This content is part of the ultimate guide to agile series, highlighting the business benefits of an agile approach. There are visuals, documents and personal accounts of how agile is used to best effect. Use this content to form your own opinion about why agile is the right approach for your projects, programmes and change initiatives.
Benefits of an evolving solution
One of the most common causes of resistance to adopting an Agile approach is a lack of understanding of the business benefits of Agile approaches. In this paper I will share ideas for how to get those not familiar with Agile on-board with the concept and excited to work in this way.
For more details, read this paper
Agile creates honesty
I am helping an organisation transition from waterfall to Agile project management. This has led to lots of discussions on the benefits of Agile. Aside from the obvious benefits of faster response to changing circumstances, continuous representation of the customer/business viewpoint and earlier return on investment, I want to add honesty.
Honesty refers to means honesty about how much we can get done in the time allowed. I know those who are against Agile complain that there is no planning or reporting but that isn’t true and the planning that is done in Agile gives us much greater visibility of what is being created, often at a very granular level. This spreads honesty into what the business can expect as a result of the project and therefore honesty about the likely benefits achieved.
Planning is output or achievement focused, not based on activities. This leads to an inherent honest about what is being created, moving from epic level requirements to individual user stories and then more specific sub requirements into even more specific sub sub requirements and then the specific activities needed to deliver these requirements.
Teams use techniques to decompose each piece of work into these specific activities, which enables them to cross check with each other that they have the resources, skills and information easily to hand to enable them to do the work. Again, there is honesty in whether or not everything required is in place to get the work done.
This granular level of detail leads to a much clearer understanding of the time required to develop. For small, specific outputs the time needed to move through initial draft to review, amend and finish the product can be calculated.
This is driven by the need to fit work into sprints often a couple of weeks in duration. The happy by product of these “product breakdowns” is clarity of exactly what is created before it is created.
Teams can more easily see from the early sprints how much work they can get done so there is greater honesty in what they promise to deliver in later sprints
Business involvement honesty
Product owners (also known as Business Ambassadors) can clearly see what the team expect to deliver. This makes is easier for them to share their own ideas about what needs to be included, and to plan ahead for how they can become involved in the design, development and testing of each component.
This honesty also extends to the deployment or change management work that the business will need to do to get ready to work in the new way. Specific pieces of work are easier to understand than larger bundles of requirements, so there is greater understanding about what changes need to be made to “business as usual” to adopt the outputs the team are developing.
Top 5 benefits of being agile
Agile approaches, when done well, involve thoughtful planning. Too often agile is shorthand for ‘doing, not planning’ but we can see this is not the case. BUT agile approaches mean we have to learn a new way of planning, and I hope this article has given you some ideas for things to consider as you develop your ability.
Training the Agile Change Agent course always generates new insights into how to adopt an agile approach to project and change management. This week I had 16 insightful, experienced project, programme, portfolio and change managers on the course, developing the rationale for adopting an evolving solution, rather than trying to plan everything up front. These are our top 5 ideas – what would you add to this list?
1. Faster to market because instead of waiting for completion of the complete solution, we can get elements of it implemented quickly, generating feedback on what works and what doesn’t and what else we could add to make it even better.
2. Less disruption to business as usual so those impacted are more at ease. Change might occur more frequently, but the scale of those changes is smaller, as we are only implementing part of the solution each time.
3. We build trust with those we are impacting because of talking about what we are going to give them we give them something quickly, so they can see we are telling the truth. We are an increasingly cynical society, so this proof is very impactful in reducing the doubts. This creates a virtuous circle because belief that the change is really happening encourages participation in it. If we doubt something, we don’t volunteer our time and effort but if we know it is definitely going ahead we are more likely to become involved.
4. Creates excitement, motivation and momentum because each change should add value – it should solve problems and create improvements to what we are doing now. Achieving this frequently and regularly throughout the life of our change maintains a level of interest and support from those impacted.
5. Early delivery of change builds early capability in the new ways of working. This creates pride in what is being achieved, creating a positive environment which inspires creativity and commitment for more change.
Knowing agile makes me cleverer
In a project scoping meeting this week I realised how much of my knowledge about Agile concepts and techniques has seeped into my DNA.
Agile contains so many practical ideas for scoping, planning and resourcing, I can’t remember how I managed projects before Agile Change Management! (And this is from someone who used to be global head of project and programme management for one of the largest banks in the world – when PRINCE2® techniques dominated).
These are the elements of Agile that solved the most problems in our project scoping meeting:
1. Roadmap (Not Gantt chart)
Instead of bottom up planning based on requirements, the Roadmap is built on iterations, short bursts of work that deliver an outcome or a capability that the organisation did not have before. Make sure everyone is clear on what the project is expected to deliver and what we are going to get for our money.
So we are starting with the big question first (see Business Need). To get the flow of work right we have to know:
- What you are going to deliver first?
- Then what would make sense to give them next?
- What would build on the first deliverable?
- What would make sense to your customers?
2. Business Need (Not requirements)
All our planning decisions are based on our view of what improvements we are making to the business.
The best Roadmap will be the one that delivers the most useful improvements to the business first. In my scoping meeting this week the business need is new revenue streams.
All our decisions are focused on how early we can get something to the market that customers will buy. And then I need to think if they like the first outputs from the project, how can we build this with related products services that extend the features of what we delivered first – so they buy more and they buy more frequently.
Identifying what the business needs is another way of talking about benefits, and the sooner we put these into measurable statements, the sooner we can think about how to track progress towards them. If we don’t know what we will be measuring we will not know what to measure!
I think this focus on the main outputs from the project stops me going off at tangents. Instead of getting caught up in the detailed planning for how we will create the project deliverables I can more productively use my time on the value and benefits.
3. Staying at the high level (the team can break the work into specific tasks)
I think this is the greatest value of Agile approaches. I add more value by not getting caught up in the detail:
- Staying at the high level enables me to take a much wider view of what the project is trying to achieve. I can question if the scope overlaps with other projects, or worse if it conflicts with what other projects are trying to do. I can also keep bringing the scope conversation back to the essentials:
- What does each element add to the business need?
- What benefits will each element if the scope create?
- Are we putting the most valuable scope early enough in the project?
- The detail belongs to those who are going to do the work. They are closer to it. They have more up to date technical knowledge than me. If I step in and start giving detailed instructions I am lowering my teams motivation. I am stopping them deciding exactly what to do and how to do it. That autonomy is essential to their motivation. Self-choice creates an enthusiasm and a desire to get things right that no amount of pushing from me could ever create.
Staying at this high level gives me a chance to explore the quality of what is needed, again at the high level. In a world of uncertainty it is more useful to identify the criteria by which deliverables will be acceptable than to come up with detailed requirements for quality.
In my Project scoping meeting we were able to have a useful brain storming session on what good means. We looked at factors including:
- Usefulness – ease of use and how simple to operate the products would be.
- Accuracy – how many sources of research do we need to use to decide if our products are right. Do we need to bring in experts from outside our company to assess and endorse the quality of our products?
- Level of tailoring – should we make different versions for different customers? Should we create standard and premium versions of our products?
This high level approach, driven by my focus on the business goals is empowering. In more traditional project management I feel I am a taker not a maker. I take in detailed requirements and use my talent to turn this into detailed plans and then spend my time chasing everyone for their progress against the plan.
Understanding Agile Change Management makes me a leader not an administrator. I ask the big questions about what we are trying to create and what we are trying to achieve. I feel closer to the business strategy, which is motivating. I feel I am part of the objectives and more relevant because of this.
Mental health benefits of agile
I am in the middle of a challenging personal project, moving my home from the UK to Spain. The scale of the work involved leaves me breathless but it is giving me insight and I hope empathy for all those who feel overwhelmed by change at work.
I think the biggest source of stress on big initiatives is the pressure to get everything right because this is a forever change. Having to have an answer for every problem, having to have a plan that covers every aspect of our move is overwhelming.
When I train others in Change Management I often talk about the dangers of multiple changes piling one on top of the other so that the person impacted can no longer function.
Our brains love certainty and knowing what is going to happen next. They are pattern recognition machines. There is evidence from neuroscience to show that if the brain is repeatedly hit by changes in direction and continuous uncertainty then it will switch to ‘power save” mode. This means that our brains will follow a set of instructions provided by others but do not (temporarily) have the capacity for the analysis and creativity needed to design the answers.
Agile Change Management
To break myself out of this cycle I am using an Agile approach to moving countries. The first thing I have done is re-frame the outcome. This is not forever, let’s instead think of this as an experiment of one year. If we like our new home after 12 months we will stay and if we do not then we will unravel what we have put in place and return to the UK.
By changing the outcome I am changing the scale of the project. By thinking of it as a one year trial I am taking away the pressure of having to get everything right first time.
I am also removing the risk that as a family we have made the wrong decision from which we can never recover. The change has become a possible future, not a definite future, with clear criteria – it only becomes definite if it meets all our success criteria. This means we have to define what success looks like up front, which is producing useful motivational discussions about the things we are looking forward to.
Benefit 1 – Clarifies priorities
This is really helping us to think about our priorities in a really practical way. For example, if we are going to be there a year before we decide how permanent the move is then we don’t need to organise for all the garden implements to travel with us, we can just put them in storage and find a service to mow the lawn for a year. We can live without all of our own family favourite Christmas decorations for one year so they are not a priority!
Benefit 2 – Reduces the scope of the change
Instantly this agile approach takes the pressure off, reducing the number of things I have to plan and giving me a criteria against which to judge if I am doing the right things – will it make a difference in the next year? If yes, it is a Must Have, if no it is a Should Have, Could Have or even Won’t Have this time. Can we create a temporary fix to cover the next year, then it is a Won’t Have this time. This has definitely reduced the number of arguments and provided a framework to justify the decisions we are taking!
Compare this to the scope of a “forever” move – the implication is that we have to take everything we own. The packing, the moving, the unpacking, the logistics – it is all huge if everything is in scope.
An Agile approach makes sense for so many reasons, but hopefully this blog demonstrates that one of the greatest benefits is the ability to get on and get things done, even when the transformation itself feels overwhelming. Agile encourages us to take the pragmatic approach, to try before we buy, reducing the risk of a “get it completely right first time” approach.