Agile Management for LSPs: Real-World Applications for Innovation and Growth

agile methodology for business management
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The main challenge of any organization is, now more than ever, staying up-to-date with a rapidly changing economic and technological landscape. The agile philosophy can be key in our way to learning to adapt. 

Whether you are a freelance translator or an executive running a language service company in the major leagues, innovation is no longer a choice: it is a necessity. With higher and diverse demands, shorter deadlines, and increased competition, there's no room for becoming too comfortable with the world as it is. 

Due to its highly flexible, interactive, and experimental nature, Agile management can provide multiple advantages when applied in the language services industry: from leadership to project management, Agile philosophy offers an open canvas for experimentation at any scale. 

In this article, I discuss the contribution of an agile mindset to leadership and management and connect the insights these methodologies can provide to our industry: from an operational perspective in project management and from an organizational strategy point of view as well. 

Leading through Change

My favorite definition of leadership is that it is the ability “to move organizations to adaptive changes.” Moving and adapting sounds fine, but there’s a warning: we need to do this at a rhythm that the organization can tolerate. Otherwise, it will be very painful.

Adaptive changes are significant and inner changes because they demand to deal with mental models: the unique and specific thought process each person uses to examine problems. Defying the unique framework a person has to make sense of the world is what makes the adaptive changes so difficult but -when done well- also so fulfilling. 

For adaptive changes to happen, there must be a zone of productive tension in the organization and inside the individuals who are part of it as well. If tension is too high, you will have too much conflict, which will result in work avoidance. But, if it is too low, you will have complacency, which will also result in work avoidance. The leader’s role is to regulate temperature and facilitate a proper environment for this productive tension and a perfect balance between continuity and change. 

But how? I have a formula that it is not much as a recipe, but a set of guidelines for this productive tension to happen. 

QC=CR=CT=CV=CR. Quality conversations, Create Relationships that Create Trust, which in turn Creates Value which creates Results.

Of course, if you have five employees and if you are a not very horrible human being, you could easily implement this. Still, the challenge is how to apply and replicate this idea in larger organizations. There’s no secret: it all starts with a simple talk. From a simple, follow-up, decision-making meeting to a performance review, the key is being willing to have meaningful conversations. It may seem obvious, but when we live in the craziness of running a business or running a team, we may forget.

The New Hierarchy Created by the Agile Manifesto

In early 2001, 17 people met in Snowbird, Utah, to discuss the future of software development. The problem they found was that companies were so focused on excessively planning and documenting that they lost sight of a basic of any business: meeting the customers' needs. Their solutions took form in the now very well known Agile manifesto: a brief document with four values and 12 principles that changed the software industry, and later, many others, forever. 

Let’s take a look of the values:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

The key to interpreting this manifesto is that it is not saying “processes are useless”. This is not binary. The meaning of this statement is that, while there is value in the items on the right, the left ones should matter more. It is a hierarchy developed to prioritize. 

If we dig a little deeper with the analysis, an Agile framework focuses on:

1 Being able to adapt to customer needs. How? By active listening and collaboration.

2 Building a culture of constant improvement. How? By having the will and the means to receive feedback and implement it as often as you can. 

3 Developing team autonomy. How? By viewing errors as an opportunity to learn and by trusting the ability of people working together to find their best path to a solution. 

And this is a useful framework and a good starting point to enable innovation and develop new business models that will enable any company in any industry to survive the different technological disruptions.

How Can Agile Help LSPs Management?

Agile management creates value for our customers. To adapt to customer needs, we must start by listening to our customers, rather than focus solely on what our company does and how we've done things so far. When we are passionate about what we do it is very easy to fall in love with ourselves, so we must shift to thinking about which part of what we do really helps the customer at that moment for that particular problem and, also, what we aren't doing but could be doing to help them. Let's start by thinking: how often do you have relevant quality conversations with your top customers? Are you sure you know what they value, why they choose to work with you? Are you reviewing the project scope with the client rather than assuming what the client wants from the start? What can you do to implement customer feedback during the project instead of receiving feedback only at the end of it? 

Agile management creates a culture of adaptability and growth. Working on a state of "Constant Beta" allows you to think of your work in a real context. This means to stop caring about "the perfect-timeless way" of doing things and enabling innovative real-time solutions. And innovation and new business models is the way to survive technological disruption in our industry as well. We are seeing the maturity of the Translation and Localization industry. And when industries mature, it happens suddenly, dramatically, and sends around 50% of companies out of business. Right now, many LSPs base their business strategies on "cost efficiency," but soon, there will be no more room for efficiency, and real value creation will be needed. Let's start by thinking: how are you addressing the the industry's maturity in terms of competitive advantage?

Agile management develops solid and unique talent. Tools and processes can go out of date real fast. Talent, when it's nourished, never stops growing. The main difference between an automatized process and an autonomous team is that people learn. Do you share my same feeling that there is an incredible amount of project instructions/documentation when you work in large localization projects? Isn't it crazy to assume that everyone reads and understands a 20-page project instruction? Have you received or prepared what I call "instructions for dummies" (a lot of go there-click here, but no context about what broader vision your job is adding value to)? 

Let's start by thinking: How do you and your team interact? Is there space for quality conversations that lead to quality relations with the clients? Or is there an over-use of e-mail communication? One of the agile principles is that communication needs to be done simple and face-to-face. Wouldn't it be better to have a 15-minute video call and emphasize on the 20% of the instructions that generate 80% of the project value? (Yes, Pareto's law applies here as well).

What Can Agile Do for Localization Project-Management?

Let’s start by thinking about organization charts. In the typical hierarchy, top to bottom, we have C-levels, middle management, and teams. In an Agile environment, the organizational chart is upside down, and the customer is at the top. Then, there are the team members who support the clients and below, and a small team of leaders, who support the team members who support the customer.

Kotter in XLR8 (Accelerate) explains how traditional organizational hierarchies evolved to meet the daily demands of running an enterprise. For most companies, the hierarchy is the single operating system at the heart of the firm. But in reality, this system is not built for an environment where change has become the norm. 

An Agile framework allows the organizational structure to be more horizontal, with multidisciplinary teams and a decentralized decision making as much as possible. The leadership is the opposite of command-and-control. 

Moving in a more specific field, in Localization Project Management, we could try:

  • Decentralizing decision making. Instead of functional silos, having small multidisciplinary teams that change all the time depending on the customer needs.
  • Reducing project documentation and instructions, prioritizing the 20% of instructions that bring 80% of the project value.
  • Request constant feedback from customers during the project.
  • To ensure the team understands the project specifications, instead of documenting and assuming the requirements, “prototype” by showing partial deliveries to the client.
  • Have flexible processes and let the team decide on how to adapt them to specific and actual needs. 
  • Having fewer processes and more interaction. 
  • Fewer emails and more face-to-face regular meetings.
  • A leadership with less micromanagement and a team responsible for their own result. 
  • More quality conversations with clients.
  • Kanban to prioritize and reduce the work in progress.
Final Thoughts

Trust, communication, and team building are essential to have an Agile mindset and culture. 

And, from a strategic perspective, an agile organization will constantly be learning and embracing change, which is key to survive in our maturing industry.

It all starts with a quality conversation, so give them a place. Create structures and spaces where the leadership and the teams can have quality conversations that Create Relationships that Create Trust, which in turn Creates Value, which means Results. Talk about abilities and goals, but talk even more about aspirations and motivations. And please remember that motivation is internal, not external. Quite often, I hear: “I need to motivate my employees/team!” I strongly believe that that is a tremendous error.

It is usual to hear the phrase “people are our main asset.” Knowledge-based service companies are the ones supposed to put the focus on professional people. However, the old industrial model is still the main paradigm in the localization industry. We create orders, assign tasks in workflow templates, write down processes, and perform regular audits. Companies are a place of hard work and stress instead of purpose and passion. People there are resources (like machines and chairs). However, we do need to remember that there is a great difference between resources and people:: people learn, and people commit. 

And last but not least, if you are a leader, embrace a flexible-interactive-constant beta mindset (an Agile mindset) and create a zone of productive tension for adaptive changes to happen. Foster a team of autonomous professionals who are owners of their small projects and share and live the concept of ownership in anything they are involved in. It will be hard, but it will be necessary and rewarding. 

Why invest your time in reading GALA’s webinars, articles and blog posts, and checking out the webinars? Because they’re food for thought as you evolve your business strategy.

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