1 . Waves, Surfing and Agile

An Agile Transformation in a Finance Organization

Mattia Rapisarda - Banner - Person Preparing to Surf

By Mattia Rapisarda

In the current world, complexity is increasing exponentially. One of the major challenges for organizations is to remain competitive. As a matter of fact, many companies are turning to Agile in order to generate more value for clients and for the organization itself.

I would like to tell you about the transformation process of an Italian bank with more than 6,000 employees. It happened across business and support functions with hundreds of people involved. We started with the Spotify model as reference and Scrum as the first approach.

This was not just an introduction to a new way of working. It was a big shift that could not be underestimated.

How did the surf begin?

During the last half of 2019, a small group of people, appointed by the Board, started to think about a new organizational model. It involved four business areas and eleven support functions. From the beginning the intention was to create a tsunami –we believed that way no one could stop the entropy.

In January 2020, the first area got involved: electronic payments. Two teams at the beginning, four teams today.

Main outputs of those days were a definition of responsibilities, a portfolio board, a task board and the establishment of four main events: standups, planning, reviews and retrospectives.

Once the game had officially begun, the Covid pandemic hit us and made the wave stronger, higher and more unpredictable.

As it happened with thousands of organizations, we went from a physical space to a virtual one; however, since we were just at the beginning of a radical transformation, the pandemic brought an extra load of uncertainty, fears and hopes.

Mattia Rapisarda - 1 - One Person Surfing

At the beginning of April, the Agile Chapter was officially born: a team of agilist which became one of the support functions mentioned before. As a Chapter we had two main purposes by nature: supporting the teams with our domain expertise and fostering continuous development within the Chapter itself.

Also, other surfers became ready. Here we go with other business area and support functions standing on their boards. With waves and winds coming, there was no way to stop.

No one knew what exactly would happen next. However, since the wave had already started, we had to start surfing –or we all would sink.

Mattia Rapisarda - 2 - Several Parapenties on the Beach

How can we surf together?

Agility is not a team sport, but a corporate one. From the strategic to the operational level, Agile interactions are necessary:

  • Understanding how the company creates value and how the value streams are mapped from requirements to deliver is essential.
  • Identifying how dependencies between teams and departments affect the workflow and how to manage them become imperative.
  • Realizing that strategy should be clearly understood and smoothly implemented at the operational level is vital.

In fact, one of the main challenges that we faced had to do with dependencies.

Business areas needed to work with support functions such as marketing, risk, legal and compliance, among others. Imagine all those areas receiving support requests from all the teams of the bank while dealing non-stop with their own internal activities. They constantly were short satisfying all the requests.

Words such as bureaucracy, processes, relationships between different areas, mindset, ability to choose, deep human dynamic and so on emerged rapidly as part of our daily vocabulary.

It was an overwhelming experience, until we realized that we had the responsibility to improve the ability of different types of teams to communicate in a more efficient way, to increase their alignment, and to introduce new perspectives, tools and approaches.

The ability to feel the system, to recognize our trajectory and to help teams to do the same, became important aspects of our chapter work.

In order to do so, as well as mitigating the countless challenges associated with dependencies, we started to take part in different kinds of operational and managerial meetings, not only as listeners but also as facilitators.

The Flight Level Model was useful to support this evolution. It is not a methodology or a framework. It is more a “thinking model” that helped us to find where in the organization we had to make certain decisions in order to achieve the results we expected.

  • Flight level 1: operation
  • Flight level 2: coordination
  • Flight level 3: strategic

At the “Operation Level” delivery teams can decide about operational matters by themselves.

At the “Coordination Level” teams alone cannot make decisions since they can impact other teams in the same end-to-end value creation chain. All coordinated teams have to make such types of decisions together.

At the “Strategy Level” decisions potentially impact many teams across the organization portfolio. For instance, setting Company metrics or dropping the Desktop market to focus on the Mobile one.

Certainly, this is nothing new. Most organizations have portfolios, projects and teams. However, these decision-making levels are often disconnected. We often see the strategy, which might be good but vague, pushing down one-way to the teams; in the same way, problems on the field are hardly ever communicated back to management.

In that sense, The Flight Levels provided us with a two-way vertical communication –one of the biggest missing pieces in organizations.

While it was clear that standups, planning, reviews and retrospectives were part of the Level 1, we needed to figure out how to classify some others. That was the case of:

  • The Annual Business Strategy (ABS), which involves business and support teams, is used to define potential projects and evaluation criteria.
  • The Quarter Business Review (QBR), which brings business and support teams together to discuss what is coming in the following three months, so that everyone can understand what activities should be done and what the actual needs are.
  • The Quarter Increment Planning (QI), which was just introduced to ensure backlog alignment and to resolve (or at least to manage) dependencies in advance. Although our original idea was to conduct this meeting immediately after the QBR, different areas have suggested a monthly basis.
  • The Marketplace, which we plan to introduce in the next few months, aims to align areas and create synergy between teams. It includes sharing progress on projects, new features available, and critical issues encountered that need attention from multiple parties.

“The process you use to get to the future is the future you get.”

– Myron Rogers –

By this time, people began to understand this new approach, to get more clear expectations and, depending on their role in the company, to change those expectations overtime.

For instance, for some of our stakeholders, expectations had to do with the business itself: products and services performance. For some others, they had to do with figures: how the income statement is moving. For some others, they were related to the ability to deliver better solutions in less time. For HR, they were about employee satisfaction. For support teams, they were related to having fewer bottlenecks.

Only by listening to all those expectations we were able to create moments of discussion and alignment, and then, use those forces to get buy-in or sometimes to reshape or even reduce some of the original expectations.

Mattia Rapisarda - 3 - Parapenti on Green Ocean

How can we know where we are going?

Today we can recognize two main levels of expectations: business and operational. And the way we measure performance and effectiveness for each of them is completely different.

Stakeholders started to ask us about “time to market.” To provide an answer, we had to visualize and monitor teams’ data. However, for our Agile Chapter and supporting areas these metrics were not meaningful enough.

As Agile Chapter we needed to measure the maturity of teams and the entire organization. For a few months we developed a self-assessment tool, which was not useful for supporting areas but enabled us to have conversations with a number of stakeholders.

The assessment was divided in four areas:

  • Business: Is the team focused on business objectives? Are we measuring useful metrics?
  • Agility: Are we releasing incrementally? Are we collecting ongoing feedback? Do we have a pull approach?
  • Teams: Does the team have the necessary skills to perform the job? Is the involvement of external actors functional? Is the team focused on delivering value?
  • Practice: Are the events consistent and regular? Are the activities limited? Are we able to implement improvement actions regularly?

The assessment also helped us to become more aware of our role: understanding how we can help teams and the organization by enabling conversations about the future –better understanding where each of those groups want to go.

Overtime, the data helped us to realize that some teams needed a switch in terms of approach, staffing, focus, etc., and actually helped us to figure out good ways to make the adjustments.

So? What is the next wave?

It is not just about having the best board, the best wave and the best wind. It is about having the right mindset to approach this kind of transformation.

Alignment, commitment, ownership and collaboration are key aspects to be able to change.

We have learned –and we are still learning– that stakeholders are learning, people are learning and the organization as a whole is learning. Since we know that all this became a difficult challenge, we wonder non-stop how we, as Agile Chapter, can better support the organization.

Training is an important piece, so we organize different kinds of workshops with different kinds of people. We constantly review our actual model to look for improvements. And we try to find answers to tough questions such as “What is the next wave?” and “How can we surf it?”

Mattia Rapisarda - 4 - Several Surfers in Parapenties


  • Direction:  When you start something, it is important to know where you are, where you want to go and why you want to move. Note that I am not talking about a specific goal, but about some direction –like the North Star. You do not want to reach Polaris, but it guides you.

  • Values and principles:  Another important aspect is how you want to move in terms of principles and values. In this kind of transformation, it is not just about “sharing” principles and values, but having “shared principles and values.” We have learned that involving small microcosms and preserving their own diversities will be key to make the process easier and more effective.

  • Feedback loop:  Quoting Jay W. Forrester, “Everything we do as individuals, as an industry, or as a society is done in the context of an information-feedback system.” It is essential to have these feedbacks –retrospectives, self-assessment tools, meetings and workshops are ways to materialize them.

  • Tools:  Tools should be seen as enablers. They can help people to get direction and to better organize information. However, it is important to remember that they can be dangerous. As Marshall McLuhan said, “We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”

  • People:  Although it is not quite explicit in this story, we need to stop seeing people as resources. In this kind of transformation, they are actively involved with fears, hope, expectations and feelings. To be successful, we need to take care of people, in everything we do.

I am Mattia Rapisarda and these are my agile-thoughts

2021 © Biella, Piedmont, ITALY by Mattia Rapisarda

Mattia Rapisarda - Headshot - Author agile-thoughts

I support teams and organizations to better understand where they are and where they want to go, in order to reduce waste and to maximize the value generated for and by people.

I have worked in different contexts and organizations, from a startup to many large companies, from design contexts to banking contexts.

My growing interest in facilitation, communication and organization design led me to be a speaker in national and international conferences. My passion is my work.

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