Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 5

Fifth in a Fifteen Part Series

By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations. Below is the fifth in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices. I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 5: Be Prepared to Address Difficult Questions & Refute Key Concerns

Moving to a completely new way of doing things can be scary, especially when the folks that will be carrying out the work have no advanced knowledge of how they will be carrying out the work. To the uninformed, Agile can be synonymous with little or no process, tools, documentation, commitments, or planning. The truth, however, is quite the contrary. These concerns and misconceptions must be met head-on if they are to be overcome. Below I discuss each concern that you’ll most likely encounter on your journey.

Concern #1: Agile teams don’t use any process or tools. While the first tenet of the Agile Manifesto is to value individuals and interactions over processes and tools, anyone with a cursory understanding of the methodology knows that Agile, in and of itself, is a process, and there are many tools on the market today to assist with facilitating and automating the agile processes. The bottom line is that Agile does contain processes and does promote the use of tools, however, the interactions amongst team members and the customer is more important than the use of any specific tool or process.

Concern #2: Agile teams do not produce documentation as the project progresses. The reality here is that a documentation-heavy, waterfall approach to writing software has been proven time and time again to be fraught with waste and rework. In today’s software development environment, it is much more valuable to begin with a high-level design approach and then refine this design as development unfolds. Agile teams will not spend hours attempting to document and control every single variable that they will encounter with on their development journey. Lightweight design tools will be employed including whiteboards and diagrams to produce just the right amount of design at just the right time such that development can begin and the design can be iterated. Agile teams will spend more time documenting the design of what’s been built versus attempting to fit development into a pre-engineered design. The effect is that design, development, and documentation happen at the same time.

Concern #3: Agile teams do not make customer commitments. In the old paradigm, the customer would deliver their requirements to the development team, the development team would provide an estimate, the customer would approve the estimate, and then the development team would commit to a release or implementation date. The customer would largely be absent throughout the design and development process, only to be re-engaged for user acceptance testing and release. In this process, the commitment is clearly visible and is part of the development methodology. The issue, however, is that a vast number of the commitments made by the development team were missed. Agile attempts to solve for this issue in a couple of different ways. First, Agile teams ask the customer to remain engaged throughout the design, development, and testing processes to ensure that constant feedback and collaboration occurs. This collaboration has the effect of ensuring that what is built actually solves the business problem and delivers the value requested. Second, Agile discards the big commitment made up-front in the old paradigm for a series of smaller commitments made incrementally towards the larger goal. The same rules still apply in that the overall project end-date cannot be determined until all customer requirements are defined and delivered upon. However, Agile realizes that in today’s software development environment, requirements evolve over time and are more conducive to a product development lifecycle versus a project lifecycle. Requirements don’t stop coming in once a software development project completes. Agile recognizes this and accounts for it via continuously updating roadmaps and release plans, which drive the lower, sprint-level commitments that are hallmark of the methodology.

Concern #4: Agile teams do not plan. As mentioned in Concern #3 above, you can clearly start to discern the tenets of Agile planning. The key difference between traditional Waterfall planning and Agile planning is that Agile embraces what is known as “horizon planning”. Horizon planning means that you can only plan, with any degree of accuracy, as far you can see. In other words, if you look at the horizon, you can make a plan for how to get to where you can see on that horizon, but you can’t plan with any degree of certainty for how to travel beyond that horizon. With each passing day, the horizon changes, and as such, your plans for how to get to the horizon should also change. Agile embraces the planning horizon and anticipates changing requirements by placing a top-down structure around the uncertainty. At the top level, a more high-level approach to planning is employed whereas at the bottom level a more realistic and time-bound commitment is made. The five levels are as follows:

  • Level 1: Product Vision. The product vision is a high-level narrative produced by the product owner. It can be high-level or very detailed depending on what is known, by the product owner, about the proposed product. In many cases it will contain a high level description of the product, the markets it will serve, the value to the organization, and a description of how the product will serve the market. The key outcome of the product vision is a general direction for the development team to embark upon when creating the product.

 

  • Level 2: Product Roadmap. The product vision is decomposed into a roadmap consisting of large work elements, known as “Features”, and high-level estimates for each, laid over time. The key concept here is that the estimates are high-level and the schedules are aspirational. The product roadmap is not meant to establish a product development end-date, but rather it is used to chart a path for product development, and attempt to start setting high-level expectations around when a minimally viable product can be delivered. The product roadmap, like most other Agile planning artifacts, is intended to be iterative and refined over time as the product vision evolves.

 

  • Level 3: Release Plan. Once the product’s features are defined in the product roadmap, a vertical slice of the features are taken for each quarter. This vertical slice becomes the release plan. For example, if your company’s product is a new website for ordering college textbooks, features could be “shopping cart”, “search”, “payment”, etc. In each release, you’ll want to include certain aspects of each feature in the release.

 

  • Level 4: Sprints. A sprint is probably one of the most widely known Agile concepts. A sprint is simply a time-box for completion of work. The most common sprint duration is two weeks; however, sprints can be as short as one week or as long as four weeks. It is not recommended to have a sprint duration longer than four weeks. Once the release plan is defined by quarter, the Agile team determines the number of sprints than can be accomplished in each quarter. User stories supporting each feature slice are written and selected by the team for completion in each sprint. The selection of a story to be completed in a sprint is a hard and fast commitment by the team to deliver a working piece of software within a certain timeframe. There is much that goes into the drafting, estimation, and selection of user stories for a given sprint. This guidance is outside the scope of this lesson.

 

  • Level 5: Daily Stand-Up. The daily stand-up is also a widely known Agile concept and fulfills the requirement of the team’s daily planning. It is probably the simplest Agile process. Its goal is to align the team, each day, around the current sprint’s objectives. It is a fifteen-minute meeting in which each person answers three questions relative to the deliverables in the current sprint; what did you do yesterday, what will you do today, and do you have any impediments (a.k.a. “roadblocks”). Typically the team’s Kanban board will be displayed to facilitate discussion. Problem solving is reserved for subsequent meetings to be scheduled by the Scrum Master.

 

In this lesson I’ve discussed some common concerns and how each of these is refuted. While it can take some time to persuade everyone to get on board, it’s clear that planning & process is not absent in Agile, simply better tailored to today’s software development environment.

 

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Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 4

Fourth in a Fifteen Part Series
By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations.  Below is the fourth in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices.  I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 4: Understand Common Environmental Constraints

There are some common organizational environmental constraints that you will encounter when moving to an Agile delivery model.  Each of these must be considered and addressed for your Agile transformation effort to take root and flourish.  Each of these should be considered “difficult” to address and requires ongoing effort to engage key players in the organization and change their perspectives to align with transformation goals.

The first and most common constraint is simply the one of management “style”.  Management style can either be a hindrance or an enabler to the transformation.  If your organization is an older one, especially one that has been around since before the Agile manifesto was published in the early 2000’s, the management “style” is most likely a top-down, “command-and-control” model.  In this model, the methods by which lower-level employees carry out work are dictated by higher-level management personnel.  “Command-and-control” is also frequently used in smaller organizations that may have no knowledge of Agile principles or practices.   Agile requires collaboration.  Collaboration necessitates that decision-making occur at the level where the work is taking place.  Agile believes that the resources performing the work are best equipped to guide their own work and successfully navigate obstacles when they present themselves.  In simple terms, the folks doing the work must be empowered to make decisions about the work.  Since collaboration is a bed-rock principle of the Agile manifesto and “command-and-control” does not foster collaboration, the “command-and-control” management style must be regarded as detrimental to an agile transformation in that it stifles collaboration.  Shifting from a “command-and-control” model can be difficult, especially if the next three constraints are not adequately addressed.

The second constraint to overcome is your organization’s willingness to accept change.  In a “command-and-control” environment, the notion of, “we’ve always done it that way” may be prevalent.  Clearly this won’t work when attempting to institutionalize a culture shift.  In this type of environment, you’ll need to confront unwillingness to change head-on.  You’ll want to tout expected Agile benefits (Lesson 3) and reasons for moving to Agile (Lesson 2) and ensure they are well understood by key leaders, stakeholders, and resources.  You should be looking for the, “let’s give it a try” response to your transformation proposal.  When you lay out the case for Agile and start small, you will be able to build confidence on your successes and get more folks on-board with your vision as your experiment progresses.

A major environmental constraint that exists in many organizations is a “process-heavy” culture.  Process-heavy organizations are those with rigid activities that must be completed in order to progress an effort.  This typically manifests itself with paperwork, and lots of it.  Agile requires lightweight processes.  This means that unnecessary or “non-value add” steps are skipped.  Agile is focused on just enough process to get people what they need to complete the work at exactly the right time.  If you’re in a process-heavy culture, you’ll need to reset management’s expectations relative to the process rigor that will be employed.  It’s not that no process will be used; it’s simply that required process will be employed.  For example, if there’s a process that must be followed to introduce new changes to the production environment, you’ll most likely want to follow it.  However, if the traditional waterfall process dictates that a full-blown detailed technical design be completed before any actual coding begins, this can be problematic and antithetical to Agile’s tenets.  You’ll want to thoughtfully analyze existing process and have a meaningful, collaborative discussion with oversight bodies to gain agreement on exactly which processes will be followed and which will not.  When having these discussions, stress the benefits of “speed-to-market” and reduced costs associated with an Agile effort.  You may also find yourself in the position of re-writing the “rules of the road”, specifically for Agile initiatives.

The last key environmental constraint that you must address is trust.  Trust is an absolutely essential component to Agile.  A key item to keep in mind is that trust is earned over time.  When trust does not exist, management tends to micro-manage the engaged resources.  When trust exists, management will get out of the way and let the workers carry out the work.  Trust is required to start an Agile pilot project, and management, including the Scrum Master, must trust the folks carrying out the Agile project to get the job done with quality.  By starting small and demonstrating value delivery, trust will be gained and increased over time.

Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 3

Third in a Fifteen Part Series
By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations.  Below is the third in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices.  I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 3: Understand Expected Agile Benefits

Agile implementations produce benefits for both the team members executing agile and the managers of agile teams.  These benefits, however, can only be realized when company management commits to making the changes necessary to realize them.  Further lessons will expand upon the changes and buy-in required, but for now, understand that teams that adopt agile practices must move away from traditional “command-and-control” and “wishful-thinking” (a.k.a. “predictive”) management philosophies.  Agile can appear to be simple, but key concepts such as self-organization and continual inspection and adaptation have subtle implications that require a change to management’s status-quo approach.

Industry studies show that approximately half of software features developed are never used.  These studies indicate that required features can be developed in half the time by avoiding unnecessary work and waste.  Via continuous prioritization of development requests, agile teams avoid building features that will never be used and focus only on delivering those with the highest business value.  Prioritization is further extended to impediments (a.k.a. “roadblocks”) that surface during daily meetings.  Discovered roadblocks are prioritized and removed resulting in a further increase in quality and productivity.

Agile is known to improve the quality of life for the team members executing it through elimination of the pressures inflicted on the team by management personnel.  A sense of autonomy is instilled when teams are allowed to select their own work and then self-organize around the best way to complete the work.  This fosters the development of innovation within the team, produces higher team productivity, and delivers higher customer and team satisfaction levels.  Allowing the team to deliver a functional and effective product that achieves the market and financial goals of the company produces team spirit, ownership, and results in increased employee retention.

Finally, agile is known to improve the profitability of the company by affecting components of the profit margin.  These include customer retention, innovation, timely and accurate delivery, and workforce motivation.  Customers are retained when they are cared for and provide critical referrals necessary to grow the business.  Accurate and timely delivery of exactly what customers need, when they need it, enhances customer satisfaction and revenue streams.  Innovation ensures synchronization with market trends and anticipation of future customer requirements.  A motivated workforce is a productive workforce and one that provides an edge over the competition.

Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 2

Second in a Fifteen Part Series

By Chad Greenslade

 

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations. Below is the second in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices. I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

 

Lesson 2: Understand Common Reasons for Moving to Agile

 

I believe there are three (3) common reasons for moving to an agile delivery methodology. These reasons have nothing to do with IT specifically, but rather align themselves more generally with the common goals of product delivery. These are timely delivery, resolving quality deficiencies, and speed to market.

 

In the traditional waterfall model, an IT project could have a duration of several months or years and not produce anything of value for the business, if it produces anything at all. A common stakeholder complaint is that they rarely, if ever, know when anything will be delivered. Sponsors and stakeholders become reluctant to allow the project to continue when there is no end date or discernible deliverables in sight. An obvious and common risk is that a new opportunity or project will present itself resulting in the original project being cancelled, ending the work before anything of value is delivered. An agile delivery methodology alleviates concerns related to timely delivery by producing incremental product units on a pre-defined timescale.

 

Today’s business environment is constantly changing. Whether it’s new products being developed, old products being retired, competitors being acquired, divestitures, market expansions, new legislation or regulations, the only constant is change. This has an overwhelming and obvious effect on the information needs of the organization required to make accurate business decisions. Furthermore, a business is often willing to invest in building a solution to meet these information needs before all of the needs are fully known or understood. The traditional waterfall model is not conducive to the ebbs and flows of today’s business environment. It creates a situation in which a project team attempts to collect all requirements at the beginning of the software development effort, even though they may be unknown at the time of collection. The project team then takes the requirements as defined (or undefined) and attempts to build the solution over the course of months or years while discouraging changes to the requirements during the development process. This invariably breeds an environment in which the product delivered not only fails to meet the initial requirements, but also fails to address the changes in business conditions that occurred since the original requirements were collected. Stakeholders regard these as quality deficiencies even though the system may be coded exactly as the requirements specified. An agile delivery methodology alleviates quality concerns by continuously engaging the consumers of the information system throughout the development lifecycle and embracing the inherent changing requirements of today’s business environment.

 

A key theme of a successful business is continuous innovation. A common complaint from an executive whose business is failing to innovate could be, “our competitors are consistently beating us to market with new products or features.” An agile delivery methodology keeps the organization focused on product release milestones via the inherent cadence that accompanies the methodology. It also seeks to discontinue the use of non-value add activities such as unnecessary documentation or process which further refines the focus of the product delivery team.

Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 1

First in a Fifteen Part Series

By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations.  Below is the first in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices.  I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 1: Identify the Agile Sponsor & Champion

Before you start your Agile journey, you must identify a Sponsor or a “champion” from the ranks of the executive team.  The Sponsor will be similar to the captain of a ship.  You will work with this person to define the destination and ensure the “ship” (the Agile transformation effort) is on the right course.  The sponsor will keep the larger executive team up-to-date on a regular basis.

In order to identify a Sponsor, you’ll want to find someone that is involved in several high-profile, important initiatives within the company.  You’ll want someone who is approachable and understands the importance of relationship building.  You’ll also want someone who is familiar with, and has influence over, gaining the funding you need to make the transformation.  Finally, you’ll want someone who identifies the fact that the transformation you seek won’t happen without training the folks involved in the transformation and is willing to throw his / her support behind an Agile education initiative.  Your Sponsor will be tasked with selling the need for proper training for both the teams executing the Agile practice and the executives consuming the Agile product.

Your Sponsor will be the organization’s representative for the transformation effort.  You’ll want to work with this person to establish tenets of the transformation vision and clearly articulate why the organization is undertaking the initiative.  The development of “talking points” and “elevator speeches” will be critical to effectively allay concerns of folks involved with, and affected by, the initiative.

The Sponsor will be the person that removes the “roadblocks” encountered during your journey.  For this reason, it’s important to select a person who is comfortable with people at all levels of the organization.  The Agile transformation team must be comfortable with sharing honest and open feedback with the Sponsor and requesting his or her assistance in accomplishing their objectives.  Like any good leader, your Sponsor must possess active listening and follow-through skills in order for team members to feel heard.  The Sponsor does not have to be a “technical” person but they should have a firm grasp of the delivery process.  The Sponsor should be universally regarded as a leader throughout the organization and someone who has the influence, not necessarily the power, to get things done.

Lastly, it’s critical that the Sponsor have a firm grasp of the “big picture” and understand the cultural mindset shift that must occur.  Prior organizational rewards mechanisms may need to be changed in order to properly incentivize people to make the changes necessary.  It will be important to measure the transformation effort against established success criteria and publish successes, or setbacks, as required via development of necessary publication materials.  Open recognition and publication of successes is critical to boosting team morale and enforcing the change that you need in order of the transformation effort to be successful.

Driving Adoption of Project & Program Methodologies, Templates, & Standards

Gaining the Buy-In You Need to be Successful

By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked how I have been able to drive adoption of project management methodologies, tools, and templates.  Below is a high-level strategy that you may find useful.

How were you able to drive adoption of a project / program methodology templates & standards?

This is the whole stick and carrot analogy of getting folks to change behaviors.  In general, I have found that most folks buy into the concept of a uniform delivery methodology for projects and programs.  The key items that drive folks away from following a uniform delivery methodology is if they perceive or witness the methodology either (1) not being followed by their peers, or (2) not adding value, or not being valued by management, when followed.

When presenting the case for following the methodology, for the carrot portion of the analogy, I have started with the top-down view and began the discussion with, “this is what will give ‘Executive Smith’ the most insight into the project investments being made across the organization.”  I start with a high level dashboard, and explain to the project leaders how the various reporting elements are changed as the project progresses through the methodology lifecycle.  The next item that I stress is the tailoring options for the project.  No two projects are 100% identical and the ability of the project leaders to tailor the methodology based on project complexity places the rigor decision squarely with the team executing the project.  Tailoring allows the skipping of templates that provide no value (given appropriate justification) while allowing the overall project to remain compliant to the methodology.

Finally, related to the “stick” aspect of the analogy, I emphasize the audit aspects of the methodology.  Ideally, you will have either an internal or external auditor conduct an audit of completed projects.  I have wrapped incentive items (recognition awards, small prizes, etc.) around successful completion of each of the items above, especially when initially getting the process started and institutionalized.  I have also incorporated completion of these items into project manager performance evaluations.