In this article, the author examines agile as a management practice through a case study of ING bank in
the Netherlands, which has adopted agile across its headquarters in Amsterdam. The research is based
on in-depth interviews with 15 ING executives and many front-line employees. The article highlights
key learnings at ING, largely from the point of view of the senior executives of the bank, and explores
the challenges of implementing agile in an established organization, focusing on five lessons:
1. Decide how much power you are willing to give up. Agile shifts power away from those at the top
and puts ownership in the hands of those closest to the action. Unless top executives are willing to
accept that they are surrendering some status and power, agile will not be a good fit.
2. Prepare stakeholders for the leap. ING executives had to sell agile to nervous stakeholders, including board members, employees, and bank regulators. For example, executives assured regulators that
finance, compliance, and legal functions would continue to be managed in the traditional way.
3. Build the structure around customers — and keep it fluid. Like other approaches to management,
agile is focused on customers. ING in the Netherlands has tried to keep its organizational structure
fluid so that it can evolve to do what's best for customers.
4. Give employees the right balance of oversight and autonomy. A quarterly goal-setting process is part of
the agile structure at ING in the Netherlands. This has been a learning process. Initially, groups defined
goals that were comfortably achievable, and executives had to urge them toward more ambitious targets.
5. Provide employees with development and growth opportunities. The team-based structures used in
agile can be scary for employees used to having their personal development and career progression
mapped out by HR departments or the mainstream career trajectories of a given industry. One lesson
from ING's experience is that finding proper coaching and support for agile — and the new, long-term
responsibilities employees must embrace — is one of the hardest parts of the transformation.