Scaling agility at Orange: a revolution taking small steps

Written by Fabrice Schwalm, on 10 February 2022

Talking about agility has become commonplace. However, the debate is still far from a consensus within the managerial community.

While its implementation at the team level relies on well-mastered methods and tools, its deployment on the scale of several hundred people, and even more so, at the scale of the entire company's governance, remains a challenge beyond reach for most organizations.

The experience feedback from Orange shows the way. Marion Guillet-Grégoire, a manager at the heart of the action, offers the inspiring story of a "success story" in the making.

More than a choice, a business necessity

Orange, like many other companies, faces significant challenges. A highly competitive market, diversification of service offerings, the need to shorten time-to-market, differentiation through the quality of the customer experience—these new imperatives change the game. New ways of organizing need to be found.

For Orange, agility has emerged as the safest path to meet these challenges. The company has bet on a system centered around three major characteristics: customer-centric, capable of effectively coordinating the action of multidisciplinary teams, and driven by a logic of value-based management. Three small revolutions in themselves.

The impetus was given in 2018 at the highest level of the company. The transformation is vital.

Agility now concerns all projects in Orange France requiring IT investments across applications for employees and customers, across business or infrastructure processes that enable the marketing, development, deployment, and support of products and services:

  • 3300 people are involved;
  • 33% of projects are managed using agile methods;
  • 30 IT trains are active in three verticals: Grand Public, B2B, and DTSI;
  • 2 "Large Solution" businesses, 33 value streams, and portfolios are managed agilely, with varying levels of maturity in the three verticals;
  • Expertise centers with complementary skills have been in place since 2018: Design Thinking, Agile Center of Excellence, Customer Knowledge and Data, New Project Experience, Ergonomic Design, and Continuous Improvement.

Objective: 80% of agile projects by 2024

Orange has chosen the support of the SAFe® (Scaled Agile Framework) framework. This framework now enjoys strong international recognition, with 70% of Fortune 100 companies and over 700,000 practitioners trained to date.

SAFe® is a cross-functional management system operated by "trains" of development, each consisting of about a hundred people in autonomous multidisciplinary teams, with short planning cycles of ten to twelve weeks, punctuated by operational increments or "sprints" of two to three weeks.

Like the DPE (Digital Pro Express) train for which Marion Guillet-Grégoire is responsible, the benefits of the approach are indisputable.

Cooperation and coordination difficulties dissolve through positive capillarity. With a solidified core, mutual trust between business and IT has been established (which is significant, as the lack of trust between business and IT is a tension point in many companies):

  • Representatives of the business are active participants in the train;
  • Major priorities are arbitrated with all involved stakeholders;
  • The train delivers the results it promises to the business; its predictability is rarely below 80% (it delivers what is planned on time and with the announced quality);
  • The PI planning is seen as a magical moment: in two days, all train teams, gathered in the same time-space, structured by an effective ritual, manage to plan the next ten weeks of work for a collective of over a hundred people (achieved entirely in a fully remote mode during the lockdown period, a great pride for the teams);
  • Agile teams quickly matured; two or three increments were enough to ensure the fulfillment of commitments.

The agile spirit is starting to spread outside the trains. A new culture of management and organization is taking shape.

The company aims to expand the system, with the goal of managing 80% of its projects agilely by 2024. Traditional V-cycle project management is not expected to disappear completely within the company, but in certain areas of activity, working in an agile way has become essential.

Employees at the center of attention

Orange pays particular attention to the managerial and HR aspects. The agile trains' feedback shows that 82% of employees are satisfied.

Employees are 100% dedicated to their trains but remain hierarchically connected to their belonging entity and physically close to their business colleagues. They continue to attend team meetings. The direct manager remains the decision-maker on all HR subjects such as advancement, career development, and promotion.

As a genuine partner in the agility deployment, the HR function plays an active role. At the central level (the Agile program for Orange France), it supports the transformation and defines HR expectations. In its core areas, it acts as a transversal expert, attracting talent, helping teams acquire the right skills, overseeing training, supporting managers, etc. It's worth noting that there is no dedicated HR correspondent in the trains.

The current point of attention for Orange is the stability of teams within the trains. The natural turnover of team members, movements of business actors entering and leaving the trains, and the renewal of contracts for external providers (particularly) are disruptive factors that the trains must deal with.

The challenge of transitioning to a comprehensive agile governance

The company now feels confident enough to take the ultimate step: scaling up. The goal is to go beyond the operational coordination of teams in trains. It involves establishing a comprehensive strategic and budgetary agile governance system articulated around business value streams.

Currently, 33 project portfolios are in place: decisions about what is committed and what is not are managed not by the classic hierarchical line but by collectives composed of Business Owners, IT representatives, and representatives from business units. They collectively arbitrate investments and project choices in line with the company's strategy. Top management validates in the last resort.

The agile governance of portfolios in the B2B scope was only launched in 2020. Experience feedback is thus very recent.

The implementation of the scale-up is seeking its balance in a test-and-learn mode. This will take time. But the result is nothing less than the transition to a new, inherently agile business model.

Experience recommendations from a manager in the thick of it

Marion Guillet-Grégoire describes an inspiring "success story" in many ways. To encourage others to take the plunge, she shares some experience recommendations.

Regarding the "Why" and the benefits of the approach, she highlights:

  • Genuine value (customer) management: faster delivery to the customer's hands, better qualification (quantitative and qualitative) of the expected value, the ability to collect and test customer feedback as early as possible;
  • Better predictability with the reduction of the gap between promised expectations and what is actually delivered (a recurrent criticism of V-cycle projects) while better controlling risks;
  • A framework structuring cross-functional collaboration across multiple disciplines;
  • Employee engagement strengthened by a stimulating work environment, autonomy, empowerment, co-construction, proximity, collective emulation, cohesive teams, enjoyment, and solidarity.

Regarding the "How," she emphasizes that agility is a mindset as much as a method. A company, before embarking on agility, should have started by embedding an agile culture (the mindset) with initial experiments within a small team (the method).

Regarding the transition to a scale governance (SAFe® Full Portfolio or Large Solution), she insists that it is a profound transformation of the company. An approach in stages, through small incremental steps, is THE indispensable key to success. The training of all key stakeholders involved is essential, from leaders to collaborators. Accompaniment by experienced coaches is strongly recommended.

Another issue she highlights is the importance of transparency and communication:

  • Transparency about the decisions made is crucial, especially when they have a cross-cutting impact;
  • Good communication is essential to gain the trust of partners and stakeholders within and outside the agile framework.

She concludes by drawing attention to the fact that the transition to agility is not a smooth journey but can still occur relatively quickly. Orange took three years on the operational side.