Educating to Enable an Agile Transition: A True Story from the Field

Posted by Cynthia Hardenbrook on 11/19/15 12:26 PM
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Every Agile Process Includes the Team

I recently delivered a webcast on Agile and The Project Capable Organization. I touched on a number of ideas related to what agile is including: options, potential approaches, and ideas to consider. From a high level, I discussed the human-related aspects of change management, and in this blog post I’m going to delve deeper on those topics.


Agile Training is for the Whole Organization

Training is a good change management practice for introducing a new concept and/or process and often times it is focused on the individual contributors. I advocate, however, that a better type of training needs to include executive and management level members of the agile transition team too.

I attended the 2015 PMI Symposium and the theme this year was portfolio management. Executive and business executive engagement is key to ensuring successful project portfolio management (PPM). 

I thought, how appropriate?

Successful PPM or execution, particularly with Agile, brings most value when executive/business management is schooled and engaged in the process. Why is this so important? Agile is more than simply a process adoption. It is a philosophy as well. It can and should have broad reaching impacts!


The Importance of Executive Training in an Agile Transition

Let me give you a specific example to illustrate why you should focus on executive training and education equally, if not more, than training for individual contributors. and its importance in an agile transition:

A young, up-and-coming executive is undertaking a short duration project (<5 months), with the purpose of creating a working prototype to test out some important business processes. A consulting firm is brought in to provide some special capability alongside with contract development to produce the prototype. 

It is decided to utilize Scrum development, even though the executive has no prior experience with it. This executive will be in the role of Product Owner (PO). Very quickly, this executive is moved into a Chief Product Owner role and another person, equally naive to Scrum, is appointed Product Owner. They struggle in the beginning with the incredible demand and responsibility of that role. But, the PO is adjusting.

The first sprint is rife with blockers, and the ‘done’ user stories compared to what had been ‘committed’ user stories at the beginning of the first sprint are not very good. The second sprint feels much better and on track to significantly increase the amount of story points done. Then, the atom bomb drops. The exec says, “We'll get 'these' features and functions within 5 sprints, right?”

Now, a key benefit of Scrum is that once there is some time taken to establish a cadence and consistency of velocity (velocity is the backlog, usually represented as story points per sprint), you can predictably state what is achievable in any given time frame. This also assumes that consistency applies to story pointing. A Scrum best practice states that it should take at least 5-7 sprints for the team to get into a consistent cadence.

Asking for commitment 1 and 1/2 sprints into a development effort is madness!


An Avoidable Outcome

This example demonstrates the typical “here's a date, make it so” mentality.

It was revealed this exec was making promises to his upper management and was trying to push for the heroes to bail him out. Back to the philosophy statement - getting away from the hero mentality, and enabling some sanity in the regular course of business is one of the benefits of an Agile methodology. 

What ensued was a lot of discussions and education around Scrum, but a lot of energy was spent attempting to determine how many sprints would yield the desired features. On the positive, it did force the team to do more agile backlog grooming to increase the confidence of the estimates. However, I keep wondering, if some investment in education at the executive level had been done initially, could this demand have been averted?  

Who knows? But, I can report that at this same client investment in executive/business training is now happening. And interestingly enough, that has forged the way for IT executive management to also be interested. 


To learn more about our unique perspective on Agile methodology and its relation to project delivery capabilities, check out my ten-minute webcast here:

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Topics: IT Strategy