In the current software development parlance, “agile” has become synonymous with innovation and speed. But many organizations limit their agile approaches to one or two siloed departments out of a mistaken belief that they’re too big, too ‘legacy,’ too process-oriented to scale the approach across the larger business.
That’s just not true, says Jennifer Jaffe, vice president of product and marketing at Jama Software. You — yes, you — can reconcile the benefits of agile development with other enterprise functions and scale the approach to benefit your entire enterprise.
Most large enterprises want to adapt to an agile mindset to establish more insight and transparency into their operations; they’ve seen it work with one or two small development teams and want to extrapolate that success across the business, says Jaffe. But that’s admittedly easier said than done.
“There is a lot of unease around agile because it tends to operate in a Black Box. As a result, many business managers view agile developers as a rogue team and approach it with a heavy dose of skepticism. However, if these teams could show their progress and demonstrate how it accrues to the overall vision for the project, more managers and business leaders would be on board,” says Jaffe.
To establish that transparency, you have to first address some common misconceptions about agile and make sure the entirety of the business is on board with the shift and is using the same language and nomenclature for IT projects.
Find the right size
“There’s a key misconception — agile isn’t anti-documentation or anti-process, which is what many large organizations fear. Agile is about right-sizing process and right-sizing documentation to make the business as nimble and responsive as possible,” Jaffe says.
Twenty-one year old digital asset management solutions firm Extensis didn’t have the luxury of starting out as an agile shop, and decided to make an organization-wide transition about 18 months ago, says Toby Martin, Director of product development at Extensis.
“Most firms of our size and age, like us, were waterfall shops. We wanted to get more nimble and agile with our releases — and do them more often than five or six times a year — and get our new products to market faster. The best way to do this is to spend less time in the waterfall planning stage. With waterfall, someone comes down from the ‘executive mountain’ with this stone tablet and tells you everything you’re going to do for the next two years … except what if you figure out in month 4 that you’re on the wrong track? Then you’re stuck for the next 20 months!” says Martin.
Extensis decided the best way to get their entire organization on board and up to speed on the strategic shift was to hire an agile trainer and coach to establish a framework for the transition, educate the workforce and get company-wide buy-in, according to Martin. Then, Extensis began the transition by having a single development team start with the new methodology with the intention of eventually transitioning their other two development teams.
Once that team was up to speed and comfortable, Martin says, there was room for experimentation and adapting agile to better fit the unique needs of Extensis. “We felt like, we’re making this huge shift, so at first we wanted to start small and follow the directions of the coach and the trainer to the letter. Then, once we had the agile mindset, the processes, the tools and the language down, we could look at how to tweak that for our own individual teams. That’s the great thing about agile — it makes you nimble, but in and of itself it’s also very flexible and you have many different variations to fit your business,” Martin says.
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Break it down
Another crucial part of scaling agile is demonstrating how individual projects impact the larger business strategy, and breaking down each project into the same sprints the agile teams are using.
“It works best if you can draw correlations between the business’ financial and business goals and the work your teams are doing daily. Start with an annual plan and then break that down, piece by piece — you want to increase revenue by X? You want to reduce overhead costs by Y? You want to, say, boost the number of hosted users by a factor of 2? Here’s how the product drives that goal. Here’s each step in that process, which becomes your agile roadmap,” says Jaffe, “Once that’s in place, you can designate what goals are set and achieved each quarter, each month, each two-week sprint.”
“Agile lets you retain the larger context in which all the other work resides. All the executives upstream and all the developers downstream are looking at the exact same map, so it all lines up with what each group is dealing with. That way you can say, ‘OK, this is step 1 of our 70-step plan to increase revenue by X! We’re on our way!” Jaffe says. To do that effectively across an entire organization requires a shared architecture and extensive communication and collaboration, which isn’t without its issues.
Communicate a shared architecture
“Agile teams are often dispersed and isolated; they typically don’t collaborate with others unless they are in a scrum environment. These individual teams often experiment and develop technical guidelines as they go, but for large-scale development environments and for larger enterprises, agile teams need to share an architecture with the group to foster cohesion and compatibility so that all the pieces come together,” says Jaffe.
Extensive knowledge-sharing and constant communication can make sure that the work isn’t siloed within development teams and that other areas of the business are on board and on track with their contributions to the larger goals. “This was not just a transition for the product team, it was a transition for the entire business. Everyone had to be on the same page, from executives to marketing to sales to developers, everyone. And while we’re in a great place now, it wasn’t without its hiccups,” says Paull.
The transition took about 18 months, with the first six to nine being the trickiest as the business adapted to the new methodology. But once the shift was made, it went quickly, according to Jaffe.
“Suddenly, everything started flowing downhill with a lot of momentum – it was like a runaway train at first. Release after release, sprint after sprint, bam! Bam! Bam! We had to get out ahead of a couple really crazy release cycles, figure out how to change the teams, make sure the communication was there, and address issues that were cropping up,” says Amanda Paull, vice president of marketing for Extensis.
Extensis’ Martin describes that transition period as challenging with issues initially presenting themselves across the board. He notes that everyone was pitching in to help bring the initial uncertainty under control. There were changes made to every aspect of process, prioritization, development and output that spanned the entire company.
“We were playing ‘whack-a-mole’ at first. We’d have a problem fixed in one area, and then someone from marketing would come to us and say, ‘Uh, that thing you did broke something else over in our systems,’ and then we’d have to add that into an existing sprint — it was crazy, but it was crazy good. We were seeing a lot of longstanding issues finally being addressed, and it was happening quickly and the results were incredible,” Martin says.
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To maintain transparency and insight as well as share and organize, Extensis uses common agile tools like JIRA, Confluence and the Slack collaboration platform. The entire business can log into any of these tools to check on progress in other areas, to log their own accomplishments and get a quick snapshot of each sprint and each project. And because the tools are easily customizable, Extensis has adapted the solutions to meet the unique needs of its business, according to Martin, “With JIRA, we’ve eliminated the need for a lot of separate tools, which saved us money on overhead, and we’re all working from the same ‘dictionary,’ so to speak.”
For Extensis, deconstructing the higher-level business goals and introducing insight and transparency into key product initiatives has been a surprisingly positive experience, says Amanda Paull, Extensis’ vice president of marketing.
“After a sprint is completed, we do retrospectives with the entire company to look back and see what worked, what didn’t, and develop concrete steps for improvement — we do this all the way up to the executive level. You’d think each department showing what’s behind the curtain would be really difficult, but our people take great pride in showing what they’re working on, what they’ve accomplished in front of the rest of the business, and it feels very rewarding,” Paull says.
Moving to Agile has also increased Extensis’ release frequency from four to six per year to nine over the last twelve months. In addition, Extensis was able to introduce two new products while improving customer satisfaction, and the change has allowed the firm to move into adjacent markets more quickly, too, according to Martin.
Extensis was also able to address a long-standing issue that was driving most of their customer incident reports, but that developers hadn’t been able to address before. “We put that [long-standing issue] into a series of three sprints, and it was fixed in six weeks. Suddenly, we saw a 60 percent drop in service calls – 60 percent! I had to go back and check to make sure we hadn’t changed our reporting, or were using a different tool or something when I saw that because it was unbelievable. Nope! We just fixed it quickly, efficiently and effectively,” Martin says.
Extensis customers are much happier with the product and feel they are getting more value because of the faster releases and increased version control enabled by agile, says Martin. Not to mention that the firm is seeing lower costs associated with quality assurance.
“We’ve also been able to get into adjacent markets more quickly. It’s freed up creativity from all directions, because no one’s saying, ‘Well, I know what I’m working on for the next two years, so why bother trying
something new that won’t ever see the light of day?’ Now, we can do more with what we’ve got, and try new things. It’s been an incredible transformation,” Martin says.