The era of agility: innovating processes at Handelsbanken

by HRD Connect

Handelsbanken may be celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, but the Swedish-headquartered bank continues to evolve. In fact, it has used the challenge of Covid-19 to embrace a new, agile way of working, predicated on inter-connected teams, virtual technologies and a commitment to continuous transformation.

How have teams become more closely aligned? In what ways has the company harnessed the potential of automation? Plus, how is Handelsbanken now better equipped to deal with tomorrow’s challenges and opportunities?

Here we examine Handelsbanken’s fundamental shift in methodology and what it has meant for the company.

The catalyst for change

For practically every company on the planet, the Covid-19 pandemic has ushered in a period of change. Some have experimented with remote working; others have embraced videoconferencing solutions in a way they wouldn’t previously have considered. Some have downsized, others have boot-strapped to find a way through the turmoil.

But few companies have gone as far as Handelsbanken. For them, Covid-19 was a catalyst for an entire shift in ways of working. Moving from the traditional ‘waterfall’ approach of project management, which channelled every new project into a linear and lengthy path, the company has embraced a new, agile way of working which emphasises cross-functional collaboration and constant appraisal of priorities.

Taking advantage of challenging conditions

Prior to Covid-19 the Handelsbanken, teams were organised along traditional lines of demarcation and separation. So individual teams like product, compliance and technology were sat in different parts of the building, often on different floors – which sometimes made collaboration difficult.

However, the pandemic changed all that. Employees were scattered to their spare rooms and kitchen tables, and the old physical separation evaporated in an instant.

Seizing the opportunity, Handelsbanken began building virtual teams to collaborate on a matrix basis. People from different departments were suddenly able to work more closely together than ever before, and the company was able to take a giant step forward on its Enterprise Agile journey, fundamentally changing its way of working.

Moving fast and effecting change

For those who aren’t familiar with project management theory, ‘waterfall’ can best be imagined as a series of steps. A product is conceived, designed, built, tested and approved; none of the stages can start until the previous one is complete. The structure is designed to produce stability, rather than speed.

Agile, as its name suggests, is about moving fast. Rather than breaking down a project into start-and-finish sequences, the agile methodology divides it into a series of core tasks that can be completed in parallel with one another. Teams are created for each individual task and often comprise employees from across different departments.

Handelsbanken has taken this concept a step further and embraced the concept of a Scaled Agile Framework, or Enterprise Agility. In effect, Enterprise Agility applies the concept of agile project management to an entire company, breaking work down into smaller iterative cycles within customer-centric value streams, encouraging autonomous and collaborative working to deliver value faster and more safely than before.  

The early stages of remote working allowed Handelsbanken to take the first steps on this journey, forming virtual teams around value streams such as payments and lending. Since then, however, the concept has evolved significantly.

Senior management leaders have been brought closer to the teams delivering the work so they can help the teams achieve their goals through a streamlined change framework. Meanwhile, colleagues have been invited in from business functions that would not traditionally sit as closely or be part of change, such as info-security, compliance and risk. These colleagues were now part of the team delivering the change, able to advise, participate and spot problems earlier than ever before – and be part of solving them.

With employees from different departments now working together, the emphasis has shifted fundamentally. Everyone is now working towards a set of common goals.

Instead of acting on a siloed, business team-level, the roadmap teams now act on a portfolio level. Instead of just thinking about what’s good for product, say, or technology, these teams are now thinking about what’s good for payments or how to enhance the customer lending experience.

A partnership has been forged between product, technology and business functions at all levels. Handelsbanken is continuing to refine and evolve its ways of working, encouraging the team to embrace their autonomy and self-organise, allowing them to focus on what is most important and collaborate to achieve a positive outcome.

With its teams aligned to value streams and functional shared infrastructure, the company is now able to construct a portfolio-level view that allows the Change Team to provide a timely and accurate picture of all of the change activities in-flight and waiting within the Portfolio. 

This picture is used by both senior management and the teams themselves to track progress, identify problems such as bottlenecks, dependencies and resource issues and quickly move to resolve them.  This has visibly improved the volume and quality of change delivered, increasing the delivery of value, customer satisfaction and employee engagement.

Automation at the core

In this new way of working, the self-determination of individual teams is essential.

Each team has the freedom to decide its own priorities – on a daily and weekly basis – of its deliverables. The team will consider multiple factors – a regulatory due date, the need for a new product to come to market, mitigation against a potential fraud risk, resource availability and so on – but rather than one person deciding it, they all have a collective voice at the table.

Take the development of a new application or capability within online banking. To deliver this project, the team is now in constant contact, interacting via video-conferencing. Digital representatives will state their intentions, the tech team will provide feedback and compliance will flag risk. It’s a system that is designed to facilitate fluidity and real-time decisions.

In the old, waterfall world, a project would begin and then be reviewed periodically. Now, however, Handelsbanken can continuously ask what’s important and what needs to be worked on, rather than waiting for pre-defined stage gates or checkpoints which require lengthy documentation. Teams such as risk and compliance might previously have been engaged late in the development process and be asked to review blind; now, they can get involved at inception and contribute proactively.

At the same time, the use of virtual technology has taken collaboration to new heights.

As many companies can testify, the ‘old’ system of meetings was riddled with delays and frustration; it often took days (or even weeks) to agree meeting times, and individual team members may have to travel for hours just to have a 10-minute conversation.

Now, however, videoconferencing software shows when each individual team member is available, so Handelsbanken’s leaders can call impromptu meetings. This same software facilitates large-scale meetings of 30-40 people, which may have been impossible in a physical location.

Positive outcomes to influence the future

Of course, there will be challenges ahead. Handelsbanken’s various teams will return to the office (at least part of the time) and adopt a hybrid style of working. Some colleagues will be in a room together, others will be using VC.

Already, however, the Handelsbanken officers are being reconfigured to encourage more frequent, instantaneous and collaborative ways of working, breaking down the barriers that a fixed seating plan or a staircase can create.

Yes, specialist adopters such as fintechs and software houses are way ahead on this particular journey, as they are starting afresh, without the 150 years of legacy a more traditional bank has built up. But the early signs are hugely promising; last summer, when the UK Government’s T-bills scheme was introduced, Handelsbanken’s new roadmap structure cut the response delivery time from years to weeks.

Now, Handelsbanken is looking forward with a huge sense of anticipation. After the challenges that the pandemic imposed on the working environment, a positive paradigm shift has been achieved. After all the pain of the pandemic, Handelsbanken now has a platform to become even more successful.

Without the pressures of Covid-19, Handlesbanken may never have seized the opportunities of technology and remote working. The strains and agonies of the pandemic made the bank do something that it was trying to do before, but had been unable to achieve due to the impediments of traditional working practices.

Now, the business is further down the road than it has ever been.

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