Agile and SAAS: Lessons for value realization



An agile approach to software development and deployment aims to maximize business value through an iterative approach focused on delivering working software. As both a delivery executive and an agile instructor and coach, I am constantly reminded (and reminding) that the overall objective is to deliver value and keep the business in charge of that value realization. In addition, my own experience indicates that successful and rapid execution of projects leveraging agile and SaaS (software as a service) and delivering value earn credibility. Both their sponsors and teams earn the opportunity to request and deliver additional phases and projects.

Cloud-based applications and ecosystems extend the rapid, cost-effective deployments and iterative cycles of agile to areas previously dominated by expensive, on-premises systems and technology and long, expensive projects. I have overseen projects in which an enterprise-class SaaS e-commerce system deployed using agile methodology took a net-new customer from signed contracts to e-commerce value realization in 10 weeks. Using a two-week iteration cycle, the customer and consultant teams completed the first two-week sprint and prepared their demo together. Business stakeholders saw their first demo of the product (with their branding and products in the system) at the conclusion of the first two-week sprint. Additional two-week iterations refined the branding, product, and customer data, as well as added basic integrations such as order and credit card processing, with the final sprint devoted to deployment, go-live, and start of support period.

This powerful combination of the SaaS enterprise e-commerce system on a PaaS (platform as a service) ecosystem along with agile project execution yielded interesting reactions from executives, who were attending their first demo. One executive, after seeing a demo that included his firm's branding and products in the system at the end of the opening two-week sprint, said, “This is great. Can I have these PowerPoint slides?” It was pointed out that he was seeing a live system, not slideware, after only two weeks of work. His response: “Can we go live on Monday?”

These reactions aside, the agile approach allows an organization to realize value in several important ways during the project. The fast pace of the project and the ease of configuration means that project team members are seeing results of their work within two weeks, and every two weeks. Agile practitioners know that this maintains and increases project team motivation, which in turn maintains project momentum and likelihood of on-time delivery. This same result inspires confidence in business sponsors, who see value from the investment they approved within the same first two weeks and every two weeks thereafter.

SaaS and agile combine to enable nimbler project governance. Business leaders are able to steer the project in two-week increments to gain maximum benefit by focusing resources on features that yield immediate value, while deferring “nice-to-have” features for future deployments. As well, business leaders gain the confidence to manage the project in this way, knowing that the agile approach means that Release 1 will indeed be the first of many value-adding deployments in a multi-release program.

Delivering value rapidly and as planned has an additional benefit associated with this increased confidence. Both project sponsors and project teams effectively earn the opportunity to request budgets for and execute the additional phases, based on their proven success in delivering the initial phase. The credibility that comes through this delivery enables project sponsors to point to this success when seeking approval for future phases or projects. The proven success of the project team, the agile methodology, and the SaaS approach provide the confidence and justification needed to increase the odds of approval and further success.

In the aforementioned example, the performing organization and team were able to leverage their early successes by requesting and launching their next SaaS-based e-commerce storefront, even before the first project was fully live. This rapid approval was, according to the project manager, primarily due to the success through the early sprints and expected value realization evident from the initial project.

Yet another outcome of this approach is the immediate generation of return on the initial investment. At the end of the initial phase of the 10-week e-commerce project described earlier, the performing organization was able to begin onboarding customers and generating revenue. This has the double benefit of immediate return on investment (ROI) as well as generating top-line and bottom-line revenue to fund operations and further phases and projects.

However, these benefits are not automatic. Business articles and websites are full of stories and lessons about organizations that expect to reap benefits of agile and SaaS without making the appropriate investments and preparations. And, even though agile and SaaS provide flexibility and value working software and results over documentation and process, they together and separately require discipline and rigor in execution.

With this in mind, consider some keys to successful adoption and benefits realization from agile and SaaS:

Develop a solid foundation through training, evangelism, and executive support: Too many organizations merely adopt something new and then expect it to work by itself. Agile and SaaS, whether adopted separately or together, require the following:

  1. Common basis in training: The organization cannot expect to enjoy success without providing training to its teams. The key here is to provide a common basis of training. I've worked with and in organizations that have trained people in agile in different ways and through different sources. While there is some common basis of nomenclature and understanding, the differences of depth and approach can cause friction and lost cycles. Send key people to a single, common source for training on methodology and tools.
  2. Evangelism: Successful adoption requires key and respected people within your organization to be supportive of the change. The move to agile and/or SaaS as business and technology enablers means change, and change can cause fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD). Respected evangelists inside the organization can mitigate FUD and begin building a base of support as the new methods and tools are introduced.
  3. Executive support: As with any important initiative, visible and unwavering executive support is crucial to the successful adoption of agile and SaaS. This applies at the beginning and throughout all projects and initiatives.

Rigor and discipline in execution: Agile project management requires more discipline in execution than traditional approaches. For example, enforcing a rigorous definition of “done” helps agile teams implementing a SaaS product avoid accumulating technical debt. Much like corporate or personal fiscal discipline, this rigor means that at the end of a sprint, phase, or project, there is no technical debt to pay off before you can realize the value of the investment. This is the point of agile and SaaS: rapid value realization. Discipline in execution allows the organization to see this value when expected. Failing to institute and enforce this discipline means that projects incur technical debt that delays the completion of the project and unnecessarily defers value realization.

Rigor and discipline in prioritization: The iterative approach of agile combined with the flexibility of SaaS allows the business to drive selection and implementation of the most valuable features and functionality. However, the prioritization process must be executed regularly and ruthlessly to yield these benefits. Failure to prioritize for each iteration deprives the business and the team of the knowledge of where to allocate their time in order to minimize time to value. Conversely, organizations that can effectively and regularly prioritize ensure that the most business value-driven deliverables are allocated the resources necessary during each iteration of the agile project. This results in the expected incremental value delivery culminating in successful and impactful go-lives, which, in turn, earn the opportunity to fund and execute future projects or project phases.

Select the right SaaS platform and software: The cloud, taking the form of SaaS, PaaS, or IaaS (infrastructure as a aervice), is exploding. Offerings from Amazon, Salesforce, Microsoft, Google, and many other providers increase daily as the power and proven value of these cloud services expand. Along with successful implementation and execution of the agile methodology, selection of the right combination of cloud services and software is of course crucial to successful value realization. Firms with existing cloud services and providers in place will gravitate towards SaaS offerings that will work on their adopted platforms. Firms considering replatforming may be evaluating cloud infrastructure and software in the context of replacement of an on-premises solution and technology stack. These cases require careful assessment of the options and selection of the solutions that best meet the organization's strategic objectives.

SaaS plus agile is a powerful combination. Leveraging both a cloud ecosystem and an agile project methodology enables delivery of business value in a rapid and cost-effective timeframe. As noted, keys to value realization include preparation and rigorous execution. Prepare with training, evangelism, and executive support, and then follow through with rigor, discipline, and ongoing support.

Case Study: Global Provider of Institutional Restaurant and Cleaning Equipment and Supplies

In late 2013, a US-based global leader in institutional restaurant equipment, cleaning equipment, and supplies was recovering from a failed attempt to launch a new e-commerce storefront using an on-premises e-commerce solution and technology stack. Fortunately, this firm had adopted a well-known CRM and SFA platform, and was making a significant investment in extending the internal reach of this platform. One senior IT project manager, with knowledge of SaaS e-commerce solutions written natively for this platform, recommended adoption of the only enterprise-class e-commerce solution available for this platform.

The firm had also worked through successful adoption, training, and implementation of agile project management methodology within their IT organization and had achieved significant buy-in from key business leaders. The IT project manager and her manager successfully lobbied the business leaders for their restaurant equipment care division to select the SaaS e-commerce solution available for their CRM/SFA PaaS and secured approval of the project.

The SaaS e-commerce firm's delivery team and their client's IT and business teams formed an agile project team, using a combination of onsite sprints and working sessions combined with remote, daily Scrums and other meetings to execute the project in five two-week iterations.

In just over two months, the client launched this initial deployment of SaaS e-commerce to drive online sales for its equipment care website, a site that included more than 75,000 SKUs from over 400 manufacturers. The company ships a large amount of orders across the country every day to customers including engineers and professional technicians providing urgent repairs.

The storefront is a comprehensive e-commerce system providing customized business-to-business (B2B) pricing and promotions administered through the SaaS CRM/SFA user interface that was already familiar to their business teams. The entire implementation cycle was completed in 10 weeks, a timeline perhaps unprecedented and certainly very rapid for implementation of an enterprise e-commerce system.

The project's success was a direct result of this firm's leveraging of the chosen SaaS e-commerce system and the successful execution of an agile project by the combined internal and external agile team. Highlights of the agile project execution included rotation of presentation roles during the sprint demos and regular and visible inclusion of key business stakeholders at every demo and incorporation of their feedback in subsequent sprints. The project manager provided complete and transparent reporting at each demo and retrospective, detailing for all the successes, challenges, and occasional missteps within the overall highly successful project.

SaaS e-commerce project timeline

Figure 1: SaaS e-commerce project timeline

Figure 1 illustrates the project timeline inclusive of a sixth sprint that included rollout to the initial customer groups and the start of the warranty support period for the professional services and software.

The demonstrated success of this initial SaaS/agile e-commerce implementation prompted the project manager to propose the same software and agile approach to another business unit, the Institutional and Government Sales unit, that wanted to implement its first e-commerce storefront. Based on the success of the approach, the next project was planned, approved, and launched even before the original project went live.

Institutional storefront project timeline

Figure 2: Institutional storefront project timeline

The second project was launched and completed, inclusive of the deployment and rollout to customers, in four sprints or eight weeks.

This organization went on to a third project using this same approach and continues to implement incremental feature enhancements to the storefronts using its agile processes and the ability to rapidly deploy these incremental improvements to the SaaS platform.

© 2014, Shawn Belling
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA



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