Organisations are quick to adopt agile practices. But as today’s buzzword, agile also entails risks. Some companies struggle to deliver quick benefits expected of large-scale agile programmes. Stakeholders must be updated on agile values and methods for an effective agile culture.
Increasing market demands are transforming the way organisations respond to customers’ needs. To address the drivers, which are mainly centred on speed of delivery and business value created, organisations are adopting agile practices at a rapid pace. According to VersionOne’s 10th Annual State of Agile Report, Scrum (58%) and Scrum/XP hybrid (10%) are the most commonly used agile methodologies. The remaining 32% of respondents practise one or a combination of more than a dozen other agile methodologies, adapted from the market or they self-develop them iteratively.
Such recent ambition brings new risks as organisations, people and processes evolve to learn and adapt to the new way of working. Therefore, if transformation projects and programmes are to deliver and maximise the expected benefits, advanced project or programme management practices and governance need to be put in place.
Figure 1: Agile Methodologies Used (Source: VersionOne: 10th Annual State of Agile Report)
The advantages of agile delivery practices, especially in the IT and software development sector, have been proven, and many organisations have even adopted agile as their default project delivery method. Studies such as the «CHAOS Report 2015» and «IT Project Success Rates Survey 2013» published by The Standish Group and Ambysoft, respectively, argue that agile projects are more successful than traditional ones.
In addition to rapid creation of business value and benefits to customers and end users, such studies usually highlight the following agile-related advantages:
- Greater control of time and budget, with focus on prioritising and refining scope in a more flexible way, and thus delivering on time
- Engaging business stakeholders throughout the delivery life cycle (not just at the beginning)
- Cross-functional and self-organising teams facilitate better utilisation of resources
- Incrementally designing solutions with customers creates relationships and opportunities to build trust
- More transparency with respect to project progress, obstacles, risks, issues and dependencies
There is no doubt that, when properly implemented, agile can be successful in quickly delivering functionality and maximising benefits. However, to implement an agile project, an organisation has to adapt and realign culturally to deliver high-quality solutions and to mitigate business risk. Agile delivery also affects businesses differently depending on their size. The fact that agile has been used typically in small or mid-sized IT project environments has a major effect on project complexity, and consequently the chances of success.
No one-size-fits-all approach when embedding agile
Large strategic programmes that transform an entire business, or at least significant parts of it, require a full-scope transformation approach that includes delivering and driving aspects of change throughout the whole transformation life cycle – from target operating model design to the complete rollout of a solution to organisational change, stakeholder and communications management.
Typically, such transformation programmes have been run in a traditional waterfall-oriented approach in the hope of achieving aligned, management-controlled product delivery and acceptance; the drawback of a slower time to market was taken into account, and the product was delivered with a delay of many months after project start.
Agile has disrupted these practices, in most cases both top-down («management wants to follow the agile trend») and bottom-up («agile gives more autonomy to the teams»). However, agile cannot be enforced in line with a textbook implementation approach. The most prominent obstacles to adapting (or even substituting) agile in traditional delivery approaches and structures are:
- Organisational and company philosophy or culture that are at odds with core agile values
- Lack of management support for cultural transition
- Insufficient personnel with the necessary agile knowledge and experience
- Inconsistent and/or ineffective agile practices, methods and tools throughout the organisation
There is no one-size-fits-all methodology to implement agile, and each delivery methodology has its pros and cons depending on the nature of the programme. Consequently, each and every programme will need a slightly different approach. Organisations need to be aware of this if they are to fully understand when it is appropriate to use agile and how to scale product delivery within a large-scale transformation programme.
Furthermore, in many cases traditional project and programme management frameworks have been established in organisations for many years with high effort. To integrate and scale fast delivery, these traditional frameworks need to be adapted with agile principles, e.g. towards a hybrid approach.
Risks in agile largely down to company culture
There are many hidden pitfalls when implementing and adopting agile delivery practices in transformation projects and programmes at scale. The most common and most hindering pitfall is an organisational culture and governance that is not supportive of agile. Before starting large-scale transformation programmes with agile methodologies, sponsors and management should clarify the following questions:
- Do organisational structures and implemented governance enable seamless cooperation of cross-functional delivery teams and self-organisation in agile teams?
- Are the accountability structures clearly defined to enable the delivery teams to work towards common goals?
- Do product owners, team members and business representatives have enough capacity and resources to perform agile ceremonies (e.g. planning meetings, daily stand-ups)?
- Do product owners have the authority to define and prioritise requirements and formally accept products as «ready for deployment» on behalf of the organisation?
- Are risk and assurance functions supportive of a transparent programme status, resulting in transparency around quality controls and giving proactive insight and challenge to programme sponsor and senior management?
Only if organisational culture, delivery processes, methods and tools are supportive of a fast-pace agile delivery, and only if all stakeholders support agile, can the expected benefits of agile can be harvested quickly.
Our point of view
There is increasing dependence on agile-enabled business transformation programmes to remain competitive. Lack of experience with agile and limited organisational commitment can deter the most seasoned project teams from comprehensively adopting agile.
To successfully embed and scale agile delivery practices in large transformation programmes, you should:
- Understand the origin of agile methodologies
- Educate project workers, management and stakeholders in agile values, methods and practices
- Build an effective agile culture and organisation
- Understand agile success and failure
- Build metrics to measure agile success
- Scale agile to the size of your projects and programmes
Agile is about focusing on speed, value and functionality. However, agile does not deliver by default. It must be set up for success. In addition, governance and assurance functions need to fully experience and exhibit the same core principles as the agile delivery teams in order to provide insight and transparency on effective programme delivery.