Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., Columbus, Ohio, USA
COLUMBUS, OHIO, USA
from left, Charlie Kennedy and Tom Paider, PMP, Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co.
PHOTOS BY BRAD FEINKNOPF
NATIONWIDE MUTUAL INSURANCE CO.’S corporate Internet solutions group found itself on a project management seesaw: Customer usability of its Web platform needed to increase, while the size of its project team was decreasing. The team needed a way to balance those twin realities—and if it could help deal with quality, cost and speed issues, all the better.
The company's project management strategy had to become more nimble—or rather, Agile.
Small pockets spread out across Nationwide had already adopted Agile project management, in which top-down “waterfall” techniques are eschewed in favor of rapid-fire response typically deployed by smaller teams. The goal is to directly align business development to specific user needs by breaking down the project into smaller chunks that are vetted by the customer. Even in limited use, the processes were showing results in helping the company adapt to change and increase quality— “things that get attention fast,” says Tom Paider, PMP, program manager in the corporate Internet solutions group.
At Nationwide, part of the reason behind the move to Agile was the dreaded scope creep.
“Stakeholders include things that are not the highest business value,” says Charlie Kennedy, associate vice president, corporate Internet solutions group.
Under those conditions, a project takes longer, costs more and might not deliver on its core goals. And that's simply not viable in a stumbling global economy.
The goal was to create a single log-in to access accounts—such as life insurance, auto coverage and other policies—that had previously been siloed.
But the group had been stymied by the old system. “Making small [software] changes took a long time,” Mr. Paider says.
“At the end of the day, everybody is accountable for getting the work done. There's very little of the ‘that’s not my job’ mentality.” —Tom Paider, PMP
Things were going to be different this time around.
Unlike previous software projects in which Nationwide worked on development for months before delivery to customers, the team divided rollout into two-week phases. Customers were then given the opportunity to offer immediate feedback to project developers.
Before Agile project management could be fully adopted, the Nationwide Mutual Insurance corporate Internet solutions group knew it had to train the troops.
But this couldn't be your routine training session. Introducing agile was going to change the entire corporate culture—no small feat. The company would need buy-in from key opinion leaders who could communicate the need for taking a new tack to other employees, says Charlie Kennedy, Nationwide.
It also meant overcoming initial pushback.
Just mentioning “Agile” causes “lots of red flags to go up,” says Tom Paider, PMP, Nationwide. “Agile has somewhat of a reputation—you throw out processes, don't have a plan, things like that.”
Project leaders found themselves fielding questions from employees and explaining why they were taking this route.
It was time for a reality check for all of the 16 core team members involved in the pilot program, along with those involved in the project on a more short-term, functional basis.
“There's a little bit of fear of the unknown,” Mr. Kennedy says, and it's important to address it proactively.
That was accomplished in part by explaining to each team member what Agile project management will mean to them and what's in it for them. Nationwide also made it a point to “communicate the core values we were trying to instill—accountability and honesty.”
“It lets us react to changes much better,” Mr. Paider says, adding it has been easier to eliminate features requested by stakeholders but not used by customers. Because testing happens earlier, the iterative process has also resulted in fewer defects.
Going Agile got rid of some of those pesky extra layers, too.
“It eliminated extraneous activities, and documentation wasn't necessarily being done just because it had always been done that way,” Mr. Paider says.
But companies have to be careful when choosing team members. “When setting up Agile, selection of staff is the most important thing you can do,” he says.
Nationwide team leaders specifically sought out people who enjoy working in a highly collaborative environment. “We look for people who are ‘generalizing specialists,’ people who have a particular skill, such as a Java developer, but also are okay jumping in and doing whatever needs to be done,” he says.
Analysts, developers and everyone else on the team share thoughts—and duties, if necessary. “At the end of the day, everybody is accountable for getting the work done. There's very little of the ‘that's not my job’ mentality,” says Mr. Paider. If testing needs to be done, and the testers are deployed on other work, a developer may step in to help out.
“As the teams get smaller, everyone has to realize that value comes from delivery of quality software, not in how well they perform a specific role on the team. Delivery comes before everything else,” he explains. “If you're the best developer on the team, but the team fails, you do, too. Project managers have to look for people that fit in with this environment—people who listen, teach and pair with others well. You have to look out for people who don't really want to collaborate or share their knowledge.”
Agile isn't for everyone, so project managers need to remove team members who don't buy into the process.
“Some people don't work that way,” Mr. Paider says. “That's neither wrong nor right.”
LIFE IN THE FAST LANE
To get the team up to speed on Agile, Nationwide partnered with a third-party vendor that implemented training and worked on the team as embedded project management and technical coaches.
To foster knowledge sharing, the team holds retrospectives or “lessons learned” sessions at the end of each two-week period. Project leaders also try to “create a safe environment for people to speak out,” Mr. Kennedy says.
Despite the additional expense, Mr. Paider says it was worth the investment. “Even with the coaches, projects still cost less,” he says. “There aren't the extraneous activities. There's not so much time and money reworking things and fixing defects.”
For Nationwide, there was a clear ROI. The team saw the pass rate for each step in the software development process rise to about 90 percent versus between 65 percent to 70 percent for its non-Agile counterparts. And that's with about 25 percent fewer team members working on the project than usual.
Armed with those numbers, Nationwide is introducing Agile techniques to two other corporate Internet solution teams this year. Members of the current pilot team will deploy with the new teams to expedite deployment, Mr. Kennedy says. And when fully adopted, the three teams will account for 95 percent of the software development work within that group.
Agile can work, but companies must be willing to set aside their past practices and adhere to the new processes, Mr. Paider says.
Given today's economic slump, more companies might be willing to give Agile a try. “Organizations are looking for how they can do things more effectively,” Mr. Kennedy says, “and how they can optimize the budget they've got.” —Susan Ladika
PM NETWORK JANUARY 2009 WWW.PMI.ORG