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3 Changes Needed to Run Agile at Scale

Make sure everyone knows what their role is, fund all efforts appropriately, and spend a lot of time on making the coordination work well

IT applications teams design the specialist in-house software and “apps” that thousands of employees need to get their jobs done and, much like their more storied counterparts who design apps for the world at large, corporate applications teams have eagerly adopted Agile methods into their work.

They’ve invested time and money to match the zeal as well. Most applications teams have brought in coaches and new tools to help them and nearly half are trying to implement enterprise frameworks like SAFe, according to CEB data. But none of these, on their own, will mean that Agile methods will be adopted smoothly across the hundreds or thousands of people that work in a large corporate IT team, especially one that’s more accustomed to Waterfall methods. And it’s vital that IT teams do become more flexible to support cumbersome companies struggling with today’s work environment.

Three Changes

CEB ran a meeting last month that bought together 35 senior IT applications managers who have all made a success of implementing Agile in their teams. They discussed three changes that make a big difference.

  1. Put true product ownership in place: Most applications teams don’t set a sufficiently high bar for determining whether product owners (the person responsible for making a success of the application or piece of software under development) are doing a good job. Subject matter expertise and prior experience on IT projects aren’t sufficient.

    Product owners, as one participant put it, “need to be entrepreneurial. They have to really own their product.” To make that happen, IT leaders should recruit product owners that have the capability, role clarity, and commitment to contribute effectively to Agile projects.

    Successful approaches include:

    • Help product owners develop their skills by creating a competency model specifically for them. The model should focus on stakeholder management, strategic thinking, and adoption of Agile principles. As one manager at the meeting said, this helped him avoid “the two traps to selecting product owners: picking subject matter experts and picking whoever else is available.” It’s also worthwhile pairing the competency model with a maturity assessment to help the product owner continue to develop.

    • Make the role clearer for new product owners by breaking it into step-by-step activities and providing supporting resources. This helped product owners at one firm understand the activities they were responsible for, the input they should expect from stakeholders, and the “deliverables” they must produce to fulfil their core responsibilities.

    • Build their commitment by establishing a community of practice (CoP). By creating a CoP led by high-performing product owners, one meeting participant generated a network of support and idea-sharing that showed product owners why sustained engagement with their role over time will lead to concrete business results.

  2. Adopt a flexible funding model: The majority of IT teams implementing agile on a large scale are constrained by traditional, stage-gated funding models. Iterative development of software, applications, etc needs funding that supports adaptive planning, dynamic resource allocation, and “fail fast” or MVP (minimally viable product) modes of delivery. As one leader put it, “project-centric funding reinforces behaviors that are fundamentally opposed to Agile methodology.”

    Successful approaches include:

    • Educate business and colleagues in the finance team on the pros and cons of alternative funding models. Most IT teams find that a “team capacity based” or “product line based” funding model is key to running Agile at scale, but this can’t be implemented overnight. Educating stakeholders on the pros and cons of different models is critical to gaining their support to adapt the traditional project-centric funding model.

    • Explore multiple approaches to funding. As one participant reminded everyone else at the meeting, “different funding models do not need to be viewed as mutually exclusive.” A multi-pronged approach to funding may provide greater flexibility and ease the transition from traditional models. For example, IT teams could use venture capital type funding for innovative or new investments, product line funding for continued development for existing products, and stage gate funding for enterprise-wide or long-term initiatives.

  3. Make it easier to coordinate everyone’s activity: Agile clearly brings a new way of working to the IT applications team. But too many managers focus on how the Agile methodology will change internal processes, and don’t think enough about the coordination needed in a multi-methodology environment — in short, how to work with other teams and partners who don’t use Agile.

    Successful approaches include:

    • Ensure that all teams have representation for three “voices.” The first two are straightforward: voice of the customer and voice of implementation. The third — the voice of coordination within and beyond the team — should be given as much emphasis. “By ensuring that all three of these voices are present on delivery teams,” one participant stated, “staff can work together and coordinate planning regardless of methodology.”

    • Ensure that delegated decision-making is accompanied by clear escalation paths. In situations where the “voice of coordination” on one delivery team clashes with that of another, IT teams must have a plan in place to escalate decision-making to a single decision-maker (even the CIO in some cases) to overcome any impasses. This is key for program or company-wide projects with high levels of interdependency.


More On…

  • Maximizing Speed from Agile

    Download this research summary to learn more about how to improve coordination across IT when using Agile methodologies.

  • Corporate Agility

    Learn more about why big companies must become more agile and why IT is so central to those efforts.

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