The Next Agile Awakening

Four Agile Leaders Discuss New Possibilities in a World of Sudden Change

BY NOVID PARSI

ILLUSTRATION BY DAN PAGE

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DURING THE ALL-HANDS, ANYTHING-GOES DISRUPTION OF THE GLOBAL PANDEMIC, AGILE HAS BEEN BOTH A REINFORCEMENT AND A REVELATION.

Teams already immersed in agile found ways to elevate it amid distributed teams and compressed schedules. Agile newcomers discovered the power to accelerate digital transitions and rethink on-demand solutions.

But that’s just the start of the next agile awakening. According to Digital.ai, 43 percent of respondents said their momentum for adopting agile increased during the first months of the pandemic—and 55 percent planned to increase their use of agile through mid-2021.

On the 20th anniversary of the Agile Manifesto, project leaders aren’t just realizing the value of agile to drive immediate change in a time of crisis. They recognize exploring new and more targeted applications through Disciplined Agile can help organizations more quickly adapt to new realities in The Project Economy. Ninety-seven percent of enterprise decision makers believe the pandemic sped up their digital transformations, according to a 2020 global survey by Twilio.

Four project leaders reflect on why agile was a differentiator during the pandemic—and how they have scaled and adapted it to better navigate an uncertain future.

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Scott Ambler, DASSM, vice president and chief scientist, Disciplined Agile, PMI, Toronto

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Susana Molina, PMP, CIO, Veolia Ecuador, Guayaquil, Ecuador

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Michal Raczka, PMI-ACP, PMP, IT director, mBank S.A., Warsaw, Poland

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Rahul Sudame, PMI-ACP, PMP, senior engineering partner, Persistent Systems, Pune, India

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Did your organizations change their use of agile during the pandemic?

Raczka: For sure. Agile helped us adapt to the pandemic almost immediately. We decided to abandon some projects and instead take on new projects that would help our customers have safe, reliable banking. Agile’s short iterations and feedback loops helped us know we were doing the right things.

Molina: Agile was already part of my organization’s DNA. We work in small squads that focus on minimum viable products to give our clients better solutions more quickly. But we definitely increased our use of agile during the pandemic.

Sudame: Our use increased, too. Our company develops software applications for different customers, such as insurers, which is the business area I head, and our customers were under a lot of stress to optimize release time and accelerate their digital transformations. And for that, they needed agile.

Can you describe a pandemic-related project where agile made a difference?

Raczka: Last year, the Polish government decided to provide funds to businesses, which would apply for the grants through banks. So we had to adapt very quickly to this new requirement from the government and adopt a new process. With waterfall, a project like this could take months. With agile, we got it to market in just about two weeks.

Molina: At Veolia, which provides water, waste and energy management solutions, we used agile to implement electronic signatures throughout the enterprise. Before, maybe 40 percent of signatures were electronic; now, it’s more than 90 percent. We couldn’t take more than four weeks to develop products like this. The pandemic accelerated our developments, and we accelerated by using agile.

Sudame: Our insurance customers typically rely heavily on in-person interactions to sell insurance. That model suddenly changed when their agents had to work from home. To survive, they had to reach potential customers digitally—and that had to happen quickly, in just two or three months. We focused on getting the highest-priority features out quickly so our customers could establish or enhance their digital presence.

What has been agile’s greatest value for completing projects in the current climate?

Ambler: Its focus on delivering value that meets the needs of stakeholders. Teams using agile are not wedded to creating a detailed plan upfront and then hoping for the best. They still have detailed planning, but they assume the situation will change and they’ll need to react. It’s a different mindset.

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Molina: Agile is powerful, but it’s not about following rules. It’s about the concept of focusing on the client and the final result.

Raczka: It’s also about the ability to make changes faster and to adapt to changing requirements and environments.

Sudame: Agile helped us deliver the speed and the outcomes our customers expected with their digital transformations.

How has Disciplined Agile been useful in this time?

Sudame: Disciplined Agile is useful because of its flexibility. Organizations can fine-tune it for their needs. Scrum or Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) can be prescriptive, for instance, with the number and length of sprints and time of deployments. But in reality, things are different for different customers. Industry-specific needs can be better handled with Disciplined Agile.

Ambler: Disciplined Agile is a hybrid. It takes great ideas from a wide range of sources—Lean, scrum, Kanban, traditional—and puts them into context: Here’s the situation you’re in and here are the available options. So you can decide the best strategy for you and tailor your approach as the situation changes.

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WHAT IS DISCIPLINED AGILE?

Disciplined Agile allows teams to size agile to fit their needs—to borrow from a wide range of agile approaches, such as scrum, SAFe, Kanban and others, and adapt them into a hybrid that makes the most sense for the situation at hand. In other words, teams no longer need to feel locked into one way of working, says Scott Ambler, DASSM, vice president and chief scientist, Disciplined Agile, PMI, Toronto.

“Every situation is unique, so you need to make choices,” Ambler says. “You need the freedom to define your own way of working that’s fit for the challenges on the ground, as opposed to a way of working that sounds good but isn’t actually sufficient for the job.”

NOT BUSINESS AS USUAL

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Source: Digital.ai, 2020

How does agile help companies stay resilient and become gymnastic enterprises?

Ambler: Teams that use traditional techniques may overvalue being on time and on budget, which can impact decisions made on quality or scope, or they meet specifications that are not really what the customer wants anymore. Agile teams help companies focus on outcomes and value for the customer.

Molina: With traditional approaches, you can spend a lot of time just on designing a product, so by the time you finish, it might not be what the client wants. With agile, we develop the product along with the person who wants it, the product owner. We focus on outcomes, not just the plan or the schedule.

Raczka: Through agile, we became better able to embrace and implement change at a much faster pace.

How have you introduced agile to internal teams or external stakeholders?

Molina: When we expanded it during the pandemic, we created seminars on agile on an internal platform. We also created what we call a digital revolution committee of managers and directors who review all our initiatives and provide support to all our agile teams so they can have quick wins and develop products more quickly.

Raczka: Even though our agile transformation began in 2015, we’re aware that we have to continuously improve and refine our use of agile, so we have agile coaches who question our status quo. With remote work, it’s harder to onboard new employees and have cohesive teams, so we have internal agile conferences to share knowledge.

Sudame: We had to educate our customers and help them adapt. Some of them had been using agile but in name only. They would have 10 to 20 sprints, but it would take six months to produce something. That has changed. For example, one of our customers wanted to build a platform to reduce manual entry, and they thought they had to do it all at once or not at all. They realized we could roll it out iteratively and realize a lot of value.

What revelation over the past year will help you most as you begin to recover and rebuild? Sudame:

Agile often has meant co-locating team members in the same physical environment. But when our teams had to work from home starting in March 2020, initially it was slightly chaotic as our people had to figure out who was doing what and what everyone’s working hours were. We soon realized that to work together as a team, we had to put in place some standards for remote agile work, like remote standup meetings that happen at the same time.

Raczka: We had to find a balance between processes and relationships. As a company, we had adopted the first value of the agile manifesto: “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” But we went too far in adopting it, so when we shifted entirely to virtual work in March 2020, the work became harder because we couldn’t rely as much on relationships. We realized we had to become not just relationship focused but more process oriented.

Ambler: With so many agile techniques based on face-to-face communication, with whiteboards and Post-it notes, purist agile teams got shaken for a while a year ago. But today I don’t think there’s a single agile coach on the planet who would say you can’t be agile if you work remotely—because everyone does now. Organizations have learned they need to be flexible, even in their approach to agile.

So new teams and sectors see agile or hybrid as a new option?

Sudame: Yes. I was surprised that a government agency asked me to conduct a session on agile. They were working on a website for employees to access their pension funds, and they said traditionally they would use waterfall and release it all at once but instead wanted to build it in iterative releases.

Ambler: Look at the development of COVID-19 vaccines and how they were fast-tracked. Agile is much better at dealing with risk than traditional techniques. Agile reduces the feedback cycle and increases collaboration, visibility and communication—which are all key to addressing risk. Agilists have little opportunity to hide what they’re doing, so it’s easy to see any troubles. With a traditional approach, issues can be hidden for months.

What might agile look like a few years from now?

Raczka: Agile’s focus on value for the customer will remain, but the pace of change will get faster.

Sudame: Agile will not be seen as a separate way of working. Organizations will tailor it for their industries and projects, whether they use scrum, SAFe, extreme programming, dynamic systems development method or Disciplined Agile, or they’ll mix and match best practices.

Ambler: Agile’s here to stay and will only become more prevalent. We’ll see agile and Lean being applied across organizations and in more domains such as finance, vendor management and many others. PM

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

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