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Step 7: Bringing the Executive Suite Into Agile Ways of Thinking

· 12 Steps

There’s a lot people can do to promote a more agile way of working and we’ve already touched on a few in the previous 6 steps. However, the big issue for many people is rarely spoken out loud. Are executives making the right decisions? Are they making decisions that flow down to us as work of value or are we often wasting our time?

The three awful consequences of bad executive decisions

  1. Wasted resources

  2. More pressure on people because resources are being wasted

  3. People disengaging because they know their work has no value.

Executive Portfolio thinking

To challenge Executives is not easy. That’s why we say they have to lead the change. If they are not prepared to show how to change, fat chance for digital transformation.


One way to show a willingness to change is to create an Executive Portfolio Wall (EPW). The EPW becomes a public account of executive decision-making. A recent Deloitte study, by the way, showed that a lack of executive accountability was one of the big corporate risk factors.


Three amazing benefits of an EPW:

  1. Executives get to see how much resource they are wasting and then to put it right;

  2. They get to see imbalances in resource allocation and are able to course-correct the organisation;

  3. They get to see emerging areas of activity that isn’t covered by their goals, areas that the mavericks have introduced in an attempt to create change - this is gold dust.

How then do EPWs work?

We devote a whole chapter to that in Flow. Fin has also written about it elsewhere, in particular on the need to create EPWs that provide oversight of executive impacts on IT, so let’s try to combine the two.

In Flow implementations that chances are you will begin the whole Flow process with an EPW. They are that important; that pivotal.

It could also be that you want to start by rethinking your customer base but that means bringing marketing and IT together, which is altogether a different challenge.

So let’s say the EPW is your start point. Here is a schematic of a completed EPW. In the book we take you through the process of building one out from the early days when your objectives and projects will be badly mismatched.

Here though we have reached a good outcome where there is plenty of balance.

The wall consists of:

  • The enterprise’s main goals (top line); 
  • Currently funded projects under each of these, represented by the different coloured Post-its; 
  • A colour code for size of project (roughly representing cost and duration) - you could also use T Shirt sizes for this; 
  • A backlog row to indicate work waiting to start (but not yet resourced or held up by work-bottlenecks) 
  • The Bury row to indicate work that has been cancelled.

Those stickies you see can carry any or all of the information snippets in the large red post it, screen right.

This information is all you need to know for a complete overview of all the activity that executives have funded. It also gives you an overview of how well balanced your portfolio is between the main goals of the firm. You might want to add to it some markers of work-in-progress but other than that it is pretty complete.

An important point we make in Flow is that this is our version of an EPW. You might have a different one. You might just copy this version. Flow is not a rules-based system. It is the lightest possible framework for being agile. And it relies on you taking a creative approach to it.

Our statement is simple: good interaction creates good decisions. You cannot interact over things you cannot see, so get as much as possible onto a wall. In the book we explain all the benefits you will get from doing that in the Executive suite and how to lead executives through the process.

How do you encourage Executives to do that? It takes a senior leader to coax another senior leader into action. Yes, you need buy-in.

Starting points for an EPW

This next EPW is a way to lead into the large canvas. In this Wall we are more focused on the C-Suite’s overview of IT and helping senior leaders to understand what IT is achieving for them.


Recently I met with a board member of a major bank. She holds non-executive roles on a number of PLC boards, in fact. She talked about the roles and responsibilities of board members and distinguished it from things like IT. IT, she said, was the CIO’s responsibility and a board did not need an IT specialist.


Out of politeness I held my tongue. Nothing could be much further from the truth. Neither executives nor board members have enough IT expertise and in a software driven economy, that represents a very big risk. They need IT expertise on the board to ensure that executives are taking IT seriously enough.


Most major organisations have serious legacy issues, which means they have a creaking IT estate that is vulnerable to overload, attack and technical debt. We developed this EPW to help educate the C-Suite.


In this Wall you can see down the left hand side we are trying to explain to the C-Suite what is happening in three key areas: technical debt, work on regulatory and mandatory projects, and projects and propositions that have a direct impact on customer satisfaction.

Across the top you see a progress board.

  • Ideation - a random list of stuff, ideas about what might or might not improve an area (and we do keep it loose!).

  • Feasibility - risks explored.

  • Ready to Play - units of work awaiting resources.

  • In Play - the work has been accepted by IT to start.

This kind of EPW shows executives how much they are committing to meeting obligations, whether or not they are investing enough in the IT estate; and whether the outputs they have asked for are actually sitting in idle mode because they haven’t actually resourced them.

As we said above it is a way of educating executives about IT. Maybe we should take it into board meetings, too.

Setting up an Executive Portfolio Wall is easy. Getting Executives and Leaders to use it is hard. Very hard. They prefer the security of their offices and the reams of paper churned out by project management offices (PMOs). But they do get used to it.

At first, they appear to be like fish out of water. In reality, they are very smart people who have not experienced agile type practices. That's why you'll notice that we have ditched all the jargon usually associated with Agile. That jargon demonstrates why Agile is really rooted within Software Development.

Bridging the IT Business Divide

The Executive Portfolio Wall is the missing link in Agile. It's actually a lot more than that.

They are the visualisations and the venues that bridge the divides that exist within organisations. You know the problem: too many silos exist, in the Executive suite and all through the organisation. But EPWs get people talking. They give new insights. They are fabulously, deceptively simple.

Those divides are traditionally addressed through rules about what people should do and what they are expected to hand over to each other. Or they are addressed through consulting assignments and technologies that cost millions.

Actually what’s needed are three simple things:

Insight - literally to see inside the organisation and what is actually going on and that's what the EPW gives you;

Conversation - yes, again literally. People need to talk more about what really matters in value-creation because right now they are busy talking about which rules to follow and who has or who hasn’t followed procedure or whether or not a job or report is done or not done. If they can see value processes they can talk about them;

Common language - having said let’s talk more, we have to also say the language or rules and procedures is well understood. The language of value is less so. We address it in step 6, here and in the book, we can’t overstate its importance but that doesn’t mean we want you to get uptight about it. Value is a conversation, many conversations. That’s all.

This ability to bridge the gaps and divides in the organisation and to enlighten everybody about what is going on is why we believe that Flow Agile is transformative. When coupled with an effective Customer Feedback loops (from Focus Groups, Contact Centre incidents or Social Media monitoring) you will have achieved a really powerful, efficient flow from the source of the river to its destination.

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