Category Archives: Enterprise-level Agile

What is an Enterprise-level Agile Coach?

What is an Enterprise-level Agile Coach? When people use the term “Agile Coach” it is often not exactly clear what they mean. Most often, what they’re talking about is what I would call a team-level Agile Coach. That is someone who works at a tactical level with individual members of an Agile team to help them become more proficient in executing an Agile development process such as Scrum. There is very little standardization or certification for what it takes to become an “Agile Coach” at that level and almost anyone could claim to be an “Agile Coach”.

Beyond that; however, there is a different kind of Agile coaching role at an enterprise-level that needs to be better-defined and differentiated from a normal team-level “Agile Coach” role. The enterprise-level role is someone who works at a more strategic level to integrate an Agile development process with a company’s business. That role is not well-defined at all and the difference between the team-level role and the enterprise-level role is also not clearly differentiated. It is assumed that someone who has “Agile Coach” on his/her resume can do all of that and I don’t believe that is necessarily correct.

What often happens in applying Agile at an enterprise level is that an “Agile Coach” attempts to plan and organize an enterprise-level agile transformation. However, that person is probably only trained in Agile from a team-level development process perspective and makes the assumption that whatever is good for the development process must be good for the business as a whole. They also may assume that it is a binary and mutually-exclusive decision to be either “Agile” or “Waterfall” and attempt to force-fit the entire company into an Agile model when the right solution is to fit the approach to the company’s business. I don’t believe that either of those assumptions is necessarily correct.

The problem is this – Agile works very well in companies that are in the primary business of developing products (particularly software products – Intuit is an example that develops TurboTax, Quicken, and QuickBooks). In those companies, there is a strong and natural alignment between an Agile development process and the overall business goals of the company and it is very easy to apply an Agile development process in that environment. It is much more difficult to apply an Agile development process in a company who is not in the primary business of developing products and is in some other kind of business where the relationship of an Agile development process to the company’s overall business strategy is much more indirect.

In companies that are not in the primary business of developing products, you can’t just force the company to be “Agile” in order to make the company more amenable to an Agile development process. The company’s overall culture and business strategy needs to be optimized around whatever the critical success factors are for the business that they are in. For example, if a company is in a business that requires operational excellence, it needs to focus its overall culture and business strategy primarily on efficiency of operations and reducing costs and that doesn’t necessarily align with just becoming more “Agile”. In that kind of environment, you have to develop a strategy that considers both the company’s business strategy and the requirements of an Agile development process to develop a well-integrated approach. The implementation of that strategy often requires fitting the approach to the company’s business environment rather than trying to force-fit the company to some kind of overall Agile approach.

The approach that you might wind up with in that kind of environment also could be a blend of Agile and traditional plan-driven management principles and practices blended together in the right proportions to fit the situation. That is a lot more difficult thing to do and requires a lot more skill than a typical team-level Agile coach would normally have. It requires an understanding of:

  • Agile principles and practices as well as
  • Traditional project management principles and practices

and a deeper understanding of the principles behind both of them (not just the mechanics) to know how to blend them together as necessary to fit a given situation. Beyond that; however, it also requires the ability to look at a very complex, broad-based, enterprise-level business from both a more strategic high-level business management perspective as well as a more tactical product development process perspective to develop a strategy for integrating the two.

What often seems to happen is someone who is trained in “Agile” from a development process perspective attempts to steer the company in the right direction and that person typically doesn’t have the breadth of business management experience and agile development process experience to know how to successfully integrate the two. Is it any wonder why some of these “Agile transformations” are not successful?

I’ve developed some on-line training that should be helpful to people who want to understand this better:

  • Mastering Agile Project Management for Project Management – addresses this from a project management perspective to help project managers see Agile and traditional project management principles and practices as complementary rather than competitive and to learn how to blend the two together to fit any given situation.
  • Making Agile Work for Your Business for Executives – addresses this from a business management perspective and provides some essential principles and guidelines of how to successfully develop a well-integrated enterprise-level approach for any business.

Agile Transformation: Where Does it Hurt?

Agile transformation: where does it hurt? I’ve seen a lot of people jump into Agile just because it’s the latest and coolest thing to do and there’s a lot of momentum behind it.  It’s like the “Program du jour” for some companies – I can remember a similar phenomenon when Six Sigma was initially coming into vogue in the early 2000’s.  At that time I worked with a number of companies on process improvement projects and I interviewed a number of companies for the first book I published, “From Quality to Business Excellence:

  • I saw many companies that got wrapped up in the rituals and hoopla of Six Sigma (green belts, black belts, etc.) and, in many cases, their implementation was superficial and didn’t last.
  • On the other hand, there were a small number of companies that took the time to understand Six Sigma at a deeper level, blend it together with other process improvement methodologies, and really integrate it into the way they did business. In many cases, it was such an integral part of their business that it was difficult to recognize it as Six Sigma. Naturally, those were the companies I thought were really excellent.

I met with a company recently who is considering adopting a more agile approach to help them determine if it made sense for them and a question I like to ask in that kind of situation is “Where does it hurt?”  In other words, what are the aspects of your current process that are causing some amount of “pain” to the organization that you would like to improve on?

Many people skip that step of defining what problem they want to solve and just jump into Agile and I think it’s important to more clearly define what you want to get out of it.  There are at least a couple of reasons why that is important:

  • Agile is not a panacea for every problem, and
  • Many businesses make the mistake of force-fitting their business to some methodology (Agile or whatever)…the right solution, in my opinion, is to fit the methodology (or combination of methodologies) to the business

An Agile transformation may also not get much momentum in a company if the problem it addresses and the goals to be accomplished aren’t defined.  An Agile transformation typically involves some change management and I learned a long time ago that there are three very important elements for any significant change management effort to be successful:

  1. Burning Platform – There needs to be a “burning platform”…there needs to be a sufficient level of pain with the current situation to motivate people to make a change particularly a difficult change that has some risks associated with it.  Specifically, with regard to an Agile transformation, if you don’t clearly identify what is wrong with the current state, the transformation may not gain too much momentum.
  2. Vision for the Future – There needs to be a vision for the future – what does the end state look like after the change?  With regard to an Agile transformation, how will the overall enterprise-level model change as a result of implementing Agile?  Will it be a pure Agile approach from top-to-bottom or is some other kind of framework more appropriate?
  3. Progress in That Direction – In any significant change, there are always naysayers who will stand on the sidelines and wait for it to fail, but it becomes increasingly difficult to do that if you demonstrate progress and benefits to the organization.  With regard to an Agile transformation, a lot of people advocate “just start” without a lot of upfront planning – I’m not an advocate of that extreme, but there certainly is value in starting to make demonstrable progress as quickly as possible.

I think Agile is entering a new stage of maturity where it is no longer perceived as a fad, a lot of the hype religious zealotry about Agile is fading away, and a more pragmatic approach is emerging focused on doing what’s right for the organization.  A good article I recently read called that “Post-Agilisim”:

http://www.jenrickblog.co.uk/2013/11/post-agilism-world-gary-sage/?utm_medium=email&utm_source=Jenrick+Servcies+Ltd&utm_campaign=3285069_The+Digest+-+Nov+(week+1)+-+RE-SEND&utm_content=postagilismgarysage&dm_i=12QQ1YERX,BQ45HU,7120M,1

 

Enterprise-level Product Backlog Organization

A lot of thinking about Agile seems to be based on small, single-team projects rather than large, complex enterprise-level initiatives and there is a limited amount of information on what needs to be done to scale small, single team projects to large, complex enterprise-level initiatives and how to structure an enterprise-level product backlog.

One of those areas that often needs to be done differently on large, complex, enterprise-level projects is Product Backlog organization.  On small single-team Agile projects, the predominant thinking seems to be that you only need to plan the backlog a few sprints in advance, you just prioritize the stories in the backlog, and then pull them off as needed to start a sprint.  That method starts to break down as you scale projects to large, complex enterprise levels.  There are a number of problems I’ve seen with that approach:

  • Without planning the backlog further in advance, it’s difficult to assess the overall scope of the project and determine the resources required for the project.  For example, I’ve seen a project that just started development with a small, single Agile development team and after two years of development still had no end-in-sight of when the project would be completed.  It was a major surprise when we stepped back and re-planned the entire backlog at a high level to find that the project was going to take almost another two years to complete with the current level of resources.
  • When you have a large product backlog with hundreds or perhaps even over 1,000 stories, understanding the inter-relationship of the stories becomes important.  When you make priority changes among stories in the Product Backlog, it often doesn’t make sense to do it the level of individual stories…if you move one story up in the Product Backlog, what about the other stories that are inter-related with it?  Wouldn’t you want to move all of those stories together as a group?  Organizing the Product Backlog into Epics and perhaps even themes provides a way to make priority decisions at a higher level that is more appropriate for enterprise-level projects.  At that level, priority decisions are often more based on a higher-level of epics and themes rather than at the level of individual stories within an epic or theme.
  • Another major problem area is architecture. If you take a piecemeal approach to doing individual stories without planning and considering the entire solution, it can lead to poor architectural decisions and possibly significant rework later on.
  • Finally, when a project grows to the point that multiple teams are involved, it becomes even more essential to organize the work to be done in a way that it can be segmented among multiple teams without requiring excessive amounts of coordination overhead among the teams.

In another article I recently wrote on “Enterprise-level Agile Implementation“, I discussed the other levels of management that are typically found at an enterprise-level in larger companies that need to be integrated such as Program Management and Product/Project Portfolio Management.  In a large company, organizing the Product Backlog into a hierarchical structure can be essential to support effective decision-making at those higher levels of management above the level of a single Agile team and that is often critical to ensure that all of the projects in an organization are well-aligned with the company’s overall business strategy.

Enterprise-level Agile Implementation

I was recently asked to help a consulting firm who is working with a client having trouble with a very large enterprise-level Agile implementation.  It seems that the company had gone head-over-heels into Agile across the whole company and the senior executives were unhappy with the way it was going.  Many projects were going off track and senior management didn’t feel like they had much visibility and predictability to see if all the development efforts were really well-aligned with the company’s business strategy.  I think this is a typical problem that many companies face for large-scale, enterprise-level Agile implementations.

The problem is that large companies typically have some kind of management infrastructure such as a PMO  for managing projects as well as some kind of project portfolio management approach to align projects with the company’s business strategy and that existing management infrastructure probably isn’t totally compatible with an Agile development approach.  The choices are:

  1. Dismantle the existing management infrastructure and simply implement Agile at a development team level with no guiding management infrastructure.  That typically results in problems  such as projects going out of control and not being well-aligned with the company’s business strategy.
  2. Implement a new top-to-bottom Agile management approach such as the Scaled Agile Framework.  This is a good solution but requires a major redefinition of the company’s management infrastructure and some companies are just not ready to make that kind of gut-wrenching change.
  3. Implement a “bridge” between the existing management infrastructure and the Agile development approach using a hybrid management approach overlaid on top of the Agile development process.

The most important point is that you can’t ignore the need for these higher levels of management and implement Agile as a development process without defining some way that it integrates with the company’s overall business strategy. The choices look something like this:

Enterprise Level Agiie Business Strategy

This can be a difficult thing to do because standard Agile methodologies such as Scrum do not provide much guidance above the development team level and there are a number of choices at each of these levels.  At each level, there is a choice of implementing a more Agile or a more traditional, plan-driven management approach.  It is somewhat like a chess game as shown in the diagram below:

Enterprise Agile 2

Here’s how I would position some of the frameworks for filling this need:

Enterprise Agile 3

The three frameworks shown above are:

  1. My own Managed Agile Development model
  2. Scott Ambler’s Disciplined Agile Delivery model
  3. Dean Leffingwell’s Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)