THE AGILE INVASION

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THE AGILE INVASION

Agile project approach is hot. And this is not a surprise, it guarantees in a swift way – and with lesser costs –  a minimum viable product. Focus is not on the destination (delivery of a desirable/minimum viable product), but on the journey to this desirable product.

Agile tends to avoid losing time & effort in preparing complex plans & expensive budget forecasts too much in advance, as requirements are likely to be altered during sprints, and short iteration with quick delivery of added value is key.   Self-organizing Agile teams work in short sprints and continuously deliver smaller parts, so that you can anticipate a changing environment. The key question during this journey is: which smart things can we pick up in order to arrive earlier at our destination?

Agile developers do not waste time on preparing of large & complex architecture documents and functional designs, which are seldom consulted afterwards.  These developers move fast and agile and arrive at their destination faster.

Why is Agile a popular trend?

Everyone knows this Agile trend, and most companies try to follow this trend. Why is this framework so trending? The most important & obvious causes are: rapid speed of technological innovations, but also fast pace in society as a whole has a huge impact. Traditional project methodologies such as Waterfall cannot keep up with this fast speed. Not only competitors accelerate this speed, also consumers and end users. Logically, society puts more pressure to deliver good and stable solutions that solve real problems in a swift way and really contribute to the quality of everyday life.

The most remarkable example of an Agile inspired company is the Swedish Spotify which was founded in 2006 and already expanded in 2012 to a music streaming service with 20 million users worldwide. Spotify developed as a cauliflower: it looked for a means to keep employees result driven and at the same time tried to get the best out of itself. This enabled the company to continuously self-adjust. Focus, focus, focus is the most important thing for this music streaming service. Or, as quoted by Johan Persson from Spotify: ‘The worst thing that can happen is that someone works too long on a particular project.’ This is not only extremely inefficient, but also a waste of talent.

The most important lessons learnt proposed by Spotify are: transparent communication on goals & results to be able to give continuous feedback, this feedback culture enhances that everyone participates, in a culture of trust employees dare to make mistakes, so they can improve afterwards via coaching/training, and working with small teams or squads operate as self-regulating organs.

When can Agile be a good framework for you?

Agile can work for you, if you adopt the following key principles:

Autonomous motivated employees show better performance and have an increased loyalty, therefore Agile organizations increase autonomous motivation, in parallel to next to promotion and bonus, such as personal development plans and a fitting environment and culture.

In Agile organizations, all team members are fully aligned. Via a cascading process the organization targets are elaborated in a clear set of team targets and performance indicators. These targets and indicators are translated into individual targets of the team members after mutual team consultation. In an Agile framework the Sprint Planning meeting serves as interaction platform between product owner and development team, in that way the product owner describes the highest priority features to the team. The team asks enough questions that they can turn a high-level user story of the product backlog into the more detailed tasks of the sprint backlog. There are two defined artifacts that result from a sprint planning meeting: A sprint goal and a sprint backlog.  A sprint goal is a short, one- or two-sentence, description of what the team plans to achieve during the sprint. It is written collaboratively by the team and the product owner, afterwards translation into individual targets is done. The following are example sprint goals on an eCommerce application:

  • Implement basic shopping cart functionality including add, remove, and update quantities.
  • Develop the checkout process: pay for an order, pick shipping, order gift wrapping

The sprint backlog is the total of user stories to be delivered.   

Moreover, Agile only works if it is used across the entire organization. Do no try to be agile while managing dependencies with other non-agile teams working lean or some other methodology, as it will slow down the iterations.

Team clearly stands for: Together Everyone Achieves More. Both employee and organization benefit from agile teams. As an employee you learn from each other in a team, which leads to self-development. You experience attention, respect and emotional connection and team work gives you the impression to really matter. Working with Agile teams leads to better performance for organizations. Organizations with Agile teams are more flexible, learn more effectively via cooperation and are more innovative, as ideas come from different points of view.

For effective Agile teams there is a structural clarity on approach, on everyone’s roles and responsibilities and how progress on realization of targets is measured. By assigning roles, each individual is involved in the agile process. For example, the following is a list of important roles in very early startup or small team based on the RACI model in which R stands Responsible, A for Accountable, C for Consulted/Collaborative and I for Informed:

1. Business owner. R
2. Product Manager. R
3. Project Manager. A
4. Engineering Manager. A
5. Developer. C
6. User Experience Manager. I

The team should list each task in the development life cycle, requirements, sprints, development. Break them down even further and assign RACI, i.e. who has what role in each task. This way, everybody is engaged and contributes to the success of the project by well-defined rules. The progress of realization of targets is measured by defining which user stories of the backlog can be considered as done and completed.

Team commitments can be put in a work plan, so each team member is aware of his/her contribution and his/her responsibility for the total team success: it concerns so called individual accountability and collective responsibility. A concrete example would be to put the delivery of a modernized reporting as a collective responsibility in the team plan and the individual tasks per team member as defined by the RACI matrix above. 

Teams benefit from strategic diversity; as in nature, you can distinguish spring-, summer- autumn- and winter stadia for corporate lifecycles, after which a new growing cycle follows and the process reiterates itself.  During the team composition, it is very important to select the correct type of person for a certain lifecycle of an organization, a product or service. Spring types used to be creative and explorative types, whereas managers are a good example of autumn types. Agile organizations change the team composition from time to time, depending on the need for a particular lifecycle.

Finally, is Agile the magical answer?

Agile does not provide an answer to all our questions. I believe in this framework’s intention, but there are some common pitfalls that we should take into account:

Although Agile promises speedy delivery, it may suffer from the fact that the sponsor does not make enough time to really check what has been delivered at the end of each sprint and give good feedback. So regular communication and clear prioritization via a backlog by the sponsor are indispensable.

Not only clear communication, but also speaking the same language, using coherent terminology, is often a real hurdle to take.  In case of outsourcing when contractors do not have or share the business expertise of the client, you need an intermediary to make the bridge between client and contractor.

Not always follow every rule by the manifesto, daring to let go control, is also a thing to bear in mind. Although Agile foresees not to lose time on unnecessary documentation, often development benefits from the fact of having a clear documentation. What matters in the end is that the Agile team has easy access to documentation at a central location and that it can be used in an interactive way. Software documentation tools such as Process Street to keep documentation all living at the same place and Slack to generate the skeletal documentation automatically by analyzing the source’s functions and comments are good examples to optimize documentation creation.

Last but not least, managing expectations is of outmost importance to keep the customer happy. The real challenge lies in the fact that the client wants to spend as less budget as possible and wants to deliver as fast as possible, whereas the contractors can only work agile, cheap, fast and deliver really suitable solutions, if they do not have to invest too much time in advance to assure the customer, in form of plans and architecture. In an Agile framework the client needs to be satisfied not knowing exactly what the result will be in advance, as he will only discover this in a later stage of the process. This willingness to invest has to come from top management, in order to convince business sponsors to finance the transformation by proclaiming that it will pay off on the long term.  The contractor must not make too concrete promises which he cannot fulfill later on. What can work for both parties is intermediary delivery of user stories in order to assure the client, and provide the contractor with the necessary professional freedom.

It is safe to conclude that Agile fits with the fast pace of society, but in order to be successful good communication, the right expertise, clever & realistic way of managing expectations and daring to let go safety, security are essential. This realistic approach also includes that the Agile framework should not be seen as a one-size-fits-all solution, but has to be adapted to each environment.  If you take into account these principles, then Agile will not only offer better solutions for the client, but will also result in a happy Agile team, definitely a win-win!

About the author

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Sandy Everaerts,  has 19 years experience, and worked for leading companies in the Banking & Insurance sector. She has a background in both Business and IT as PMO, project manager & SCRUM Master.
4-lingual NL/ENG/FR/GER with a Master’s degree, relevant project management certifications Sandy joined Initio in 2017 as Senior Manager in charge of Competence Center Project, Change & Performance Management