"Agile is not a fad," declares Spark chief executive Simon Moutter, when I suggest that people might be sceptical about the workplace trend sweeping the corporate world.

"These ways of working are the future of work, all workplaces will start to look more and more like this."

That's a good reason why those of us who aren't Spark employees, or shareholders, should care about the radical transformation going on at the telco giant's Auckland head office.

But if Agile really is coming to a workplace near you, what is it exactly?

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For those in the tech sector – particularly software development – the Agile way of working won't be a new concept.

It was defined by a group of software developers back in 2001, though its roots go further back than that. It's now the industry standard for that sector.

Numerous big corporates including Vodafone, The Warehouse and Herald publisher NZME run Agile units.

But its full-scale adoption across a company the size of Spark is something else.

A senior staffer at Vodafone – which has been expanding its own use of Agile - told me he was impressed by Spark's full-company approach, even though he wasn't quite sure how they were going to make it work. He wasn't sure they realised quite what they were attempting.

Spark team members talk with colleagues during a stand up meeting where post-it notes are being used to show the progress of projects. Photo / Greg Bowker
Spark team members talk with colleagues during a stand up meeting where post-it notes are being used to show the progress of projects. Photo / Greg Bowker

"It's something that's not been done at scale in New Zealand," says Spark learning and development lead Nick Mackeson Smith.

We chat at Spark Arena, where he is running a mass introduction session for hundreds of Spark staff who are getting their first taste of what Agile means.

Mackeson Smith, who is from Britain and has worked in corporate training and change management in numerous sectors, says even by international standards this kind of large scale transition is rare.

"It's pretty groundbreaking globally," he says.

It is, he says, a big switch in mindset – a choice people have to make about how they work.

"They're all smart people, they're all adults and they're all up for this. They want to be part of this journey. Our job is to guide them."

He's conscious, though, that for many, even those who are excited to be a part of it, Agile will mean accepting radical changes in the way they work.

"It is challenging, it's not all sunshine, rainbows and unicorns, it's going to be hard for some people to adjust," he says.

The media coverage of Spark's Agile transition certainly hasn't been rainbows and unicorns. The company seems to have copped flak from all sides.

It has had to overcome the scepticism of tech sector acolytes who feel a strong ownership of the concept, and doubt that a traditional corporate can be radical enough to successfully make the change.

There's also been concern from unions, which worry that Spark's move is too radical.

There have been suggestions that the switch to new Agile contracts was aggressive and that Agile is an excuse to cut staff and increase workload.

It all hit the headlines in May, when a statement to the NZX announced that Spark was accelerating the move to Agile.

The statement also noted that the move would ultimately see labour costs drop by $90 million, to an annualised $470m by the end of the first half of 2019.

Staff were given five weeks to decide whether they wanted to get on the Agile bus.

Old roles were effectively gone – everyone in an Agile workplace works in multi-disciplined work groups, or "squads".

The president of the Council of Trade Unions, Richard Wagstaff, described the approach as "hard-nosed" and unethical.

But there has been no industrial action or obvious worker unrest.

In fact, Spark says uptake of the new contracts has reached 98 per cent of staff. The company won't yet provide hard numbers on staffing levels, but says that's coming at the annual result announcement on August 22.

They will say that fewer than 100 staff were unsuccessful in finding positions in the new structure.

The reality is that those most directly affected are middle managers with opportunities to move on if they chose.

Many now find themselves back at the coalface – developing new products as part of the flatter, less hierarchical structure that Agile uses.

Those I talked to were loving the change.

Moutter doesn't shy away from the fact that Spark has to cut costs.

"In a company like Spark, where you've got older parts of the business which are structurally challenged and commoditising rapidly, we have no option but to do anything other than reduce the cost … because our customers expect to get more and pay less," he says. "That's the game."

Spark team members check progress at a stand-up meeting. Photo / Greg Bowker
Spark team members check progress at a stand-up meeting. Photo / Greg Bowker

But he is adamant that cutting costs is not the reason for going Agile.

"We don't do Agile for cost out," he says. "In some areas it may reduce the cost. We do it to be more customer focused, faster to market and more engaging to our employees."

All of this controversy is presumably why I've been invited to Spark's Agile party, to take a look at the way it's working and try to make sense of it all.

Does it makes sense yet? No?

Well, it's not easy to explain because Agile is both plainly simple and radically complex.

It's a specific set of work habits but it's also a vibe, an attitude.

That's why Spark has employed heavyweight management consultants McKinsey to guide the process.

It's why they have retrained many of their smartest and most adaptable managers to become Agile coaches.

It's why they hired the rock 'n' roll-sized arena to hold a staff training rally.

For the record, that looked like good team-building fun ... although also the kind of event where I'd have been nervous about drinking the Kool-Aid.

Thankfully, none of that was on offer.

Essentially, Agile is a set of workplace structures and habits that puts customer experience at the forefront.

In fact, there is a manifesto. The 12 Principles of Agile was written at the meeting of the software developers who codified it back in 2001, at a ski resort in Utah.

It's designed to drive relentless incremental change and improvement.

If you look at the way tech companies like Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Spotify constantly update and improve their products to enhance customer experience, then you can see its results.

The companies ruling the world right now are all tech giants that live and breathe Agile.

The question isn't: why is Spark going agile? The question is: why wouldn't it?

A kaleidoscope of Post-it notes

It's Tuesday morning at Spark head office. The "tribes" and "squads" are gathering.

Old department walls are gone. Work groups are now multi-disciplined squads affiliated to a broader tribe.

There are tribal leaders keeping an eye on their squads' progress, guiding and identifying problems. Managers are gone. Teams have to manage themselves.

"It's a very non-hierarchical approach," Moutter says. "Each squad - that might include a marketer and a coder and a customer experience expert and an engineer – has a particular mission to solve a piece of the puzzle for our company's delivery to customers."

I'm in the office to get a taste of how Agile works in practice.

At first impression, it all looks like some kind of modern art installation.

There are kaleidoscopic whiteboards full of Post-it notes as far as the eye can see.

Multi-coloured markers of progress, the notes are a corporate manifestation of the to-do list you stick on your fridge to help you remember to put the bin out and buy more coffee.

Each Post-it note represents a task to be completed. They are assigned to squad members and progress from the "to do" column, to the "doing" column, and finally "done".

The squads gather and stand (sit-down meetings are all but banned) at the whiteboard to work through their Post-it noted tasks, progressing them if completed.

If tasks are not done, they are red stickered – to denote a "roadblock".

That failure to complete a task is there for all to see – with the staff member's name attached.

There is nowhere to hide.

If the physicality of sticking notes on a board seems very old school, the approach to the morning stand-up certainly isn't.

What's striking is the level of openness and collaboration required to make it work.

Things need to get done, or there is an immediate and open inquiry into why they weren't done.

It must, I assume, be equal parts liberating and terrifying for staff.

But for those who have embraced it, there is no looking back.

For the past six months, Ammar Sagban has been an Agile coach at Spark. He was a data analyst.

I ask him how he explains Agile to the uninitiated when they ask about his career shift.

"My mother asked me that," he says. "It's work becoming more humanistic. That's my one sentence that I use."

In an Agile workplace, "I no longer have to be one person in my human interaction and be a different person here."

Agile removes those competitive expectations from the workplace, he says.

"This is who I am. I've been hired. I'm good enough and I'm going to bring my best and we're only our best when we're part of a tribe, part of a bigger meaning."

Sagban says he's excited by the potential to develop Agile for Spark.

"All Agile is, is a two-page document, it's a manifesto," he says.

The coaches are there to make sure the principles are followed.

But, he says, "if you read the McKinsey reports or you Google Agile, that's just a flavour of how they implemented Agile. This is where we as a company are trying to make it our own flavour."

In the view of Auckland University Business School Associate Professor of management Daniel Vidal, "Agile should be welcomed by workers". Why? "Because it's a much more effective, and as a result of that, I suspect, a much less frustrating way of working.

"It maximises the chances that whatever you are working on is actually going to be much closer to a customer need."

That said, Vidal has been publicly critical of Spark's big move, and is sceptical about the ability of big corporations to adopt Agile methods.

He agrees with Moutter that Agile is not a fad. But he is concerned that if it is not effectively implemented, it may be written off as one – in the same way as other past management trends.

"Most things considered fads over the past 20 or 30 years, as far as businesses are concerned, are reasonably good ideas," he says. "Most of them come from evidence based research ... they have a rationale."

Moutter, for his part, certainly seems to have deeply embraced the scale of transformation required.

There was no "Eureka" moment, he says.

Spark has been using Agile for several years – particularly in new businesses (like Lightbox) that have embraced a start-up like mentality, says Moutter.

"We knew, because each of them individually worked, that if we deployed them at a scale it would have a large impact and really move the dial," he says.

Agile specialist Dr Rashina Hoda, a senior lecturer in software engineering at Auckland University, suspects that ongoing restructuring at Spark has been conflated with the move to Agile.

She's worried that the negative publicity will put people off a way of working she believes has great merits.

"I sympathise with [Spark] because it seems like they are going through this whole restructuring process and introducing Agile at the same time," she says. "That might not have been the most prudent move."

Hoda feels the growing buzz around Agile has added urgency to the transformation – in many organisations – and that isn't helpful.

"You're asking people to become self-organising but you're doing it in quite a regimented fashion," she says. "That's the irony of it."

Moutter, though, is quite conscious of the critics and rejects the notion that Spark isn't fully committed to the change, or that staff are being pushed harder than they'd like.

"We saw some outside criticism of this in the last few weeks when we were in the process of making appointments and contracts. They were profoundly wrong about what's going on in the organisation," he says.

"In all my career I've been an agent of change. I've been through these processes. I've driven structural change and organisational change over the last 30 years in big business. I've never seen a change embraced with such positivity and excitement as this move to Agile."