Ed Toner expects his IT workers to embrace agile principles, but he also wants his business-side colleagues to do the same.
So much so that Toner, CIO for the State of Nebraska, stipulates agile principles (specifically the need for their ongoing participation in software development and deployment) in the contracts IT signs with the various state departments it serves.
“‘Success of the project is solely dependent on your involvement in this project,’ that’s what the contract says,” he explains, noting that most department heads now understand that either they become partners in the process or accept the potential for less successful projects.
That’s the reality, Toner says.
“We had one group who just wanted to send requirements; he put nothing into it so he had nothing to complain about. That’s one extreme. But we have others who’ll stop by to just see how things are going, and those are the very successful projects because they take so much ownership,” he adds.
Like many CIOs today, Toner has brought the agile mindset to his enterprise IT department as a way to ensure that the software it implements and supports can best meet his organization’s needs.
However, creating an agile enterprise requires more than implementing agile methodologies within the IT department, CIOs and management experts say. Experienced leaders say the most successful agile environments are ones where the business side of the enterprise has embraced agile principles as well. And the best way to do that, they say, is for the CIO to lead the way.
Toner has taken up that challenge. As he says: “I’m showing them how they could benefit by working in a different way.”
Getting the business on board
Toner started agile three years ago when he became CIO for the state, moving the IT team from using the waterfall approach to an even split of agile and waterfall today. He consolidated IT infrastructure to better enable agile approaches. He brought in workers skilled in agile-oriented programming languages such .NET and Java who taught others in the 400-staff IT department the languages and agile principles.
He also included that contractual language specifying how other departments also need to engage in agile principles to ensure success. “We start out every engagement where we’re going to use agile by talking about the need for the business to be engaged in the process. And I make the director of each agency sign this contract and commit to this way of development,” he says.
And Toner delivered early wins to show how IT, using agile, produced better results.
“To get the business on board with agile, I had to prove it to them. It was very much a ‘Show me’ [mentality],” he says. “But after a year or so of doing projects, word got around that we’re delivering a product in a few weeks vs. months. Now agile is starting to organically grow.”
Challenges to cultivating an agile culture
There are good reasons why CIOs need to cultivate agile across the enterprise, and not just within IT.
Bringing the business units along the agile journey ensures IT has better visibility into business needs and, thus, better alignment with business goals. It ensures that the whole organization is getting better value out of its IT investments. And it helps better position the enterprise to leverage technology for transformation, says Dave West, CEO and product owner at Scrum.org. West talks about agile meaning the ability to quickly deliver changes to the market.
But getting the business to embrace agile is challenging.
First, “agile” as a term is tricky. CIOs and the IT team understand it as a methodology, while the business likely understands it in the traditional dictionary definition as having the ability to move fast.
As such, CIOs need to help other executives understand agile as an approach to delivering applications that requires business units and IT to partner in new ways. CIOs need to enable this new partnership by selling their colleagues on it. And they must do so without getting into the weeds by reciting the Agile Manifesto or spouting technical jargon.
Meanwhile, CIOs and IT departments are still struggling with agile principles themselves, and most are still working to more fully implement agile practices and supporting technologies within IT itself. West estimates that a majority — 70 to 80 percent — of enterprise IT departments are using agile principles to some degree for some of their software projects but many are held back by legacy technology, an organizational culture that still sees IT as a cost center providing only commodity service, and other factors.
That makes it very hard for IT to become agile, and when they to try to work in an agile fashion, they may encounter resistance from the business side, West adds.
“For example, if you’re working on a two-week sprint and you want business to be available to make decisions rapidly, the business [will be] like, ‘Oh no, we have more important things to do,’” West says.
At the same time, CIOs pushing for an agile enterprise must also challenge the entrenched culture of siloed thinking, where each department is concerned about what’s best for it rather than understanding how its needs fit in with overall organizational priorities.
The benefits, and limits, of selling the business on agile
Denis Goulet, who is bringing his experience with agile in commercial software development to his position as the IT department commissioner and New Hampshire state CIO, has run up against various obstacles as he builds an agile enterprise. (He defines an agile enterprise as “one that is committed to incremental delivery and a culture of mutual accountability.”)
He says some business leaders have been reluctant to take on the role of product owner, and they’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of time required from IT during development sprints.
“We’re asking questions and more questions, and that can get people irritated and asking, ‘Is that really the best way to do this?’” he says. “People will perceive that you’re asking more from them in the continuous delivery model. You’re not. You’re just changing from upfront to throughout the process. But making that leap is one of the hardest pieces.”
Goulet says he has been tackling such obstacles as he works to get the business to embrace agile. He’s borrowing from the agile playbook in this quest, going for incremental and sustainable changes. He has created business-IT teams that address issues together. He has increased the level of empowerment on teams as well as accountability, letting team members know that he expects them to identify and fix problems earlier rather than later. And he has established incremental deliveries as the norm. Then he highlights those changes, and the successes they bring.
“I do a lot of evangelizing,” he says. “I don’t say we’re all going to do agile and we’ll all be happy. I do not lead with agile terminology. I usually say, ‘We’re going to do this and this and this and it will be less risky and less costly and it will give the user earlier access to the benefits.’”
Others agree that CIOs need to take that approach — implementing agile methodologies and delivering wins and then sharing those success stories with their C-suite colleagues to win them over to this new way of working.
“This requires a CIO who is more of a salesman, an entrepreneur, someone who can pitch a new way of thinking. You should talk about value and outcomes and business challenges in straightforward business language and steer as much as possible away from methodologies and technologies,” says Ralph Loura, a former CIO and CTO who now works as a technology advisor to mature companies and startups.
He adds: “What I see work most often is not making an impassioned plea across the organization to start a massive agile initiative. That’s too abstract to get their arms around. Rather [successful CIOs] train five or six people, then pick a couple of small projects and get them done in a really good way. Then you can build enough momentum and you can bring along the whole organization.”
He says the goal is to develop an enterprise that embraces agile principles (even if they’re not using the terminology) to become an organization that doesn’t talk about old systems or IT project backlogs but instead says, “We have a set of choices to address in an ongoing basis based on priorities.”
The IT-business balancing act
But Isaac Sacolick, president and CIO of StarCIO, a consulting and services business, and author of Driving Digital: The Leader’s Guide to Business Transformation Through Technology, cautions against pushing too much of agile on the enterprise.
Yes, he says, CIOs need the business to understand the value proposition that agile principles bring and CIOs need business leaders to become product owners.
As such, CIOs do indeed have to bring along their fellow executives on the journey so that they can help identify staffers with the right thinking and temperament to take on the product owner responsibilities. And CIOs have to engage business leaders to ensure that they can work in ways that support agile development.
“Some of the cultural things you figure out when delivering with agile is how to prioritize and what is a minimally viable product. That takes a strong collaboration between someone who understands the value proposition best (that’s the product owner) and the technology team,” he says. “But a lot of what agile calls for falls into the camp of what IT managers, developers, testers, Scrum masters running teams do. It’s very classic IT execution.”
Toner understands that balancing act.
He says he doesn’t get into long explanations about agile ideas but rather tries to sell business colleagues on the value that they gain by working differently. He frames it as a choice between the traditional approach with less involvement and longer wait times or a new type of partnership where they’d have new features rolled out in weeks, pay less but participate more.
It’s an approach that has brought even reluctant business leaders around. Toner cites the case of that unit head who just handed off requirements. Toner approached him post-project delivery to ask whether he thought being involved earlier and more often would have helped IT identify more needed features and functions. The response was yes.
That recognition, Toner says, is what he’s using to promote agile within the enterprise. As he explains: “The message I’m trying to send is: Do it right the first time by having more skin in the game.”