What IHG learned about design by using the Agile system

When IHG began leveraging the software-focused Agile system to design its hotels, the new process changed the way the company’s team members work together, and the speed at which they could create and recreate spaces. With new prototypes and new brands constantly in development, the need to create quickly and efficiently has never been more important—and by using the same system that programmers use to create computer software systems, the company has been able to speed up production with better feedback from owners and guests alike.

The Agile Process & Hospitality Design

The first thing the team does when creating a space is unpack the “epics,” Russ Peña, IHG’s director of design execution and methodologist for the Americas region, said. In Agile terms, an  epic means a large body of work that can be broken down into smaller pieces that may require several “sprints” (a set period of time) to complete. In IHG’s case, each sprint is two weeks long.

At IHG, dedicated rooms are lined with boards to delineate the epics in the backlog, the epics that are currently in development and those that are completed. “Every epic has one or more features, and each feature has activities and tasks that are represented on each color-coded card by person,” Peña said. “These activities represent the backlog of work that, ultimately, these folks will take.”

Every feature also has an acceptance criteria, Peña said, so that the team will know when it's done. “We talk about it and we also identify, in the spirit of true project management, what are our risks and dependencies associated with this value stream of work? So that's that's how we get started.” Every week, the team examines the backlog and determines what requires the most time and energy. “Every week, we talk about, ‘Is this work still the highest value, still the highest priority of work?’” The product owner and the team can determine the priority of each project from week to week—and, Peña noted, they can pivot if they need to, depending on feedback and new information. “Executives may say, owners may say, guests may say, ‘That's not of value,’” he said. “So we pivot where we need to.”

Each meeting includes what Peña calls the "cut-kill-continue" conversation. “Do we cut it out because it's not of value anymore? Do we continue it because it's of value, or do we do we do we pivot? Do we change it?” The ability to quickly decide on priorities ensures that the most important elements get the most attention, and the backlog can take the rest for later.

The policy of incremental planning allows the teams to adjust and reprioritize as needed, Peña said—and as such, the teams try not to look too far ahead. “One sprint and maybe two sprints out, and no more than that, because things change” he said. “I don't want these teams to plan three or four sprints out because we may have made decisions to move in another area.”  

Agile in Action

When IHG announced the $200-million investment to reposition its Crowne Plaza Hotels brand across the Americas, the Agile process was pivotal in making sure that the design team could “rightsize” the new WorkLife rooms into existing hotels—all of which had unique footprints—through a partnership of brand, architecture and design.

“What we lacked originally was clarity into the estate,” Peña acknowledged. Through the Agile process, the company’s design partners were able to go out quickly and work with owners and with the architects to get the schematic design construction documents and bring them to the team in the offices. “What we liked was the quick turnaround on that,” Peña said. “What we learned was that we have an incredibly vastly different box type across the estate. No two buildings are alike.”

From the original renderings, the teams were able to quickly pivot where they needed to to make the necessary changes to actually fit the rooms into existing architectural structures, minimizing the need for gut renovations as the new designs were implemented into each property.

“What I've learned over the last 15 to 18 months is that this is a playbook,” Peña said. “What we've done in our strategy space is create a solutions framework for design initiatives that's reusable and fungible across the rooms, so the rooms don't have to go in and recreate all these epics and features. Rather, what we can do is take a pattern and modify it as we need to, because going through the procurement process might be slightly different for [Holiday Inn’s] H4 rooms than it would be for a more bespoke room like the WorkLife room. So there are some some variations in the process, but the high levels of work are the same.”

Lessons Learned

After each two-week sprint, Peña holds a “retrospective” for all of the teams to discuss everyone’s takeaways. “I talk about, ‘What did you like during this last two weeks? What did you learn during these last two weeks? What did you long for and what did you lack?’” He also encourages them to thank someone who helped them through the process—a policy that “builds a cohesion with the team” and encourages individuals to trust one another and think together.

Talking publicly about things that they long for or lack can be difficult for some team members, Peña acknowledged. “I encourage a safe room. Every room is an environment of safety and trust and respect,” he said. Before a team gets started, they have to create what he calls a “manifesto” with a mission statement on how they will work together. “Sometimes, Agile rooms have hard conversations, and I open this door and I say, ‘Guys, we need to respect one another. We agreed to that to begin with.’” It's it's natural in business for folks to get into a spin. So I always take the team and refer them back to [the manifesto].”

The retrospectives are an important way for the team to celebrate its wins, he added. “We celebrate everything that we that we got to ‘done,’ thinking about what we like. And then I asked the team to take two items from the ‘learned,’ ‘long-for’ or ‘lacked’ lists, and focus on those for the next sprint so that they can get better.”

The process doesn’t just offer lessons for the design teams, but for everyone involved in the whole process, Peña said. Product owners may not understand how long it takes designers to do their work, but by breaking down the process into the tiniest parts, everyone involved could see how complex design is—and offer more empathy and understanding for individuals and teams working on different parts of each project. 

“I believe that that helped the team become more innovative and I believe that it helped the team begin to understand where the opportunities were in an existing design, taking it from from ideation and what it might look like on paper into a physical design,” he said.