In a recent Harvard Business Review, K. Gardner and Alia Crocker wrote that “for Agile to work, leaders need to pick the right people.” Otherwise, organizations will “not only fail to meet their goals but also cause disruption within an organization.
A poorly managed initiative can miss critical deadlines, slow product development, and lead to staff burnout, the loss of key talent, and infighting among teams.” Since IT organizations typically lead in the move to Agile, what do CIOs think about this methodology? And where are they in the adoption? A recent CIOChat event addressed this topic.
Incorporating Agile Practices, Design Thinking, and Innovation
Based on comments on the CIOChat, CIOs have good news for Gardner and Crocker. They believe their organizations are well along the way to incorporating Agile.
For example, CIO Justin Bauer says, “our organization was aware of Agile when I arrived, but it has now fully embraced its core ideals. IT led projects are now all Agile. Management loves value being continuously deployed. On design, our company always has had a long-term outlook. Now our projects are aligned to achieve long-term objectives while we release 4-week sprint style updates that provide meaningful value.”
To achieve what Bauer suggests, former CIO Isaac Sacolick says, IT organizations need to “execute and plan in sprints. As important, design needs to understand customer value propositions and put that knowledge into planning. And finally, innovation should be balanced against safety and security concerns.”
Sacolick goes onto say that “if Agile is only used in IT to improve project execution, it’s really hard to drive business transformation. Digital requires iterative planning, execution, and feedback loops, which is why agile is so central to success at transformation. So Agile needs to be an IT and a business culture change.” Looking back, Sacolick says, “it is not surprising that IT’s project failure rate was like 80% before Agile changed things. Remember those long requirement documents and complex change procedures?”
Even CIOs at new organization should initiate agile immediately. CIO Paige Francis says that she is “just starting here but I am setting roadmaps with bursts of progress and the intention to celebrate each quick win. Each adds up to a whole design/big picture. If length is impeding progress or ramping up exhaustion, sure.”
In terms of business outcomes, former CIO Joanna Young says, “most recently I deployed Agile by iterating from legacy, unhealthy data to timely, healthier, helpful visualizations and ergo better, faster business decision making.” Analyst Dan Kirsch says that “underlying both agile and DevOps is culture and process transformation. Technology can only support these changes.”
Has Agile Required You to Transform IT and Overall Business Culture?
Former CIO Tim McBreen says, “Agile required staff to upgrade to be able to handle sprint culture and changing processes. Business culture was in shock to be moved from 12–18-month delivery to 12-week delivery cycles. They had to do their business-side process and training quicker. Marketing programs moved faster.”
In terms of business culture, Francis said the business stakeholders, “just needed to experience that quick win the first time, then it’s like the culture shift changes itself!” With this said, Young stressed that “Agile isn’t the driver. The drivers are hyper acceleration, customer, and employee centricity. These make Agile a better way to deliver what’s most important faster and better. CIO must influence key concepts including iterative, prioritized delivery in small increments versus long cycle times. This requires different roles and governance models. It requires delegation and the support of the Agile teams.”
Ensure Learnings are Captured Throughout the Process
CIOs are clear that agile requires a learning culture. Sacolick says that “Agile is a great name. Who doesn’t want to be agile? Better than trying to explain ITIL, DevOps, SRE, and other tech jargon to the CEO. But there’s depth to Agile practices needed to achieve transformation and culture change. Sprints and standups are just the very basics.”
Sacolick goes on to say, “Agile is a leadership responsibility. Leaders need to capture learning from retrospectives, feedback from customers and end-users, and data from operations. With this, they can decide what actions are needed.”
Francis agrees and says, “IT embraced a buzzword and made it seem trendy. I think successful businesses are more Agile than they think. They just do rather than hype.” Kirsch agrees with Francis and says, “Agile is about capturing lessons learned in a key to fail fast strategies. It’s not about failing – it’s about continually iterating and learning from mistakes.”
Steve Jones, Chief Data Architect, adds, “openness and documenting learnings are critical. Negative learnings are often the most valuable. Doing something wrong isn’t an issue. It’s being the second team to do it that’s the problem.”
In Agile, is It Easier to Stop a Failed Project?
Sacolick says, “Waterfall was far from perfect even in a slow-changing world. Waterfall project execution was abysmal. All it did was provide command/control jobs and promote this culture. Pivots, stops, and accelerating are all part of Agile when there are vision statements with success criteria upfront and honest feedback loops in place. It’s all about experimenting, but still not easy to work through the emotions tied to pivots and stops.”
Young sees that the advantages of Agile include “unwanted features and not-working technology are identified much earlier and are not as likely to find their way into production products. If prioritization is done correctly, failure risk is reduced as unwanted/not needed/bad stuff doesn’t make it into or out of sprints. Failed projects, also, don’t tend to occur if Agile is done correctly. In other words, there is effective prioritization, enough resources, and supportive teams.”
McBreen adds that “key things for me are constant and continued business focus changes. By using Agile approach, we move the focus quickly to other areas. It allows us to stop iterations when the business says we had done enough with must items. Agile is required as an organization and cultural approach to everything IT does, regardless of whether a development project or moving to a new service provider – and anything in between.”
Baurer adds, “it would seem stopping a failed project in Agile is easier than Waterfall since value is delivered at each iteration. Usually projects fail, though, because business focus changes.” But Jones adds something important: “Waterfall projects fail at the end; Agile projects can fail at an iteration. In Agile, there are more opportunities to realize it’s all gone horribly wrong and stop it.” For this reason, CIO Anthony McMahon says that “it’s definitely easier to redirect a project to avoid failure.”
Developing An Agile Mindset?
So how do you get the broader team into an Agile mindset? Young says that leaders should “start with 1-2 teams and good Agile coaches who will recognize the best structure and approach. Get those teams up on running and delivering. Once this has happened, scale approach to more teams. CIOs should apply Agile, and with great results, they should deploy more broadly.” Bauer agrees and says, “start small, train a few stakeholders and groups, then roll it out to a wider audience after you have a working concept.”
Sacolick adds that Agile organizations may need help with “DevOps automation – CI/CD, IaC, and especially continuous testing and AIOps to simplify change controls and rid themselves of the CAB. Working with stakeholders is often overlooked in Agile, especially on innovation programs. Product Management needs to listen to markets and customers and be guard-railed by stakeholders. Agile is not the aggregate of everyone’s wish list.” Jones concludes and says, “if done well, Agile stops organizations from being stakeholders and starts them being owners.”
Agile is clearly about transforming IT organizations and the businesses IT serves. To succeed, CIOs need support from the entire business. This is critical to establishing a business that can transform. Otherwise, it is a much more difficult process and the organization risk the very disruption that K. Gardner and Alia Crocker describe.