Why Use Agile Processes Outside of IT?


Liz Barnett writes that beyond IT, the most frequent adoption of agile processes is found in teams using Scrum for team management. Agile processes won't provide the answers to all of our challenges. But if you dig beneath the surface, you might discover some interesting ways to use these ideas to address complex problems.

Instead of asking "why," companies are asking "why not?" use agile approaches outside of the software development organization. In this time of hyper-changing businesses and global competition, pragmatism is essential. Many agile practices lend themselves to solving challenging problems, regardless of the context. This is not to say that agile processes are the next silver bullet; we know that this will never be true. But it is encouraging to see how and where agile practices are being adopted in organizations that have nothing to do with software development. 

Let's look at it from the business perspective. It is not hard to extrapolate common IT challenges to those of other organizations. Three stand out as being on the hot lists for most organizations:

  • Delivering value-driven initiatives;
  • Managing global organizations; and
  • Complying with industry and government regulations.

This is not rocket science. Many agile practices are just common-sense approaches to solving rapidly changing, complex problems. In some cases, IT staff lead the way and bring their successful techniques to various business organizations. In others, the businesses don't know anything about agile practices at all, but if you look closely you'll see that that is exactly what they're doing. IT may have the opportunity to drive profound changes in how other areas of the business are run.

Value-driven Initiatives
The emphasis on delivering value, in business terms, is one that is slowly taking hold in IT shops. Rather than being accountable for producing working (i.e., high quality) software, IT teams must deliver software that is directly tied to some business metric. Teams must produce deliverables frequently, on the customer's terms. Unfortunately, this is a very slow process but it is at least on the radar for many CIOs.

Every organization, be it human resources, back-office financials, or product development, faces tremendous pressure to run more efficiently and contribute to the bottom line. Whether the key business metrics are product revenue, stock price, assets managed, or customers served, initiatives must be aligned. 

In forcing teams to deliver frequent results (code or any other deliverable) that are prioritized by the business, agile processes facilitate value-driven initiatives. The weakest link for most companies is measurement: what do you need to track in a particular organization or project in order to determine if value is being delivered? Technology needs to play a greater role in tracking and communicating value delivered, particularly for organizations that do not manage information in financial terms.

I loved reading Michele Slinger's blog about how, when mayor of New York City, Rudy Guiliani addressed issues of crime and welfare in an agile way. Among the changes he instituted, he prioritized lists of short-term initiatives and changed metrics to better represent the city government's goals. If a bureaucratic environment such as New York City government can benefit from agile approaches, certainly less structured environments can as well.

Global Organizations
The issues involved in managing global IT teams are just a microcosm of issues in managing global businesses. Teams work in multiple countries and time zones, have people from many different cultures and work styles, and include participation from consultants and business partners. People must be able to communicate and collaborate without the luxury of being in the same room. Technology is certainly playing a role here, even with the simple use of a Blackberry or instant messaging for real-time communication.

Early Agile developers succeeded with small teams in a single location. Today, highly distributed teams tailor their agile processes to support global requirements. Visibility and transparency are essential to agile teams' success. In the IT space, this is where some of the most interesting new technologies are evolving at the junction between collaboration and metrics. For example, ThoughtWorks' new Mingle product emphasizes the concept of ‘project intelligence' and the need to plan and manage distributed agile projects. IBM's new Jazz project, a mix of commercial tools and open source initiatives, raises the bar on developer collaboration and provides flexible integration with all types of software development assets. While these are examples of IT-oriented tools, their value will reach beyond that organization as business users become integral parts of the project team. As these business users benefit from collaboration and project transparency, they can take the concepts to their other initiatives.

Governance is a requirement in every organization, regardless of industry, size, or nationality. But every organization defines governance differently. Many mistakenly use the terms governance and compliance interchangeably. Wikipedia offers a concise definition:

Governance (in business) is the action of developing and managing consistent, cohesive policies, processes and decision rights for a given area of responsibility. For example, managing at a corporate level: privacy, internal investment, the use of data.

Under the umbrella of governance programs companies may institute specific compliance requirements. However, an increasing number of governance programs are intended to set up guidelines and leave it to individual organizations to deal with implementation and compliance. Information on a project must be visible and consistently managed; individual groups may then be able to self-manage and become compliant.

Agile processes do some help in this arena and really don't do anything to impede this approach. By delivering frequently, reviewing and re-prioritizing requirements, and providing visibility via daily meetings and recaps, agile teams position themselves to address governance requirements. This is not unique to agile teams, but it is an aspect of agile practices on which governance programs can be built.

The Obvious First Steps
As organizations leverage their agile experiences and consider using agile practices outside of the development organization, there are a few logical first steps. IT Operations must adapt to be able to accept frequent software deliverables while maintaining high service levels. The PMO, that initiates, funds, and monitors projects, must adapt to new metrics and delivery schedules, and will then be able to benefit from increased frequency of delivery.

Beyond IT, the most frequent adoption of agile processes is found in teams using Scrum for team management. Again, the concepts proposed by this approach are pragmatic and lend themselves to any type of collaborative initiative. As teams succeed, they naturally look for ways to leverage their experiences elsewhere in the organization.

Agile processes won't provide the answers to all of our challenges. But if you dig beneath the surface, you might discover some interesting ways to use these ideas to address complex problems.

About the author
Liz Barnett was the Editor-in-Chief of the Agile Journal and Principal Analyst at EZ Insight Inc. Previously Liz spent ten years as a Vice President and Research Analyst at Forrester Research, joining Forrester as a result of its acquisition of Giga Information Group. Liz held management positions at Accenture, PepsiCo, and Atelier Research. She also was the Research Director for the advanced software development and advanced network computing research services at New Science Associates, prior to its acquisition by Gartner Group. Liz holds a patent for developing a distributed application development/CASE tool. Liz earned her B.S. in operations research and industrial engineering at Cornell University.


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