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In a recent survey conducted by the BizOps coalition, 97% of respondents stated that data-related challenges are restricting the business’ ability to access information.
Out of all the findings from the survey, this statistic concerns me the most. Quite simply, you can’t compete in most markets today without knowing where your business stands—and that takes data. A decade ago, data was something most executives used on a quarterly or annual basis to assess where their businesses stood. Today, if you are only reviewing business outcomes quarterly, you are likely to start losing significant market share, fast.
Traditionally, we used to plan projects in phase-gate processes. We defined our strategy, planned the work in full detail, then sent that work into development, or what business executives often referred to as “the black hole of development.” We then waited the standard nine to 12 months and hoped something useful came out the other side. In the development phase, project management would hold weekly status meetings to ask team leaders if they were on track. With no evidence to counter their claims, all would respond “yes.”
Agile was supposed to change all of that. With the broader use of agile principles and practices, work was broken down from year-long strategies into quarters, and then into two-week chunks. Teams demonstrate what they complete every two weeks. Products created to track agile development can easily roll this data into charts and reports that leadership can use to see the exact status of everything in progress.
That was the promise, but for many companies, the reality is that development is still a black hole. No one attends the sprint demos except the individuals on the team. QA accepts the stories because the quality is good enough. The tools being used to manage stories weren’t purpose-built, so they allow little insight into what is really happening. I have spoken to companies that spend more than $100M annually trying to roll up the data from these ill-used tools, simply to try to create some form of visibility into top strategic outcomes. Or worse, those companies have re-instituted the dreaded weekly status meeting.
Data is the most valuable outcome of agile teams to a business. The speed and predictability of agile are secondary to the data you should be getting to run your business. If you aren’t able to roll up data easily and quickly, then changes need to be made to the fundamental way you are creating products.
Start with Breaking Down Strategies
It’s nearly impossible to successfully break down work from a nine or 12-month strategy directly into a two-week sprint. We need to decompose the work into more manageable chunks that teams can understand and that allow us to ensure the right product is being built. Here is a simple picture of the five levels of agile planning.
The breakdown of the work into smaller and smaller chunks that can be traced back to the strategy is very important. Work becomes more granular, allowing data to be rolled up.
This structure forms the backbone of the data and allows you to create reports at any level. Without this structure, data is hard to read and charts can be unusable.
Ultimately, if the true potential value of agile is to be realized, data can’t be treated as an afterthought. Teams must ensure their tools and workflows are generating the high-value data that individuals at every level of the organization needs to manage their work.