Is Your Company Ready for an Agile Process?

Slalom Consultant Carl Manello

Carl Manello is the Practice Director for Slalom’s Delivery Effectiveness solutions. He is based in Chicago and enjoys bringing actionable, tactical solutions to his clients to help them improve their delivery.

Co-written by Phil Hampel

We can do anything, but we can’t do everything… at least not at the same time. So think of your priorities not in terms of what activities you do, but when you do them. Timing is everything.
–Daniel Millman, author, and lecturer

What is Agile?
Many development shops are looking to move to Agile. Agile offers new approaches for many old school shops, and promises greater results. However, moving into this performance culture takes more than desire. Agile methodologies are not about getting things done faster or cheaper–they are about doing the right thing at the right time and maintaining a high degree of quality while doing it.

Once everyone is committed to the new way of working together, one can be more certain that the organization is ready for the change.  One of the largest misconceptions about Agile is that there is no project plan and that there is an associated open checkbook. These assumptions are false. While the planning approach is different, there is a plan. And while there is an expectation of change, it is important to remember that change does not come without a cost. Requests for work will be prioritized from 1 to n based on business value, and may subsequently be re-ordered. But since the team will play  part in this ordering of work, the team becomes accountable. For this new level of team accountability, new expectations are required.

In order to be successful with an Agile process, there needs to be a commitment from all levels of the organization. Agile is a different way of approaching a problem. It is constructed around the premises that we allow for the unknown and expect the unexpected to enter into the development. Therefore, there is a level of acceptance at the beginning of any Agile initiative that there will be some level of uncertainty about what the final product will be. Part of this is due to the underlying tenant of Agile that users get what they need, not necessarily what they initially asked for.

Slalom Consulting Phil Hampel

Slalom Consultant Phil Hampel is a project management professional with our Chicago office. His is one of the firm’s chief evangelists for the Agile processes.

Changes at all Levels
At the executive level the level of uncertainty in Agile can be exceptionally difficult. Traditionally, vendors are managed to specific deliverables. Management teams want to know specifically what are they getting for their money, before the contract is signed and before the work begins. In order to navigate these expectations–before issues arise–there are a couple of key points to make sure the executives are committed:

  • Agile processes allow the requirements to evolve. Work will be prioritized against current business values, so that the most valuable portions of a solution are created first. Due to the nature of dynamic change, there must be a commitment to have business resources dedicated to development process.
  • There must be a willingness to accept that the final project cannot be completely defined before development begins and teams must accept that changes in the final planned solution will occur:
    • Teams create what is needed based on constant feedback, and
    • Changes need to be communicated  regularly to leadership.

Once executives commitment is locked in, the team looking to move to Agile should look at the project sponsors and business leads.  Because they are an integral part of the solution development, people in these roles will experience the most dynamic change from the old development approaches. The key points project sponsors and business leads need to be committed to include:

  • Willingness to review work in progress:
    • Testing and review of work as it is completed is crucial for success.
  • Willingness to actively participate in the process of ranking requirements:
    • Users can no longer expect that all requirements are equal and that they will get all functionality at the same time.
  • Understanding that requirements can be further detailed as the project progresses:
    • Highest business value items need to be detailed early; and
    • Changes in direction are possible but may require significant rework.

A primary change for decision makers is that decisions need to be firm and that any thrashing of decisions will have significant impacts.

Change for Techies too

It is not just the “business side” of the equation that should expect change. The delivery side of the team needs to be ready as well. The structure of the development team is slightly different from a traditional waterfall team. One of the primary changes is that of a Solution Owner. The solution owner works with the business users and the developers to ensure the solution will meet the needs. The solution owner needs the following skills:

  • Ability to facilitate the capture of requirements from the business and understands what information the developers need.
  • Ability to facilitate the ordering of the work by business value:
    • Ordering by business value is new to many business users.  Traditional development allows for everything to be of equal value.  This rank ordering of requirements may take a considerable amount of effort.

The role of the business analyst is not significantly different; however, the tools and processes will change.  Requirements in Agile are described as User Stories instead of traditional requirements specifications. There is a re-focus on the user experience and the outcomes, not on the solution itself. The technical solution remains the concern of the technical architect and developers. An analyst needs the following:

  • Ability to focus on the business experience and not the system
  • Ability to communicate with the business in business terms
  • Ability to identify the core problem that the system is intended to solve and who benefits from its implementation

The development team takes on a more active role in defining the solution in an Agile process.  There are a number of changes for the team as well:

  • The technical architect needs to be committed to:
    • Being responsive to change;
    • Strong technology skills to be able to design  solutions that are extendable; and
    • Can work with uncertainty by creating flexible designs.
  • The development team tend to be more experienced and need the following:
    • An ability to provide realistic estimates;
    • A refocus to think in terms of the business problem being solved;
    • A desire to engage the business users and analysts in the process to ensure that solution meets business needs; and
    • An ability to maintain User Experience impacts throughout the process.

The operations staff needs to commit to:

  • Frequently deploying to test environments.
  • Accepting that data structures and storage requirements will evolve (sometimes dramatically) throughout the project.
  • Responding to the needs of the development team in order to support the priorities of the business.

In Agile, teams still need to manage the expectations of their customers and make sure that there is an understanding that change is part of the process. The idea is that coordinating with the users and by placing in order by worth ensures that only the items that are of a high enough business value are worked.

The processes in Agile are different from legacy methods. The expectations on the teams are different. The interactions between team players may be different. However, Agile is not just about differences that drive speed. While speed is often an outcome, Agile is about refocusing on what is most important and delivering that value first. So before you look to transform your organization through Agile, make certain that you understand all the changes you are championing. Understand that moving to Agile is a change that moves the organization to incremental delivery. An Agile process will provide significantly more visibility to the development process and will allow the users to make more informed business decisions.

Slalom Consulting’s Chicago office
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About Carl M. Manello
I am Slalom Consulting's Practice Lead for Delivery Effectiveness. I work to support organizations' capability and delivery maturity -- not just IT organizations -- so that their initiatives run more predictably, efficiently and provide the best results.

One Response to Is Your Company Ready for an Agile Process?

  1. Ron Synn says:

    Great post guys! Very insightful and applicable to our clients.

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