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For decades, the traditional software development life cycle made sense. This ‘plan and predict’ waterfall approach to project management is a way for businesses to create and execute plans that control the time, cost and quality of a project into predictable outcomes. However, despite strict controls put in place to ensure predictable results, things rarely go according to plan. In this article, GreySpark Partners discusses the signs that your organisation may be ready to embark upon its Agile journey.

By GreySpark’s Hong Kong Consulting Team

The pace of technological advancement is ever increasing, and firms struggle to keep all their systems at the cutting edge. Application development is complex and the average turnaround time between receipt of validated requirements and delivery using the traditional project management approach can often be measured in years, during which time, business needs may change, and project objectives become obsolete. A well-known example, in the field of aerospace, is the US Space Shuttle programme which, when the Shuttle was launched in 1982, was still using technology from the 1960s. 

While many organisations have attempted to reduce the turnaround time by setting smaller objectives or delivering projects in phases, the complexity of those projects means that significant lag often remained. Demand grew for an approach that was timelier and more responsive to evolving situations. Businesses had to be nimbler and more flexible, and, in order to remain competitive, needed a faster time to market and to take a more customer-centric approach to problem solving. Necessity being the mother of invention, this led to the development of Agile Transformation.

The First Step in Solving a Problem is Recognising That the Problem Exists

Using a plan and predict approach to project management means that teams are often burdened with establishing plans up front that, once set in motion, may be inflexible. Business changes are likely to necessitate re-planning in line with evolving long-term objectives, and this will impact time, cost and quality of project delivery.

Teams often work in silos where collaboration – and even communication – is seldom adequate. Little to no transparency between team members can result in a lack of understanding of the business problems that need to be solved. A focus on technical implementation without that business context can doom a project to failure. In such projects, customer involvement may be low – typically, the customer is only involved at the start and end of the project, which means that it is unlikely that their objectives will be fully met.

Organisations must recognise that there is a need to do better. An acceptance of long delivery times, cost overruns, and compromised quality due to scope creep does not help a firm to meet its objectives. Agile frameworks promote visibility and transparency, remove silos and foster communication and collaboration, which significantly enhances the chance of a successful project (see Figure 1). 

Figure 1: Agile Versus Waterfall Project Success Rates
Source: Standish Group Report 2020

(click image to enlarge)

Taking an Agile approach to project management, requirements sets, which are often large and complex, can be decomposed into smaller, clearer and better-defined objectives. As a result, predictions and forecasts become more accurate and the delivery of functionality more frequent and predictable.

Because features are built in isolation, scope changes have little to no impact to the overall system. Building in short iterations – known as Sprints – reduces risk; the smaller the change, the less each failure costs – and the greater the value in the lessons learned. Incrementally delivering requirements allows regular feedback loops and sustains stakeholder involvement throughout the entire delivery process.

Leadership Support is Critical to Success

Leaders play an important role in facilitating a culture conducive to Agile practices. As shown in Figure 2, the difference between success and failure can sometimes lay in the degree to which the purpose and benefits of Agile are explained to staff. Best practice in this area is to make this cultural change to the organisation before attempting to address the organisational structure or processes. Unfortunately, many organisations adopt Agile frameworks with the same plan-and-predict expectations that they have always had. If the company is also risk averse and operates with a zero-defect mentality, fear of repercussion can stifle any meaningful change. A more effective approach is for Agile values and principles to be championed from the top, while middle management are allowed to guide their teams. As the work of the teams is highly visible, the need for direct oversight is eliminated, which promotes both transparency and trust.

Figure 2: Approach to Agile Transformation Source: GreySpark analysis
Source: GreySpark analysis

(click image to enlarge)

For Agile teams to be successful, they must be empowered to make decisions and organise their own work. Team members must move out of their comfort zones. Simply following orders so as to avoid making decisions that may lead to failure is not the Agile way. Instead, teams should be encouraged to make decisions based on limited or incomplete information, embrace the value of experimentation and develop the ability to learn from failure and adapt.

Agile methodology restructures projects into small, full-time and, most importantly, persistent teams. Not only can smaller teams communicate and collaborate more effectively than larger ones, but they can also build product features faster, as their focus is not split across multiple projects. Crucially, project teams do not break up at the end of their project so, over time, they increase their understanding of the business they support, become experts on their platform, and can leverage all their continuous improvement learning.

Investment in tools to facilitate Agile planning and delivery practices, such as JIRA, and tools to facilitate Agile workspaces and team collaboration, such as Confluence, is a must. Even office layout and seating can be a tool to promote face-to-face collaboration. Eventually, difficult and challenging conversations will need to be had with Project Management Office (PMO) and Finance teams respectively to modernise their traditional reporting and funding practices.

Leveraging the Right People

Making significant organisational changes and motivating employees can be challenging. It is important to have the right people in the right roles so they can drive successful strategies and deploy the right competencies. There are four key roles in an Agile team, as shown in Figure 3, including: Agile Coach, Scrum Master, Product Owner and Developer.

Figure 3: Agile Team Roles
Source: GreySpark analysis

(click image to enlarge)

Agile Coaches are the lynchpins of any Agile transformation. They can help individuals, teams and entire organisations embrace a shift in culture that accepts and understands the importance of customer-centric Agile principles and practices and embeds Agile values and mindsets. Agile Coaches can analyse existing organisational structures to find improvement opportunities and create efficiencies and assess where things may have gone off track and steer development back onto its course. Acting as guiding hands and voices of experience, providing continuous support and subject matter expertise that is deeply embedded in teams, Agile Coaches can help establish good habits and move projects in the right direction.

Scrum Masters also play an important role in successful Agile teams. They facilitate Agile industry best practices, guiding teams towards increased productivity and improved overall performance while promoting continuous learning and improvement. Their goal is to foster more effective, transparent, cohesive teams and to enable better outcomes and products for stakeholders.

Product Owners represent the needs of the customers and facilitate a healthy pipeline of work that is congruent with continuous incremental delivery. They provide continuous support and subject matter expertise and are embedded in an Agile team.

Developers must be open to working within a continuous incremental delivery framework, building product increments in an Agile environment with fully functioning end-to-end features.

GreySpark Partners is a business and technology consultancy specialising in mission-critical areas of the capital markets industry, helping our clients to address challenges and adapt to a changing technology environment wherever they operate. GreySpark Partners consultants are experienced Agile practitioners, and the firm can provide our clients with Agile Coaches, Scrum Masters, Product Owners and Developers. For more information, please contact GreySpark Partners to find out how we can help with your Agile Transformation.