Our quest for world-beating methodology

By Faye Roth, Head of Transformation and Delivery 

A family business first established in 1948, River Island is not very corporate in the traditional sense. However, it is a large enterprise with a complex business model operating in the fast-moving fashion retail space. With a workforce of over 1,000 people at head office, in stores and distribution centres, this is a business that needs certainty about what changes are coming and when. A pure Scrum methodology is not going to work. Equally, a purely waterfall method is not going to add the desired value quickly enough, nor will it provide the flexibility we need to respond to the rapidly evolving market. 

So, we’ve been creating a new framework to deliver some very difficult stuff, iteratively and at pace. We needed to develop a way of working, that draws on the best of Agile principles, the Scrum method and the best of traditional waterfall project and programme management methodologies, in order to deliver value in the most effective way, depending on the project. A lot of people are wedded to one approach or the other, but we think the right way is to keep an open mind and draw from the key principles of both, to adopt an approach that suits the environment, the culture and requirements of the individual project or task and the specific point in time; timing is all important when you are on a transformation journey. 

It hasn’t all been about project delivery methods though. River Island's recent shift to Amazon Web Services cloud technology has underpinned our transformation to more flexible and agile methods of delivering new projects and products. Today, we are less focused on extended heavyweight infrastructure projects, and ERP systems, and we’re moving more towards incremental change supported by flexible technologies, accessible data and bolt-on technologies. 

Creating a hybrid framework 

Not too long ago, we had an Oracle financial planning implementation that started out very much as a waterfall approach. It was initially very systems driven – the merchandise financial planning system was out of date, it did not support omni-channel and needed replacing. We started by documenting all the requirements up front, with IT sitting very much apart from the commercial side of the business. As we got into the project, we soon realised that it wasn't just systems that needed to change but also ways of working. 

We pressed the reset button and started again with a more holistic programme incorporating people and process. The developers moved closer to a Sprint and Scrum model. It wasn't pure Agile, but we cherry picked Scrum principles. After successful implementation, an Agile product team maintains continuous development using Scrum. We also have a full time Business Product Owner. 

We don't want to be prescriptive. There will still be a place for standalone projects. Our aim is to provide a framework within which it is possible to be very agile or more structured as needed. We are constantly reviewing best practice in the industry to take the best bits for our methodology and operating model, things that we think will work for River Island. 

We are also now evolving towards a DevOps approach – setting up more product-aligned teams. Where a project team might have implemented a new technology, such as RFID, this team now continuously works to improve that platform, so Dev and Ops blur. It is however important when you are adopting new methods, to allow the problem or opportunity to be felt as much as possible, before you offer the new approach. A fast and furious rush to implement the next best thing won’t get people bought in and it will be harder to make the change stick. 

Evolution of job roles 

River Island is now fully Agile in that we no longer run exclusively waterfall projects – yet we always make sure that we have a defined vision aligned to a clear business case. Clarity on this evolves however, as we move from Idea definition, into Discovery and then Delivery. We know there will always be new ideas and better ways of doing things. We have job roles focused on Delivery and Engineering practice development and we are open to improvements. 

Typically, in Agile, the roles of Project Manager and Business Analyst do not exist. Instead, there are Scrum Masters and Product Owners. We have stuck our neck out and said in fact we are going to have Business Analysts and Project Managers alongside Scrum Masters and Product Owners. And we’re clear about what all those roles are there to do, just slightly shifting the traditional emphasis and skillset of each of these roles. 

As a test case, we put together a Project Manager with a traditional waterfall background with a Scrum Master who was a keen advocate of Agile. Initially, sparks flew as the two worked together on a project which was using microservices for the first time to develop and implement RFID, a brand new technology for us. The Scrum Master was complaining that she didn’t see the point of the PM. The waterfall expert felt the Scrum Master role was “too fluffy” and scrum plans were not ambitious enough. But as the project progressed, each became firm supporters of the other’s methods. They ended up working in perfect harmony and have become champions of the River Island operating model. 

Skills mix 

Following our shift to this arguably more hybrid model, the emphasis of the skills we are looking for in our people is slightly different from the usual. We need Project Managers who can talk to the business and who are good at thinking about commercial business case outcomes, rather than being technology-focused. The ability to look up and outwards rather than down and inwards is important. We are looking for experienced Project Managers who are open to developing their practice beyond the boundaries of single methodologies. Our Project Managers need to be self-directed and comfortable with ambiguity. 

Once upon a time, the objective of Business Analysts was to squeeze out every single business requirement, so that the requirements framework document was as comprehensive as possible right from the start. Now, River Island needs Business Analysts who are good at detail but, at the same time, are capable of extracting what is important and managing ambiguity throughout the project. 

At River Island, work is fast-paced and fun. It is a family business and the workforce feels like part of a broader extended family. It is a very informal, non-corporate environment. The CIO and CEO will happily sit down with a Business Analyst and chat to him or her about a project. 

Expectations are high and the family owners are investing heavily in new technology so there is a lot to deliver, but we have fun doing it. We have a passion for fashion – our people wear the brand on their sleeve. We also have a passion for making a great British brand better and we want people who share that passion to join us. If you are interested in knowing more then please visit our roles page to see what exciting openings we have.

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