by Bruce Harpham

How to improve productivity with agile

Jan 12, 2016
CIOIT Leadership

Delivering increased productivity is a key priority for many IT executives. Yes, agile can help with that, too (it’s not just for development).

agile male executive on roller blades holding briefcase in motion
Credit: Thinkstock

Adopting new technology is one way to improve productivity. Another approach is to simply cut expenses. A better way is to improve the methodology and skills that IT staff use to complete their work. The agile approach achieves productivity gains through more effective communication and being highly responsive to customer demands.

For readers unfamiliar with the agile methodology, consider the following points. While the agile methodology was created for software development, it is now being applied more widely. For example, the legal industry – long known for its regulation and focus on tradition – has started to adopt agile. LegalTrek, for example, uses the agile approach to produce services for its customers.

  • The Manifesto for Agile Software Development (published in 2001) states the following: “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”
  • According to HP research, agile practices were adopted by a majority of organizations in 2011-2012.
  • Agile projects have a lower failure rate than traditional waterfall projects. According to the 2011 CHAOS report, agile projects have a 9 percent failure rate. In contrast, the study found that waterfall projects had a 29 percent failure rate.
  • Agile training and certification programs. The leading organizations for agile certification include the Scrum Alliance and the Project Management Institute (i.e. PMI agile Certified Practitioner).

Broadly speaking, the agile approach to IT development emphasizes speed and close communication. Achieving the best results with agile requires a well-connected team. For many organizations, the best way to obtain agile benefits lies in locating staff in the same location to reduce communication friction.

From offshore projects to agile consulting

Mark Arntz, a consultant with ASPE, has become an advocate for the agile methodology to achieve better results. ASPE is a North American training company specializing in all aspects of the software development life cycle (SDLC).

[Related slideshow: How to coach executives to become agile leaders]

Getting a prototype product into a customer’s hands early is a key benefit to agile. His perspective on agile is informed by a challenging project he worked on in the early 2000s. At that time, Arntz was managing a project that worked around the clock with an offshore team. Accessing lower-cost staff from abroad was a key driver for the project. However, Antz’s U.S. team found that it spent considerable team on documentation and rework to maintain quality standards.

In contrast, Arntz has seen significant productivity gains using agile and in person teams. “Given a six-month project, it could be three months to see any kind of prototype with a waterfall approach. In agile, it would be less than a month to see a prototype. In waterfall, the change process is often very difficult to navigate. In agile, we say change is good and we recognize opportunity cost incurred by change,” says Arntz.

The agile emphasis on face-to-face interaction and cooperation makes a difference to productivity. “With in-person communications, we can write a diagram in a meeting room. We can then start working on developing the product immediately afterwards. It is also easier and faster to do problem solving. Managing a growing volume of documentation means less time to work on the product,” says Antz.

“With increased distance between project team members, I see an increased need for documentation. More time spent on documentation means less time on software production,” he says. The cost of increased documentation and other formal communication is an important variable to consider as you plan your next technology project.

Making agile work with a global development team

Face-to-face interaction helps productivity. Unfortunately, it is not always possible. What if your organization has developers, engineers and project managers based around the country or further afield? Making that arrangement work effectively is challenging. Agile can still be helpful with a supportive culture.

“Success with agile methodology is 5 percent due to the tools used and 95 percent due to the culture,” says Scott Rose, senior director of product management at CollabNet. CollabNet helps organizations develop enterprise-scale software with collaboration technologies. To support CollabNet staff located around the world, Rose periodically has early morning and late evening meetings. “It is important that we rotate the schedule – we don’t want one time to feel that they are always the ones who have to stay up late,” Rose says.

CollabNet’s customers include major organizations such as HP, Intel, Sun Microsystems, the Project Management Institute and Siemens. Cultural adoption of agile is driven by several factors including training and a willingness to try new approaches.

“Our agile approach starts with feedback,” Rose says. “We take in customer requests for enhancements, bug reports and internal suggestions and add that to our backlog.” CollabNet uses Salesforce to collect and manage customer feedback and deliver customer service. Collecting and managing customer feedback in a systematic way means complaints and requests are rarely lost in the shuffle.

[Related: 6 agile principles that apply to everything]

“With agile, we can slice scope into small easy to manage pieces and put those into production,” Rose says. “By delivering new features and enhancements in sprints, we can keep momentum and be responsive to customers.” Delivering small features gradually makes it easier to adjust and take a new approach. In contrast, the traditional approach emphasizes change management and extensive controls. Risk adverse organizations may prefer that approach. If your organization puts a priority on innovation, adopting agile is well worth the effort.

Adopting agile in your organization in 2016?

Before you promote the agile methodology at your organization, take the time to do your research. Without a background on the philosophy, agile may be misunderstood as the latest in a long line of management fads. Here are a few specific points to explore as you plan your goals (and productivity improvement efforts) for the New Year:

  1. Determine your project productivity challenges. Finding out your organization’s current problems is the starting point. Some problems – speed, efficiency and productivity – may be improved with agile. If you have a large organization to manage, consider gathering feedback with survey service such as Survey Monkey.
  2. Identify a group open to new ideas. As an IT leader, you will know which people in your organization are open to new ideas. They are the staff who regularly experiment with new software, invest effort in training and perhaps contribute to open source projects.
  3. Ask the group to experiment with agile. In meeting with the early adopter group, explain the experiment to them. You may choose to highlight a few agile case studies and surveys mentioned in this article. In addition, you may suggest several possibilities for the first sprint. For example, your first agile project could be used to solve a long standing customer service problem such as fixing an order tracking tool.