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As you start your own Agile transformation

Updated: 2 days ago


Business man looking out of a window while contemplating his company's Agile transformation.

As you start your transformation some of your first questions will be "Which Agile framework applies to our business operating model?" Is the Project Manager role the same as the Agile Product Owner? What does the Agile Scrum Master do? In this blog post, we will discuss the first question and then look at the other two questions in future posts.


Agile

Although the term Agile was not coined until the 1990s, versions of the framework can be traced as far back as Francis Bacon’s introduction of the Scientific Method in 1620. The timeframe for our discussion will start from the 1900s, specifically around 1930 when Physicist and Statistician Walter Shewhart of Bell Labs began to apply his PDSA (Plan-Do-Study-Act) cycles to improve products and processes. Shewhart taught this iterative and incremental-development approach to his mentee, William Edwards Deming who went on to use the approach in Japan in the years following World War II. Toyota subsequently hired Deming to train hundreds of the company’s employees and formalised the approach to develop their famous 'Toyota Production System' to manage automotive manufacturing, thus being credited as the inventor of “lean” thinking.


The formal launch of Agile

In February 2001, seventeen software developers convened at a lodge in the Snowbird Ski Resort in the mountains of Wasatch, Utah to discuss how they could speed up the development process to bring new software to market more quickly. Amongst the group of seventeen were Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland who are often referred to as the founding fathers of the Agile movement.


During the gathering, the Agile approach was formulated and the Agile Manifesto was agreed upon. Agile was hence formally born and subsequently launched as an alternative to traditional plan-driven project management approaches that were seen as rigid, too prescriptive and unable to adapt to changing project requirements or customer needs.


What Agile is

Agile, usually written beginning with a capital ‘A is an approach, and umbrella term that groups several similar delivery practices that emphasise flexibility, collaboration, and iterative development, examples include Scrum, Lean and XP.


What the Scrum approach to project management and software delivery is

Scrum the most widely used delivery framework is a lightweight process framework that is based on a highly structured, iterative and incremental delivery approach where solutions evolve through collaboration between self-managing, cross-functional teams, and where an emphasis is placed on collaboration.


“Light-weight” means the procedural overheads are kept to a minimum in order to maximise the amount of productive time available for getting useful work done. It helps companies to meet complex, changing needs whilst creating high-quality products and services.


In Scrum, the mindset tends to be to build, test and deliver groups of completed product backlog items. This framework tends to be more suited to more established command and control environments. In Scrum, the Scrum Team consisting of a Product Owner, Scrum Master and Developers have complete autonomy to decide what, when and how Product Backlog items are delivered. Iterations called ‘Sprints’ in Scrum can be up to four weeks in duration.


What the Lean approach to delivery is

Lean is an approach to project management that combines the principles of Agile and Lean, but emphasises continuous improvement, customer focus, and rapid iteration to deliver high-quality products or services. The Lean mindset is less planning with an emphasis on eliminating waste (repetition).


Unlike Scrum, the order of delivery in Lean environments tends to be decided by the Product Owner at the last possible minute and is best suited to less complex delivery projects where the mindset is based on the FIFO (First In, First Out) principle. Lean teams usually work in one-to-two-week iterations.


What XP (Extreme Programming) is

Extreme Programming (XP) is also an agile software development practice that focuses on delivering high-quality software in a responsive and flexible way. XP emphasises collaboration, communication and rapid feedback, and encourages continuous improvement throughout the development process. The framework was first introduced by Kent Beck in the late 1990s, and it has since gained popularity as an effective approach to software development.


The mindset is to build, test and deliver completed single backlog items. XP tends to be best suited to Pair Programming typically in engineering environments where two people might develop and test together in one-to-two-week iterations.


Why companies prefer Scrum

Scrum is simple, straightforward, and easy to implement. It can be scaled to deliver complex enterprise-level projects where multiple or different types of teams work together to deliver the Product Goal. It is the most widely adopted framework, not only because of its inherent characteristics but also because it has well-documented use cases.


The key difference between Agile and Waterfall

Instead of delivering everything to the customer at the end of a predefined project lifecycle, agile teams break down the project into several mini-projects which are then delivered to the customer in small consumable increments.


By contrast, teams using a traditional Waterfall approach start by gathering the business requirements, creating a plan, finalising the design then progressing on to the product build. In the final stage of the project lifecycle, the product is tested and then released to the customer.


Waterfall is obsolete

No, that could not be further from the truth! Agile was indeed launched as an alternative to traditional plan-driven project management approaches like Waterfall as they were seen to be less effective, but whilst the Agile approach is preferred in digital delivery environments. There is still an overwhelming preference for Waterfall or variations of, for example, BIM (visit https://www.ukbimframework.org for more information) when building complex physical structures like bridges and buildings.


As you start your own transformation

If you have read the numerous reports, editorials and articles like this one, on the advantages of Agile delivery and all the improvements you can expect in terms of speed of delivery, quality of outcome and most importantly, reduced costs and you are contemplating transitioning your own organisation to Agile ways of working, It is critically important first to consider the nature of your business, the size and makeup of your team, and the complexity of your projects.


In conclusion

Agile working methods are not just about implementing delivery-level Agile Events (formally Agile Ceremonies). It is a top-down mindset that must be embraced by the entire organisation. Companies who continue to maintain a business-as-usual mindset whilst trying to implement Agile practices at the delivery levels, often end up accomplishing far less at greater cost whilst also achieving lower quality results which, ultimately leads them to somehow conclude, it is Agile that does not work.


Ultimately, the most appropriate framework for your business operating model whether that is Agile or Waterfall will depend on a variety of factors unique to your organisation. It is important to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each framework and to choose the one that best aligns with your business goals, culture, and team structure.


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