Faced with an indefinite pause to its ambitious transformation program, Rest, one of Australia’s largest superannuation funds, was determined not to let this opportunity go to waste, doubling down on its wholesale agile push even with the immediate prospect of a Covid-triggered business shutdown.
“When the virus established a foothold in Australia, it would have been really understandable, and perhaps easy for us, to postpone the transformation,” said Jeremy Hubbard, Rest’s innovation and transformation chief, speaking at the FST’s Future of Financial Services Sydney 2020 conference.
“Instead, in what I think was a critical moment for Rest, we agreed that the best way forward was not only to continue the change, but to accelerate it.”
In a case of luckless timing, Rest’s company-wide agile transformation program was unexpectedly launched just a few weeks prior – in late January 2020, Hubbard said – to Australia’s first Covid lockdowns.
Having just established its “beacon” – or pilot – agile team, with plans to aggressively scale the capability across the organisation, the Covid spanner was well and truly thrown into the works.
At the time of the outbreak, Rest made a decisive step to move forward with its agile transformation program, understanding it would not only have to pivot resources to support employees’ mandated work from home demands, but to deliver wholesale business change within this unique remote working ecosystem.
The decision to move forward with its agile program, though difficult, proved providential for Rest, which in March this year, like all super providers, became subject to the Federal Government’s early release super scheme, enabling financially distressed superannuation account holders to access up to $10,000 from their funds.
Being a retail industry super fund, Rest’s customers were inordinately impacted by the economic fallout of Covid – with the retail sector, one of the biggest employers in Australia, already under strain pre-Covid. As such, all hands on Rest’s deck were required to serve the immediate needs of its Covid-impacted customers.
“As one of the largest funds by membership in the country, and with a large percentage of members in the hard-hit retail industry, Rest was always going to face a significant demand for this early access.”
In a typical week, Rest would process just 100 early release applications, Hubbard said. In the first week of the early release scheme, it successful processed 56,000 applications.
To make this happen, Rest launched a 50-strong crisis management team, leveraging talent from across the business, led by its very recently appointed general manager of delivery – one with “a strong background in agile”, Hubbard said – who, as luck would have it, entered the business just two weeks before the pandemic hit Australia.
“In spite of the fact that she’d been with the organisation for just two weeks… we decided she should set up and lead the crisis management team. And of course, she did it the only way she knew how: using agile principles.”
For Hubbard, while no single model can be relied upon “magically deliver outcomes”, Rest’s crisis management team did embrace many of the features of Spotify agile development model.
In the early, frenzied days of the pandemic, Rest needed a team that could “respond to a rapidly changing environment, make decisions quickly, and deliver end-to-end solutions for our members,” he said, which the newly appointed crisis team, and newly deployed agile teams, were empowered to do.
“And in my view, the best way to do this was to stand up multiple cross-functional teams that each have a clearly defined purpose.”
The priority for these teams was to “deliver the outcome for their product”, Hubbard stressed, “not the outcome for their function or their line management”.
This was a critical “mindset change” for the business, he said, “one that often doesn’t get done when you’re in a matrix model”.
While much of the work “wasn’t technical”, Hubbard said, the scrum-type agile approach adopted maximised visibility into processes, ensuring “the entire business could deliver for members” during the crisis.
He acknowledged, rather understatedly, that mobilising this model in an incredibly short timeframe “with almost 50 agile novices all working remotely during a time of professional and personal uncertainty was certainly a challenge”.
Born of necessity in a time of unexpected crisis, Hubbard said the expedited shift was not one he would necessarily recommend. He urged other businesses “to start small” and avoid the “steep learning curve” that Rest faced during its agile push.
The Rest approach to agile
Rest’s three-year year strategy, launched at the end of 2018, was, at its core, centred not only on improving member engagement, but also maximising the financial benefit and services they receive, Hubbard said.
“And we thought that the best way to execute on this strategy was to become more nimble and more agile.”
Rest previously maintained what Hubbard defined as a “functional model”, a disparate approach “organised around the fulfilment of different functions in the fund”. In 2018, an effort was made to reorganise the business, encouraging greater collaboration across these effectively siloed functions.
This served as a prelude to the current phase of the strategy – wholesale agile transformation.
Tapping into Agile theorist Steve Denning’s ‘three laws’ for Agile organisations, Hubbard said Rest’s Agile program success is conditioned on three core principles: “an obsession with delivering value to customers as the be-all and end-all for the organisation”; secondly, on delivery through “small, self-organising” teams, working in short cycles and focused on maximising value to customers; and, finally, the ‘law of the network’ – “a continuing effort to remove bureaucracy and top-down hierarchy so that the firm operates as an interacting network of teams”.
Ultimately, the purpose of going agile is to ensure “we deliver value faster”.
“It’s about starting small, delivering value fast, and then iterating,” he said.
Done well, Hubbard added, agile “can really be quite contagious”.
From above and beyond: Lessons from Rest’s agile transformation
A fundamental principle of the agile delivery model is empowering teams to deliver company-wide innovation from the bottom-up – more like “starting a movement” than enforcing a set of top-down rules, Hubbard said.
However, in becoming an agile organisation from the bottom, Rest also saw a unique opportunity to shake up the business’s delivery capability “from the board right through to the business”.
Adopting ThoughtWorks’ Lean Value Tree model, a value-based prioritisation framework, helped to align all business units, including the executive and board, around agreed outcomes, “providing clarity on the outcomes we are trying to achieve as an organisation, and… a focus on delivering those outcomes”.
“It’s a critical tool for us,” Hubbard said, particularly as the business emerged from the initial months of the Covid crisis.
“In a time of constrained resources, prioritisation is one of our biggest levers. We need to be able to adapt quickly, change those priorities, align the organisation behind those initiatives that are most important right now to help meet our members’ needs.”
The Lean framework was used recently to support the company in rebooting the industry-wide SuperMatch service, suspended by the Australian Tax Office in May this year following suspected instances of fraud.
SuperMatch, a “critical service” used by both funds and members to consolidate balances across multiple accounts, was subsequently restored by the ATO in September with new operating conditions.
Rest took advantage of its newly implemented ‘Lean Value Tree’ and agile delivery method to prioritise implementation of the new SuperMatch function’s, becoming one the first funds to complete its successful reimplementation.
Utilising its wholesale “top-down and bottom-up” approach and leveraging cross-functional agile teams, Hubbard said the company was also able to quickly respond to announcements in the October Federal Budget, assembling an executive team to review the business’s current execution strategy against Budget changes.
“We’re able to see everything that we’re doing at Rest. We could validate based on what’s happened in the external environment, if it was still the best way to execute on our strategy, make any changes and then really quickly update this Lean Value Tree and communicate that across the business using a familiar framework.
“It’s a really quick way to align people to what is important at Rest at any given time.”
Fundamentally, however, this top-down delivery model could not happen without first proving out an agile model within the rank and file of the business.
For Hubbard, success in agile delivery is predicated on three core principles:
- Small teams with the right expertise
“[It’s] people who have done this before, and people that really understand the rules so they can break the rules. They’re not just repeating something that they’ve been trained in – they really understand the concepts. For us, this was our new GM of delivery, our new agile coach, and scrum master that we on-boarded pretty quickly when we realised we needed to scale.”
- Bringing people into the tent early
By bringing in some business analysts and project managers into different agile roles, Hubbard noted, teams could establish “early advocates” that would attract more talent along with them. “It was a really important turning point for us,” he said. “Rather than the transformation looking like it was being done to [or employees], it started to become a movement that they were part of; it became more organic and really specific to Rest and Rest’s culture.
- Trusting the process
It can often prove “confronting for people” when implementing new ways of working, especially ones based on cross-functional teams and the promotion of transparency as a core principle, Hubbard said. “Some people will push back against that. My advice is that you need to trust the process, follow the agile rituals, have a great agile coach, and then give it time.”
Finally, Hubbard stressed, organisations, agile-ready or otherwise, cannot endeavour to successfully deliver innovation without a clear focus on outcome.
“I can’t emphasise how important this is. It sounds really simple, but it’s a really key success measure.
“If you clearly articulate what you are trying to achieve and why it’s the most effective way to achieve it, then you can mobilise your team around your organisation’s purpose.”