Agile – A Voyage of Discovery

Agile might just be the greatest innovation in software development methodology – ever. The benefits of being able to implement changes rapidly, with user involvement, with no design surprises. What’s not to like?

Well, in highly complex, highly integrated and regulated environments, Agile presents some additional risk and can, when used in isolation, be responsible for furthering complexity and, ironically, leading to environments that are the very antithesis of agile.

Some of the charges that get leveled at Agile are that it is hard to maintain focus on the original product design when the requirements can change every two weeks, and that it is difficult to maintain a robust set of test cases when the direction may change,  thus making test cases redundant.

The worst sin in an Agile environment is to not have the level of buy-in or interaction with the business sponsors or stakeholders that will be using the finished product. That extends beyond the involvement of users in the development of business requirements for individual features. Business stakeholders, in the form of process owners, end users, quality assurance, compliance and legal, should all be involved and accountable for the solution being developed and delivered. Allowing IT to throw the business requirements over the wall to themselves is a disaster waiting to happen, with outcomes steeped in time overruns, scope degradation, and rising budgets.

Leveraging an Agile or iterative approach can really trip-up an organization when the expectations of leadership and the business sponsors are rooted in a methodology more akin to a waterfall approach, while IT is developing along iterative lines. In highly regulated and fast paced banking environments, it is very common for business owners to approve projects based on expected functionality by a given date, which in turn is linked to a specific campaign, product launch, compliance demand, or simply to stay abreast of the competition. Meanwhile, IT adopts an iterative approach starting with a relatively high level set of requirements (probably the ones used to estimate costs and timeline  provided to the sponsors) before breaking them into manageable features and feature groups to be developed over a series of sprints or release. The results are typically not in alignment with the expectations of the business sponsors causing tension and, from an executive sponsor perspective, missed dates and higher-than-expected costs.

It is possible to bring these divergent objectives together. The solution is to ensure organizational alignment is focused on collaboration and deep business and technical expertise for each mission critical business function and supporting technology. This can be achieved in three steps:

1) Commitment to a full-time, Demand Management team per major functional area (e.g. Marketing, Credit Risk, Operations) staffed with business and technology savvy people with deep understanding of your business, and whose sole role is to interpret business requirements into project definitions, functional requirements, a robust business case and detailed cost estimates. This group’s objective is continuous process and technology improvement.

2) A focus on developing technology experience as core business capability; leveraging sub-contractors to smooth demand curves and on non-mission critical applications. Use of primary and secondary roles to avoid single points of failure. Document or die – develop a culture of documenting all change to negate reliance on tribal knowledge.

3) Instigate a rigorous Agile approach with monthly sprints with robust reporting and analysis of forecasts vs. actuals to enable a learning organization that becomes more and more accurate in estimating as it matures.

Iterative development in organizations that are not set-up to be successful can have the opposite affect from that desired. Deep expertise and stable resource pools, accurate and detailed business requirements, covering all business stakeholders, coupled with well-honed Agile developers and managers in a self-learning environment will transform change delivery results.

At West Monroe we’ve helped many clients improve their change delivery organizations and methodologies resulting in predictable outcomes.

Phone: 312-602-4000
222 W. Adams
Chicago, IL 60606
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