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Is Agile the answer to the question?

To be Agile or agile – it is all in the capitalisation!

“Are you familiar with “agile methodologies” is a question I am increasingly asked as a change professional and my answer is “Yes”.

The problem is that the question is badly phrased and as a result the answer is not always very helpful. “Agile” seems to be the current silver bullet (ie solve everything in one shot) for change and development teams. As such it is the latest in a succession of techniques and technologies, but will it deliver any better outcomes than its predecessors? In over 30 years I have seen suppliers and IT teams offer a succession of proposals along the lines of “do this and it will solve all your problems”, yet none have. A personal scar comes from object oriented programming where one of my projects lost two years as the IT Director spent a fortune following a dream that eventually evaporated.

It says something that the financial services industry is still buying each new promise.

Returning to the initial question the issues is that the inquirer (or the recruiter behind the question) is looking at agile with a capital “A”, rather than considering agile with a small “a”.

The dictionary definition of agile (with a small “a”) is

  1. marked by ready ability to move with quick easy grace <an agile dancer>
  2. having a quick resourceful and adaptable character <an agile mind>

Both elements are useful, though I would reverse the relative order when considering a project manager’s agility.

Blending the appropriate mix of agility (small “a”) and discipline is critical for successful delivery of any change these days. A firms environment and needs are in continual flux so any fixation on purely finishing something because it is what you said you would do some time in the past, is likely to create increasing problems and frustration.

This form of agility I refer to concerns the personal and corporate mindset and set of behaviours, that is aware of, can assess and when appropriate change plans and practices to reflect the current reality without losing sight of the intended outcome. While some may argue that this is an intrinsic quality, ie you have it or you don’t, I believe that a large part of it can be developed through practice and support.

As a change leader, my continual question is

“How (note: not what!) can I best achieve the outcome I desire, from where I am and what I know now?”

How I use the answer to that question will depend on the context and draw from extensive experience and understanding of human and organisational change, but the key is that I am continually assessing and adapting to changes around me.

When I look at Agile with a large “A” the definitions might at first appear similar. The one I will offer here is

“Agile project management is an iterative approach to planning and guiding project processes.”

While Wikipedia offers this for Agile Software Development

“ a group of software development methods in which requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing, cross-functional teams. It promotes adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, continuous improvement, and encourages rapid and flexible response to change.”

While not trying to focus on semantics the words “iterative” and “evolve” jump out of those quotes at me. They synchronise with my experience that these are more akin to the management mantra that if something is difficult, cut it into smaller tasks and deliver each of those. There is certainly some merit in this and when it can be implemented well then there can be benefits, but in an increasingly complex world it doesn’t provide the silver bullet.

In the world of financial services where transparency, continual risk management, traceability and record keeping are so important I find the next quote from the AGILE agenda more worrying

“We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over Processes and tools
  • Working software over Comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over Contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over Following a plan”

With huge political and regulatory oversight which financial services company is prepared to forgo the second element of each line above? I think the answer is none. Where I have seen this flourish is in unregulated business such as ASOS the online retailer where their use is impressive.

The other factor undermining the true agility of Agile methodologies is that in order monetise their services in this area many consultancies and training firms look to capture proceduralise the practices; something that seems at odds with the fundamental points of Agile, yet something many businesses are more comfortable. As a result the implementation Agile is often more akin to a “fast waterfall” of short squirts, something that will give them control, records, traceability, etc, but faster and , more effectively than the many Change and IT teams are currently delivering.

If you doubt the frustration with current delivery just look at the importance of shadow technology and change in many firms. Whether the breakdown is due to fundamental nature of the methodologies used or more to how they are industrially implemented is the topic for a different post, but for now I think the evidence is plain.

In conclusion, I believe that agility is a key component in any modern change endeavour. Within this agility I may choose to embrace some, none or all of what Agile offers (and I may change my mind part way through), but that is the beauty of being truly agile.

So whether Agile is the answer depends on how well you understand your needs and phrase the question.


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Comments: (6)

Ramani Balakrishnan
Ramani Balakrishnan - TCS - Chennai 13 February, 2015, 05:34Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

In one of the client meetings, I was asked to present 'agile capabilities'  in place of a person who could not travel - I did a quick analysis and presented for an audience in Europe which was well received - but the most interesting point is many people beleived/still beleive agile is same as adhoc, unssystematic and is apt for frequent changes back and forth!

Ketharaman Swaminathan
Ketharaman Swaminathan - GTM360 Marketing Solutions - Pune 13 February, 2015, 12:11Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

From being one of those people who believed that Agile is "same as adhoc, unsystematic...", I've come around to the belief that the methodology resonates well in contexts where I also hear phrases like "MVP", "fail fast", etc. Not sure, though, how relevant those phrases are in a tightly regulated industry like banking where the stakes are much higher than a few freemium users getting ticked off with bugs.

A Finextra member
A Finextra member 16 February, 2015, 07:24Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

There is no doubt that Agile adds tremendous value to the software delivery process, no mattter it's a tightly regulated financial industry. For the success of Agile delivery, organization needs to understand their internal context and follow the Agile model which suits them, though it will be continuous learning process which requires open mindset.

Dave Sanderson
Dave Sanderson - YBS Group - Bradford/Leeds - UK 16 February, 2015, 10:41Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

I agree with the previous post. I've seen Agile implemented previously and the downfall was always trying to follow the methodology to the letter rather than trying to find a model that works and adapting that model to work within the constrainsts of the business. All projects are different and there is very rarely a "one size fits all" approach that can be used.

A Finextra member
A Finextra member 16 February, 2015, 22:48Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

I think it's also worth mentioning that from a business persepective, aguile development is meant to 'prove' assumptions rather than go on developing only to find out that your assumptions are wrong. 

I think in the financial industry we may benefit not necessarily from aguile development, but from an iterative process that takes into account user design and proof of concept. No?

A Finextra member
A Finextra member 23 February, 2015, 08:30Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

Companies that adopt Agile methodologies should reflect more on the very definition of “agile”, which involves adaptability and receptiveness.

Actually, any type of rigidity oftentimes hampers a successful implementation of the Agile methodology. The whole idea is to follow the main principles but, at the same time, make them work for your team (It can take up to 6 months to decide if it’s working or not - at least that’s how long it took us. ). This implies flexibility and adaptability from the part of every member in the company.

In the case of startups at least, working on an MVP and releasing it “early and often”, depending on market feedback, allows them to avert failure.


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