Talent [R]evolution

Here’s why Middle East consultants should stop assuming Agile will deliver success

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In today’s business landscape, the term “Agile” has become ubiquitous, often thrown around without a clear understanding of its implications. In markets like the Middle East consultants frequently encounter clients seeking to adopt Agile methodologies without fully grasping their essence and application. 

To navigate these conversations and address an organization’s challenges, it’s crucial to understand the history and essence of Agile project management. Fundamentally, the Agile we see today originates from ‘Change Management’ concepts developed prior to the 2001 Agile Software Development Manifesto – Maslow (1943), Kübler-Ross (1969), Senge (1993) are examples of intellectuals who studied human behavior and the impact on social and business related change. 

The popular Agile we know of today, originated in software development, emphasizing iterative, collaborative and adaptive approaches to project management. However, these principles can be applied beyond software to various industries and projects. 

The key to success lies in understanding Agile’s core principles and tailoring its implementation to suit each organization’s unique needs and context; this may mean not being Agile at all. Instead, a consultant should start by asking critical questions and guiding the client towards a roadmap that aligns with their organizational objectives and culture. 

Lets outline below the Agile phenomenon, the basis for its popularity and foothold in the Middle East, and how project management professionals can guide the client towards more relevant methodologies, where necessary.

The dawn of the Agile phenomenon

Agile has permeated almost every corner of the professional landscape in recent years, from corporate boardrooms to coffee shop conversations among freelancers and consultants. Yet, despite its widespread usage, there remains a considerable gap in understanding what Agile truly entails and how it can transform organizational practices.

The genesis of software-based Agile can be traced back to the 1990s, when a group of software developers, disillusioned by the inefficiencies of Waterfall-style approaches, came together to explore alternatives. The result was the Agile Manifesto, a seminal document that articulated a set of guiding principles for iterative and collaborative project management. The Agile Manifesto emphasized individuals and interactions over processes and tools, customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and responding to change over following a plan.

Agile evolved into a broader philosophy, encompassing diverse frameworks and practices as it gained momentum. From Scrum and Kanban to Lean and Extreme Programming (XP), each Agile framework offers its own set of principles and practices tailored to specific contexts and objectives. Today, it resonates with the “bionic company” concept; companies can achieve optimal performance and agility by seamlessly integrating human capabilities with technology. In this context, Agile methodologies are a foundational framework for fostering the agility and adaptability necessary for a company to operate as a “bionic” entity.

As a result, Agile’s influence transcended the confines of software development, as its principles proved applicable to a wide range of industries and projects. One such example is insurance; notably, American insurtech firm Lemonade uses Agile to hone its product development and customer service. By employing cross-functional Agile teams to develop and improve their operations iteratively, they can quickly adapt to changing market conditions and customer needs. The feedback reflects the results; in 2021, Money.com named Lemonade Homeowners the Best Online Insurance.

Naturally, Middle Eastern companies in software, financial services and beyond are looking to replicate the success of Agile in Europe and the United States. In the Middle East consultants have been responding to the demand for Agile for years. The challenge is finding consultants who have truly taken an Agile journey – managed a variety of projects with different approaches, participated in Change Management and have practiced aspects of Agile (SCRUM, LEAN, Kanban etc). This surge of interest isn’t merely due to Agile being a buzzword; it genuinely possesses traits that resonate with the region’s unique characteristics.

Why do Middle East consultants so often turn to Agile?

Consultants in the Middle East have historically recommended Agile to maintain competitiveness and adaptability in the face of rapid digitalisation. Clients are demanding Agile and have their own perception of what this entails and the expected outcomes.

The speed and scale of digitalisation are marked by significant IT expenditure in the region, which Gartner projects will reach $169 billion this year. Indeed, in this era characterized by digital disruption, rapid innovation and shifting consumer expectations, the allure of Agile lies not only in its ability to drive project success but also in its alignment with broader cultural, economic and competitive trends in the Middle East.

Agile’s popularity as a project management tool among Middle Eastern consultants can be attributed to several factors. First, Agile methodologies emphasize collaboration, transparency and flexibility – values that resonate strongly with many cultures in the region. Second, the iterative nature of Agile allows for continuous feedback and adaptation, which aligns with the Middle Eastern emphasis on hospitality and responsiveness to the needs of others.

Furthermore, in a region where agility and adaptability are increasingly seen as essential for survival and growth, Agile has gained traction as a strategic tool for driving innovation and competitiveness. Agile methodologies provide a framework for navigating changing market dynamics by enabling organizations to respond quickly to changes, deliver value incrementally and prioritize customer feedback. 

However, the widespread adoption of Agile has also given rise to challenges and misconceptions. As the term becomes increasingly commodified, businesses risk implementing Agile for the sake of it without truly embracing its underlying principles. This disconnect between rhetoric and reality underscores the importance of informed discourse and thoughtful implementation regarding Agile methodologies.

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Agile methodologies foster the agility and adaptability necessary for a company to operate as a “bionic” entity.

Why is Agile not working in some organizations?

In certain organizations in the Middle East, Agile methodologies may face obstacles in their implementation. Despite the cultural and economic synergies, several factors contribute to this phenomenon, depending on the country’s unique culture and organization in question. 

One significant challenge is a lack of organizational buy-in or resistance to change. This is the key to why the Agile method often fails in big companies, particularly those with rigid hierarchical structures and top-down decision-making processes. Many Middle Eastern organizations are characterized by strong hierarchies and authoritative leadership styles, where senior management often makes decisions without much input from lower-level employees. This can create a culture of dependency and reluctance to embrace new working methods.

Moreover, in some Middle Eastern cultures, there is a strong emphasis on stability and tradition despite the region’s technological dynamism. Organizational change is often viewed with suspicion or apprehension, as it can be perceived as disruptive or destabilizing. This cultural mindset can make it difficult for organizations to adopt Agile methodologies, which require a willingness to embrace uncertainty and adapt to changing circumstances.

Equally, the Middle East is home to diverse cultures, languages and societal norms, which can present additional challenges to change management efforts. In the Gulf States, particularly, transient expat workforces can also limit organizational cohesion. Organizations operating in multicultural environments may struggle to foster a sense of unity and shared purpose among employees from different backgrounds, making it harder to implement Agile practices that rely on collaboration and teamwork.

In the Middle East, consultants have undoubtedly found success with Agile. However, certain nuances can stymie its adoption, necessitating a different approach. Identifying whether or not Agile is appropriate and the possible alternatives is a key task for the consultant.   

Plotting the roadmap to project management beyond Agile

Navigating the complex terrain of change management, freelancers and consultants are pivotal in guiding organizations towards meaningful change. By fostering dialogue, challenging assumptions, and tailoring approaches to fit each organization’s unique needs, they can help unlock the transformative potential of new working practices.

In my experience, I engage clients by asking key questions to understand their needs thoroughly. From there, I collaborate with them to develop a tailored roadmap that aligns with their organization’s unique requirements without presuming that Agile is the default solution.

  1. Are they ready for a “change mindset”? Begin by evaluating the organization’s readiness for a mindset shift. Determine whether there is a culture of openness to change and innovation. Are leaders and team members willing to embrace new ways of working, collaboration and empowerment? Assessing the organization’s readiness for change is essential to gauge the likelihood of successful Agile adoption.
  2. Have they tried Agile before? Explore the organization’s history with Agile methodologies. Have they tried Agile before, and if so, what were the outcomes? Understanding past experiences with Agile, including successes and challenges, provides valuable insights into potential roadblocks and areas for improvement. Additionally, inquire about how Agile was defined and communicated to people and teams within the organization to gauge their understanding and alignment with Agile principles.
  3. Does the organization have change management capabilities? Effective change management is crucial for guiding teams smoothly through the transition to Agile practices. Determine if the organization has dedicated change management resources, processes, and tools in place to support Agile adoption. Additionally, evaluate leadership’s commitment to driving change and fostering a culture of continuous improvement.
  4. What are their motivations for implementing Agile? Does the company want to implement Agile solely to save time and money, or are there broader objectives driving their decision? Understanding the underlying motivations for Agile adoption helps align expectations and ensure that Agile methodologies are implemented for the right reasons. Additionally, discuss potential benefits beyond cost savings, such as improved product quality, faster time-to-market, and increased customer satisfaction.

By asking these key questions and engaging in meaningful dialogue with clients, consultants can help organizations develop a roadmap that aligns with their unique needs, objectives, and company culture. It’s essential to approach Agile adoption with an open mind, recognising that Agile may not be the right fit for every organization and that success depends on careful planning, effective change management, and continuous learning and adaptation. This nuanced approach will be essential in a dynamic region like the Middle East.

Dynamic professionals for dynamic environments

In the unique landscape of the Middle East consultants have to navigate the complexities of organizational change, project management and the region’s particular cultural makeup. While Agile methodologies have gained traction as a solution to enhance competitiveness and adaptability, it’s essential to recognise that Agile isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. The nuances of each organization, including its culture, readiness for change and specific objectives, must be considered when determining the most suitable project management approach.

This is where the expertise of freelance project management and digital transformation consultants becomes invaluable. These professionals can help organizations develop roadmaps that align with their unique needs and objectives by engaging in thorough assessments, meaningful dialogue and tailored guidance. They are crucial in challenging assumptions, fostering dialogue and presenting alternatives beyond Agile when necessary.

In the Middle East consultants can help organizations unlock the transformative potential of new working practices and navigate the complexities of project management in the region’s dynamic business environment. The Outvise network is a freelance talent platform that hosts more than 40,000 Business Tech professionals (including myself) ready to work in the MENA region. Each has their own industry specialisms and practical insights, and now, with Outvise’s new office in Qatar, they’re uniquely placed to help Middle Eastern companies connect with the talent they need.

Check out who might be able to take your operations to the next level and browse the portfolio of Agile Coaches, Scrum Masters, and more. Or, if you’re looking for freelance jobs, Middle East leads abound in the Outvise network. Sign up as an expert here and join our WhatsApp channel to get opportunities straight to your cell.

Yasir brings over 25 years of hands-on experience in driving business and IT projects across diverse sectors like Financial Services, Agriculture, Healthcare, Logistics/Supply Chain, and Government. His expertise lies in delivering complex strategic transformations with a strong focus on people and change engagement. With a blend of consulting, analysis, team building, and change management skills, Yasir helps companies navigate through complex transitions with a practical and professional touch. He's passionate about fostering growth and innovation, ensuring that every project delivers real-world impact and lasting results.

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