Executive Summary

Agile approaches to project and process management are being adopted across an increasingly broad array of industries. In banking, the iterative approach that is the hallmark of agile enables faster development of and improvement to digital banking platforms in response to customer demand. In order to improve client satisfaction and increase speed to market, Bank of America Merrill Lynch established an agile development practice while enhancing its cash management solution CashPro Online and consolidating payment systems. The team has gone on to mature its practice, improving client satisfaction to 91% while seeing significant growth. This is a clear win for the Bank, as improving omnichannel customer experience is critical for long-term success.

Agile approaches to project and process management are being adopted across an increasingly broad array of industries. In banking, the iterative approach that is the hallmark of agile enables faster development of and improvement to digital banking platforms in response to customer demand.

In order to improve client satisfaction and increase speed to market, Bank of America Merrill Lynch established an agile development practice while enhancing its cash management solution CashPro Online and consolidating payment systems. The team has gone on to mature its practice, improving client satisfaction to 91% while seeing significant growth. This is a clear win for the Bank, as improving omnichannel customer experience is critical for long-term success.

Other banks have also experimented with and matured agile development practices, enabling their teams to better leverage customer feedback, improve user experiences and speed to market.

An Introduction to Agile Practices

Application development was expensive and slower in the desktop and mainframe computing days. Most organizations followed an arduous process by first documenting the complete workings of the system, then designing the total user experience and related workflows, and defining the project as a fixed timeline, scope and cost project. Unfortunately, many of these projects failed to deliver positive business results, due to the complexity of aligning large teams and developing applications with multiple technologies.


More "agile" and nimble software development practices emerged as web and mobile technologies matured, application development simplified, and user experience became paramount to business success. These agile practices aimed to make development more responsive to customer needs, deliver solutions to market faster and enable ongoing improvements based on customer feedback and changes in technology.

How does agile work? Small cross-disciplinary teams are led by a product owner that prioritizes a backlog of customer needs and opportunities. In the most popular agile process called "scrum," teams work in cadences called "sprints," where they review priorities set by the product owner and commit to specific elements they can finish in the duration of the sprint—usually a few weeks in duration. Teams operate to the values set in the Agile Manifesto, constructed in 2001, that enable them to self-organize to deliver working software, satisfy customers, insure technical excellence, and welcome changing requirements.

These practices were first adopted by startups, software development firms, and consumer internet companies, where the issues of modernizing legacy systems and operating in regulated environments, such as banking, were minimal. Today, agile practices have extended beyond technology teams and are a foundational practice for established companies looking for digital transformation and innovative practices.

Keys to Leveraging Agile in Digital Transformation

It is one thing to improve the IT team’s project success factor by leveraging modern application development practices, but significantly more collaboration between business executives and technologists is required in order to deliver transformation. That collaboration is instituted by a key role in the process, the product owner. The product owner is the link between the business needs and the "story" needed to drive the technological development.

John Scully and Savit Pirl of Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s Digital Channels team in Global Transaction Services observe that establishing the product management function was a major change for banking leaders and technologists at the Bank.

"We had to move away from consensus-driven development where business decisions were taking too long and aggregating everyone’s opinions was yielding suboptimal user experiences," says Scully. "Business leaders had to trust product owners to drive decisions and leverage an agile, iterative process to refine our vision and implementation."

Collaboration among product managers, business executives and the technology team has been critical in the evolution of using agile development, they say.

"We’ve seen tremendous advantages with the flexibility agile gives us to pivot within a release and make real-time changes as the business environment evolves," says Scully. "Agile development sped our delivery to the market dramatically. The shared alignment around what the business needs and what clients need drives how we deliver solutions through technology. Product managers, business executives and technologists share an important voice at the table."

Scully states that there are two important factors to success in adopting agile: 1) Evaluate and adjust your change control procedures to support agile development and 2) Make sure the extended team, including vendors, understand the end goal and are aligned. That means asking lots of questions.

How did the Bank get technology teams and vendors aligned? "With agile, there’s a lot of focus on the why. You’re talking to development teams very often and explaining why a feature is important and what it means to customers," says Savit Pirl.

The Long-Term Benefits of Agile Practices

While the basics of agile practices are easy to understand and get started on, it takes a commitment to hire "agile-minded" technologists, cultivate a product-management practice, keep teams focused on customer needs, and mature the agile practices. Scully and Pirl have demonstrated several benefits. A key part of their customer success is releasing frequently and performing upgrades 10 times per year. They can predict the scope of the release to 90% accuracy and have fewer defects.

Conclusion and Key Action Steps for Banks

Adopting agile practices is a journey that often starts with small teams adopting the process on specific projects. Successful organizations learn how to improve customer experiences and align business and IT by maturing the process and scaling it to more projects.

Regardless of where your organization is in the journey, here are four steps business leaders can take to drive and participate in agile practices:

  1. State Your Strategic Objectives: Make sure your strategic drivers are articulated as product visions explaining the key business needs, customer segments and customer values that will drive growth. These vision statements are central to aligning teams on priorities and enabling them to conceive innovative solutions.
  2. Recast Your Thinking: Change your thinking from "building" to "evolving" products and applications. Building implies a one-time effort and investment. Today’s products and applications have to be designed to meet current needs but also capture feedback in the form of usage data to help drive new capabilities. Fund and manage your teams to deliver minimal viable products quickly, then leverage agile processes to fund and fulfill ongoing enhancements.
  3. Hand Over the Wheel: Enable the "product owner" role to be successful by presenting them with business needs and opportunities, then letting them propose priorities and work with technologists on solutions. Their job is to capture stakeholder feedback and then drive decisions that benefit customers. Avoid the mistake of design by stakeholder consensus.
  4. Look for Opportunities: Learn where you can participate in the agile process. Many agile teams hold open demos at the end of their sprints, showcasing what they’ve completed. It’s a good place to see how the product is evolving, provide feedback and thank the team for their innovations.

Global CIO and Managing Director Isaac Sacolick leads the delivery of the Firm’s Business Transformation Initiative and has been recognizedas an industry-leading, agile, innovative CIO. Marc Harrison is the Firm’s Global Program Head for Digital Banking Benchmarking.