How UBank's FinTech culture enables Agile to thrive

How UBank's FinTech culture enables Agile to thrive

Bulletproof’s Lorraine Pauls Longhurst describes how the online bank succeeded in adopting an Agile approach to software development

Some organisational cultures can find it difficult to adapt to an Agile mindset. Central to adopting an Agile approach is emphasising visibility and transparency. This includes making everything (including bad news) visible across the entire organisation. It also means prioritising face-to-face communication. Finally, open team reflection is critical to identifying where things went wrong and how they should improve.

One organisation that has done this successfully is online bank, UBank. Bulletproof was engaged by UBank in July to provide Agile coaching for ten weeks across four product teams in its digital division.

The bank – which says it operates more like FinTech with a banking licence – wanted to improve the speed and predictability of its team's ability to deliver new features to customers.

Bulletproof started by using a DevOps/Agile Maturity assessment which highlighted what the teams needed to focus on first. The first priority was to improve collaboration - both within the development teams and across development and operations teams (also called ‘DevOps enablement’).

To help drive the Agile approach even further, UBank’s digital team was recently organised into four cross-functional scrum teams, rather than by role-based functions. Cross-functional teams are used to foster a culture of innovation and encourage out-of-the-box thinking and problem solving.

How quickly were benefits gained?

Within four weeks, we saw huge improvements. By introducing some of the key Agile concepts, one of the biggest changes we observed was a feeling of ‘shared ownership’ across each team.

Originally, the teams thought it was a positive thing for individuals to own their own requirement, which they developed as part of a release. It was believed that individual ownership increased the quality of the code.

The cross-functional scrum teams had recently been formed, so the first step was to ensure they ‘felt like a team’. Moving to scrum teams rather than specialised role-based teams can be a difficult cultural shift for some organisations. To achieve this cultural shift, teams sat together, went out for team lunches, met face-to-face multiple times a day and participated in team-building exercises.

UBank’s head of digital, Jeremy Hubbard has a different approach to managing the digital team.

"It’s important to me that there are no silos within the product teams – whether you are a developer, business analyst or tester, we want everyone to speak up and be heard and provide input into the products we deliver to our customers,” he says.

“The aim is to make sure the entire team is personally connected to and invested in the customer outcome. We also find that by listening to everyone, there is more room for innovation.”

Within a few weeks, UBank’s flat structure enabled this reorganisation of teams to work smoothly. The teams started talking a lot more, sharing development work, doing code reviews on each other’s code, and clarifying with the product owner when they weren’t clear on exactly what they should be developing.

We introduced ‘communities of practice’ to ensure best-practices were adhered to across scrum teams.

Rather than the scrum team ‘just dealing with an issue’, and waiting on operations to help resolve a roadblock, it was easier to proactively solve problems. For example, one team created a stubbed-out test environment to enable them to overcome issues they were having with accessing back-end systems. Taking on this type of team-based problem solving related to both development and operations-related issues is a big step towards becoming DevOps-enabled.

We found that over the initial ten week Agile coaching engagement, development team productivity increased by over 200 per cent. Originally one developer could accomplish about five days of development effort across a fifteen day period. By the end of the ten weeks, one developer could accomplish about ten days of development effort across this same period.

Why did UBank gain benefits so quickly?

UBank's culture differs from a traditional bank. They have actively worked on building a friendly, laid-back, no-blame environment. If you ask anyone who works at UBank, they will be able to tell you that their vision is to be ‘Australia’s most referred brand’.

It’s a message that everyone understands. Given that the vision is communicated clearly, it is then easy to link everything that the team does back to the overall goal.

Strong executive support helped ensure success. Taking UBank’s CEO and other divisional leaders on the Agile journey helped guide the business transformation that the digital team was trying to achieve. To accomplish this, Bulletproof coaches worked with the product owners to link UBank’s goals to the initiatives that the digital team worked on.

Linking the overall goals to these initiatives was only possible by implementing the ‘user story’ format for product requirements, which summarises the reason that a feature is required. Rather than a requirement worded as ‘Develop APIs for banking’ it was repositioned as ‘Make it easier to make changes to banking products going forward’.

One of the UBank product owners, Ben Drayton feels that after 10 weeks, “the whole organisation has a much better understanding of not only what we are building, but also why we are building it.”

What’s next for UBank?

Now that the teams have improved their collaboration within the scrum teams, we find the teams adapt to changing requirements more easily. Everyone is clear on exactly what will be delivered every sprint and they stick to their sprint commitments.

There are still further improvements to be made if UBank hopes to release these changes out to production more frequently. The next key focus will be on enhancing the DevOps culture by ensuring more collaboration occurs across development and operations teams.

Is your organisation well-suited to Agile?

Not every organisation has the culture that UBank has and is able to realise the benefits of Agile as quickly as they have. It helps if you already have a clear organisational vision, visibility, communication and a friendly, laid-back, no-blame culture.

However, if you're not there yet, there are some key takeaways that you can look into before you start your Agile journey. They include:

  • Have a clear organisational vision: Have buy-in across the business about what your purpose is. Development teams must understand how what they are building ties back to this vision. This creates an innovative environment that encourages teams to problem-solve towards a common goal.
  • Provide visibility at the executive level: It’s important that everyone has visibility into why the cross-functional development teams are working on certain initiatives. This is only possible if requirements are tied to goals and positioned as business outcomes.
  • Foster a trusting environment: Software development is complex in nature which means issues will always arise. The teams must feel that they can raise issues and discuss alternatives without fear of being blamed. Open team reflection means they will continuously improve and become more productive.

Lorraine Pauls Longhurst is the Agile/DevOps Manager and Coach at Bulletproof. Lorraine specialises in consulting with businesses on their overall Agile/DevOps strategy.

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