Realizing the Benefits of Agile

by Aki Namioka, Sr. Agile Consultant

I. 13th Annual State of Agile Report

The 13th Annual State of Agile by VersionOne CollabNet released earlier this month, providing us with data about agile trends, adoption, and practices. For those of you who are new to this report, the data is collected through a survey that is conducted and then analyzed by VersionOne. Respondents to the survey come from all over the globe, and for the first time, less than half the respondents were from North America.

For Agile professionals, this year’s report contained some particularly interesting metrics and trends. The good news is that 97% of the respondents said their organization are using agile. However, looking back at data collected about the benefits of adopting Agile, we see are some thought provoking trends:

Though the reasons for adopting agile have been fairly consistent over the past few years, there has been a big percentage drop in perceived benefits of agile adoption in some categories.   Perhaps the large drop in year over year benefits for things like “delivery speed”, “ability to manage changing priorities”, and “software quality”, could simply be a product of the increase in global respondents. For people interested in agile adoption, this trend should be something to monitor as subsequent reports get released.

In most categories it appears that the benefits of agile are performing better than the reasons organizations adopted agile. But there are some cases where it appears the anticipated benefits are not being realized or are trending down, e.g. product delivery speed.

It is fascinating that the reasons for adopting agile, and the benefits of adopting agile, are not aligned. For example, only 34% of the respondents adopted agile to “improve team morale”, yet 64% of them saw an increase in team morale as a benefit. . It appears that there are some unanticipated benefits to agile adoption.

There is also some other interesting data. Though 97% of the respondents said they are practicing agile, 48% said that less than ½ of their teams are agile, and 83% said their organizations were below a “high level of competency” with agile. There appears to be opportunities to improve in realizing the full benefits of agile adoption.

II. Realizing Agile Benefits

We can look more closely at how agile principles and practices can support the top organizational agile goals that are listed in the Report. However, it is important to note that even though we are focusing on only some of the agile principles and practices, all of the agile values and principles are important in creating or sustaining an agile organization.

2.1. Accelerating Time to Market

Delivering business benefits faster is very feasible for an organization that is moving from the classic waterfall style of project management to agile. Rather than long waterfall style analysis, design, implementation, and test phases that precede delivering any business value, agile projects deliver business value in small increments – often in regular iterations or Sprints. The key practices that supports the delivery of business value in small increments are:

Work is done in iterations (or Sprints in Scrum) on a regular cadence. Most teams select a cadence of 1-4 weeks, with 2 weeks being the ideal iteration length.

Work is delivered as “potentially shippable” product at the end of each iteration.

Work is defined as small chunks of functionality in the form or user stories. Each user story should go through an entire development workflow (i.e. dev/test) within 1 iteration.

Definition of Done is used, i.e. a checklist that needs to be completed before a user story can be considered “done” or in a potentially shippable state. This helps ensure consistent quality.

2.2 Managing Changing Priorities

Managing change is what agile is designed for — the ability to quickly and coherently respond to changing business requirements. This is in contrast to the classic waterfall project, where all requirements are fully defined prior to development. Once development is underway, it is expected that requirements won’t change. The following agile practices supports managing change as a regular event:

Planning at the beginning of each iteration. In Scrum this is called Sprint Planning. Top priority items are taken from the product backlog and planned for the next iteration. This means that business can change its priorities all the way up to the day of planning.

Regular reviews and demos with project stakeholders provide an opportunity for quick feedback and course correction if necessary. In Scrum this is called the Sprint Review and occurs at the end of each Sprint.

Daily stand-ups (or Scrum) – this common agile practice gives the team the ability to address any immediate issue and plan accordingly.

2.3 Increase Productivity

An increase in productivity means delivering more business value in a given amount of time. There are a few agile practices that supports this goal. For example:

One of the agile principles is “ Simplicity – the art of maximizing the amount of work not done – is essential”. Getting rid of waste, or work not required, will boost productivity.

Another agile principle is “agile processes promote sustainable development.” On the surface this agile principle may not appear to support increase productivity, but it does in several ways:

  • Delivering higher-quality software, thus reducing time spent on fixing defects.
  • Increasing team morale, thus maintaining team stability. Stable teams tend to become more efficient over time.
  • Building in slack time in a schedule gives creative knowledge workers the time to create new and better ways to solve problems. Teams that constantly worry about the stress of delivering more work don’t have the time to reflect on how to do their job better, or learn new skills.

2.4 Improve business/IT alignment

A key element of a successful agile adoption is business engagement, to ensure that business needs are being met. Here are some key agile practices that support business/IT alignment:

The role of Product Owner in Scrum, or the “on-site customer” in XP, is a must-have for agile projects. This person owns the ROI, and has to be highly engaged and available to the team to define and prioritize the work. If there is no Product Owner or customer representative then it will be difficult to deliver business value or respond to changing business needs.

Regular demos to stakeholders are an important part of the agile cadence. In Scrum these are called Sprint Reviews. It is an opportunity for stakeholders to give feedback on what is being delivered at the end of each iteration, and to engage with the agile team on priorities for upcoming iterations.

Ultimately, successful agile adoption depends on agile initiatives meeting the goals of the organization.   When there is a good understanding of how agile values, principles, and practices (i.e. the agile mindset) supports meeting these goals, then there will be a higher likelihood of success.