile seem to have a good impression of it too. Word of mouth has proved a potent means of driving adoption. So it has the power of example. Success stories are spurring more initiatives—and spurring more employees to join the agile ranks
agile would have it, make it faster and better. The idea isn’t to completely change the way Telcom Companies implement the methodologies but to initiate a feedback loop and—in a very agile way—drive incremental improvement.
The feedback loop is a major pillar of agile. The idea: you look at a work in progress, see what needs adjustment, implement the change, and repeat. A well-designed, well-executed feedback loop can get you to an optimal result quickly and efficiently.