Why It’s Better To Be Smaller When Implementing Agile In A Large Company

Having done many waterfall projects, I was recently part of an effort to move a large organization to an agile software delivery process after years of following waterfall. I’ll be blunt: it was downright painful. That said, I’d pick agile over the mutlti-staged, paper intensive, meeting heavy, PMO driven waterfall process I encountered when I joined the organization.

Although the shift was painful, it was a terrific educational experience. Based on lessons learned, we adopted certain principles to guide our approach to implementing agile in the organization.

Dream big. Think smaller.

This means having a vision for what the solution will look like and the benefits it will provide customers, but then boiling it down to specifics to be able to execute. For example, at one of my former gigs, we had identified the need to make improvements to our online payments process, and captured over 20 different enhancements on a single slide under the title of “Payment Enhancements”. (Yes, in very tiny font, like 8-point.) Those enhancements were beyond simple things like improving copy or the layout of elements. Each enhancement would have involved material impacts to back-end processes. As such, “Payment Enhancements” is not an epic, or at least, it’s a super big and super nebulous one that cannot be measured. Rather, I argued that each bullet on that 1-pager could be considered an epic in and of itself that could be placed on the roadmap and would need to be further broken down into stories for execution purposes.

Thinking smaller also means considering launching the capability to a smaller subset of customers. Even when pursuing an enhancement to an existing product, it’s important to ask whether the enhancement will truly benefit all customers using your product or whether it needs to be made available to all customers on day 1. Benefits of identifying an early adopter segment: (1) get code out faster, (2) lower customer impact, (3) get customer feedback sooner that can be acted on.

Be sharp and ruthless about defining the MVP.

Lean Startup defines MVP (Minimum Viable Product) as “that version of the product that allows the team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning from customers”.

(We think) we know the problem. We don’t know for certain the solution. We have only a vision and point-of-view on what it could be. We will only know for certain we have a viable solution when customers tell us so because they use it. So identify what are the top customer problems we’re trying to solve, the underlying assumptions in our proposed solution, and what we really need to learn from our customers. Then formulate testable hypotheses and use that to define our MVP.

Make validated learning the measure

In the war of SDLCs, I’m no blanket waterfall basher nor true believer of agile. But from having done a number of waterfall projects I’ve observed that it’s typically been managed by what I call “management by date”, or more often than not, make-believe date.

As human beings, we like certainty. A date is certain. So setting a date is something that we feel can be measured, in part because a date feels real, it gives us a target, and in part probably because over decades we’ve become so accustomed to using date-driven project management to drive our product development efforts. The problem becomes that this gets us into the classic scope-time-budget headache, which means we’re now using those elements as the measure of our progress.

The thing is, scope, time and budget mean absolutely nothing to the customer. What really matters is whether customers find value in the solution we are trying to provide them. Traditional product development and project management practices don’t allow us to measure that until product launch, by which time it may be too late.

So we need to make learning the primary goal, not simply hitting a release date, which is really a check-the-box exercise and means nothing. Nothing beats direct customer feedback. We don’t know what the solution is until customers can get their hands on it. So instead of working like crazy to hit a release date, work like crazy to get customer validation. That allows us to validate our solution (MVP) and pivot as necessary.

Focus always, always on delivering a great user experience

Better to have less functionality that delivers a resonating experience than more that compromises usability. A poor UX directly impacts the value proposition of our solution. We need look no further than Apple’s stumble on the iPhone 5 Maps app. (Ironic.)

Continuous deployment applies not just to agile delivery, but also the roadmap

Over four years ago, Saeed Khan posted a nice piece on roadmaps where he said:

A roadmap is a planned future, laid out in broad strokes — i.e. planned or proposed product releases, listing high level functionality or release themes, laid out in rough timeframes — usually the target calendar or fiscal quarter — for a period usually extending for 2 or 3 significant feature releases into the future.

The roadmap is just that: a high-level map to achieve a vision. Not a calendar of arbitrary dates to hit. Too many roadmaps seem to suffer from the same date-driven project management approach.

For most established software products, I typically advocate having at least a 12-month roadmap that communicates the direction to be taken to achieve the vision and big business goals. It identifies targeted epics to achieve that vision. The vision is boiled down to a more tangible 3-month roadmap. That’s the stuff we want to get done in the next 3 months and what the agile teams need to work on.

Create an accountable person or body that actively looks at the roadmap on a monthly and quarterly basis. On a monthly basis, this body helps the agile Product Owner(s) prioritize the backlog against the 3-month roadmap. On a quarterly basis, this body evaluates overall progress against the 12-month roadmap. As such, 12 months is a rolling period, not an annual calendar of unsubstantiated promises of delivery.

What has your experience been implementing agile in your organization? What principles does your organization follow in executing an agile process?