How do you inspire a sales team to become agile and collaborative? How do you transfer Agile practices from software development to work beyond sofware, for example, to sales? What relevance does this transition have for teams in general?
Thus a reader contacted me this morning and asked:
We’re a software company and have successfully implemented Agile for product development. We know it’s successful because we’re delivering more, higher quality software for lower costs. Your book has prompted me to look at a similar approach for other parts of our business – starting with sales. Can you provide any guidance?
My book, The Leader's Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century, does discuss a number of companies that are applying Agile (aka radical management) practices to sales, including Xebia, Total Attorneys and Quadrant Homes. It also depicts the detailed practices needed to make Agile work outside the context of software development.
Often when Agile or Scrum is being introduced, all the thinking is about the mechanical or work programming issues, like getting the work organized into sprints, with a product owner and Scrum-master, preparing the burndown chart, and so on. Those issues are important but they are not the only issues.
In thinking about what specific adjustments are need to apply Agile practices beyond software, such as in sales, there are really two kinds of issues. One concerns the mechanical or work programming issues. The other concerns the deeper issues concerning goals, values and work culture.
Mechanical or programming issues
1. Redefining the “product backlog”
In Agile software development, there is typically a "product backlog" in terms of improvements to be worked on and progress is measured in terms of the improvements that are completed.
Outside software, as in sales, the work looks different. Thus in sales, there’s usually a wide marketing component in which you try to get in touch with as many people as you can. And then you have actions to bring clients into different phases of the sales process. From contacts to leads, and from leads into prospects, and from prospects to a deal, or not. You measure your progress in these different phases. Basically, you are measuring your velocity in terms of your ability to complete deals. So in order to generate 100 leads, you need 500 contacts. And 100 leads will result in so many prospects which will lead to so many deals. In this way, you can measure velocity of the work and use that to steer.
2. Adjusting the daily standup meeting
Often a sales teams is on the road. So the daily standup meeting tends to become a virtual meeting, sometimes carried out while the sales people are driving towards their customers,
3. Shorter work cycles
In software, work cycles are often two, three or four weeks. In sales, the horizon is often shorter, in terms of a week or even a day or two. One might have a weekly meeting where people talk about resourcing and the leads and the actions for the rest of the week are defined. But the actual work cycle may be shorter.
4. Kanban vs Scrum
One of the principles of Agile, Scrum and radical management is to set goals and then let the team get on with the work for the duration of the work cycle.
In sales there can be a larger of amount of opportunistic work. When new and better opportunities come up, you need to grab them, rather than following what’s in the plan.
This can sometimes lead to behavior that begins to resemble Attention Deficit Syndrome. If this is inherent in the nature of the particular context, then it may be better to switch to a Kanban approach, where there are a fixed number of “slots” of leads that can be worked on, rather than a formal set of prioritized leads. In Kanban, it matters less what’s in the slots than that the work is focused on a limited number of tasks that actually get finished.
5. Not interrupting the team
Where the work is highly opportunistic and difficult to predict, it may also be difficult for the managers to adhere to the principle of not interrupting a team in the course of a work cycle. Some firms have dealt with this issue by giving the managers a limited number of “silver bullets” per work cycle, which the managers can use to interrupt "officially". Experience shows that that this practice can make managers conscious of the fact that they are interrupting the work and can result in the “silver bullets” being used rarely, or even not at all.
Broader principles of radical management
In addition to these mechanical programming issues, there are also several big picture issues relating to the deeper principles of radical management.
6. Delighting the client vs making the sale
Radical management—and Agile at its best—entails a shift in goals. As a result of the transition in power from seller to buyer, the firm’s goal shifts from producing things to delighting clients. In effect, the firm’s focus shifts from inside-out (“You take what we make”) to outside-in (“We seek to understand your problems and will surprise you by solving them”). In addition to completing transactions, the firm endeavors to establish relationships with its customers.
Before introducing radical management into a group like sales, thought should be given as to what extent the people are already in the mode of delighting clients, or whether they are focused more on completing transactions. Where people have been compensated solely on whether they make the sale, it is likely that they will be transaction-oriented, and a significant transition will be needed.
7. Individualism vs collaboration
Thought should also be given as to whether the group is working in an individualist or collaborative mode. Where incentives are significant and based on sales by individuals, then the people are likely to be working in a competitive, individualistic manner, with a “what’s in it for me?” attitude predominating over collaboration to enhance the overall team performance.
The essence of Agile and radical management involve working collaboratively in teams. Before introducing Agile and radical management beyond software, thought should be given as to how much change will be involved in getting the group into a collaborative mode and how to make it happen. Change in compensation practices may be needed, as well as leadership storytelling to induce the organization and the people to embrace the change.
8. Deeper reflection
Where people are under a lot of pressure to deliver, as in sales, this tends to foster a work hard/play hard culture. There often is not a lot of time spent on reflecting on what has been learned.
The essence of Agile and radical management is continuous learning and improvement. As one manager said after Agile had been introduced, “Whenever I come with a suggestion, there’s always somebody who says, “Why?” three times, as a kind of root cause analysis, which is not always what I want to hear, but it works that way.”
By contrast, in a work hard/play hard culture, there may be little inclination to reflect. So significant care may be needed in a sales group where reflection, learning and improvement are foreign to the work culture.
A deep change in work culture
Introducing Agile or radical management into a team beyond software such as sales, thus involves more profound changes than simply adjusting the work programming practices of the organization. In effect, it usually involves a wholly different way of thinking, speaking and acting in the workplace. As Mikkel Harbo of Systematic said to me: “When you introduce this, everything is different.”
Is it worth it? I believe so. Firms that have gotten into this mode and executed it well have found that it generates simultaneously high productivity, continuous innovation, disciplined execution, job satisfaction and client delight.
Dear Reader: Do you have experience in introducing Agile in a context beyond software development, such as a sales team? What did you learn? Love to hear from youL enter a comment here!