As a part of hunting to work with better development providers, you have encountered organizations that have an agile methodology.  However, agile is a new concept for your company and you want to take steps to improve your efficiency and catch up with new methodologies.  This blog is for you.  We’ll share a handful of insights that can help with your operating culture.

At Alliance Systems, we feel it all starts with a mind shift.  Once leaders within an organization get the agile AHA moment, they can begin laying a foundation that will have impact across the entire organization.

So, before we get started, let’s start with a practical definition for what it means to be agile.  

Ultimately, being Agile is about being able to adapt and change quickly within an ever-evolving environment.  You need the ability to understand there are various ways to integrate with existing delivery frameworks along with people, technology, and process.  It’s no wonder that technology companies are gravitated to this approach.  Technology sectors move way too fast; therefore, a continuous improvement ecosystem must be considered.

And in order to become an Agile organization it takes foundational alignment across:

This blog post highlights a handful of practical insights that can help position your organization to better understand Agile.  Here are some insights we will cover:

Calendar
Communications Across Quarterly Strategy
Collaboration Meeting
Break Down Silos and Work Together
Acceptance Criteria
Establish Acceptance Criteria
Establish Cost
Improve your Estimate Process

Communications across Quarterly Strategy

The concept is simple, yet various organizations miss the target.  What does your organization want to accomplish by the end of the year?  How can you break down goals into 4 quarters to achieve your annual goal?  And what metrics and data across your organization needs to be quantified and measured to ensure you are on track?

Agile organizations set up goals that need to be achieved from quarter to quarter.  And they are focused on measuring performance and tracking progress to pass the baton from quarter to quarter successfully.  The biggest difference is the concept of being proactive versus reactive.  It takes a lot of discipline to properly plan out a roadmap that can generate results.

A clear vision needs to be shared across all teams in order to have any chance.  And this takes a lot more than just presenting a plan.  Plans can change quickly, and learning how to adapt to change is what sets organizations apart.  Some can quickly pivot while others fight change.  Here are some aspects of agile organizations that allow them to adapt more quickly when sharing their annual plans:

The Culture believes in Continuous Improvement

Top organizations all have a great culture and believe they can tweak their process and operations to continue delivering increased performance and efficiency.  This is typically a top-bottom approach, meaning the executive leadership team reinforces its commitment to driving to do better at all times and when possible.  This especially rings true in companies working within the tech sector.  Technology is always evolving and providing new opportunities; this fierce pace is challenging to keep up with.

Do you have a change agent in your organization?  An individual or committee that sparks creativity and strategy as to how your organization can become more efficient and scale.

Leveraging Metrics to Make Proactive Decisions

Viewing Reports

Making better informed decisions also means having the right data to generate valuable information.  We are in an era where information is everything.  In fact, having too much information without the right process can hurt an organization.  With so many platforms offering dashboards, analytics, and trend analysis in conjunction with Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, there really are no excuses for making sense of valuable information within your industry.  Organizations that are taking the time to leverage the right tools are gaining a competitive edge.

Do you have the proper data and is it accessible to make informed decisions?  Identifying gaps in your data and flows results in you being to ask better questions with more details. 

Realistic Commitment to Quarterly Objectives

Agile Team Success

Unfortunately, I have worked and collaborated with organizations that bite off more than they can chew.  And their quarterly goals are not synchronized with realistic process or capacity requirements.  Based on my experience, these organizations tend to demoralize their labor force.  And this is very unfortunate, because all they are doing is setting unreasonable expectations without a path for success.  Poor estimates, and ignoring valuable metrics within the operation is just setting the stage for an uphill battle.

Establishing goals your organization needs to achieve is great, but never at the expense of demoralizing your team (as this can have negative impact to your workforce).  Reduce false starts by understanding maximum capacity and what it truly takes to optimize your operations.

Paying detailed attention to your team’s blockers/challenges and eliminating simple obstacles, can become a ritual.  And sometimes, these solutions can be so simple.  It just takes a culture that is open and free to try and eliminate wasteful thinking or process.

 

Break Down Silos and Work Together

While most organizations like various Agile concepts, one of the most challenging requirements is that of building a cross-functional team.  Let’s begin with what is a cross-functional team and why does this matter when it comes to Agile?

A simple definition for a cross-functional team is building a group of people with different functional experience so the combined experience of the team is used to execute a common set of goals.  Teams built in this fashion are able to:

Be more productive
Improve at communications
Leads to better decision making
Improves problem-solving
Can span organizational units
Can bring diversity into your organization

As an example, Alliance Systems leverages a team of designers, developers, analysts and project managers in order to bring digital projects to life.  While they all have their specific sphere of influence, they all have worked in digital projects and are aware of how collaborative decisions help with the roadmap, progress, and testing before launching a new product.

Rather than having an assembly line where SMEs (subject matter experts) work in silos, we carry out rituals where everyone is involved.  From stakeholder to designer to engineer, we are all in sync and trying to develop the best digital product possible.  Our experts overlap their experience and share their perspectives throughout various stages such as documentation, estimates, reports, designs, programming and testing.  This means catching errors or bugs happens earlier in the process, and feedback loops with end-customers shapes the finite results and problems we are trying to solve.

 

Establish Acceptance Criteria

The ultimate challenge I see in our industry is projects getting seriously derailed due to a lack of clear communications and expectations.  It is something that is easily prevented with proper discipline and planning.  Agile teams leverage this ritual as a part of their process and the effects it has for operating culture are tremendous.

Imagine a scenario where a technical vendor delivers a software presentation to their new client.  They claim the project is completed, tested and ready for launch.  However, when the client sees the final presentation, they are upset because it doesn’t match up to what they envisioned.  The client now has to mitigate risk and go back to explain how the product didn’t match the overall vision and goal.

Unfortunately, this example is something that happens very frequent across many industries and organizations.  Who is at fault not having the product ready to launch on time?  The vendor or the client? Perhaps both.

Imagine if a simple exercise was included and documented - ‘Acceptance Criteria’.  This is simply a list of items that describe what the end results look like if the delivery is successful.  Rather than negotiate what successful delivery looks like at the end, your teams can qualify and quantify what that all looks like ahead of the tasks.  This ritual doesn’t take talent, it takes great communication and being disciplined for all parties to be on the same page.  It merely takes transparency and trust and a genuine plan to deliver what’s best from all parties.

Sample Story with Acceptance Criteria

Sample Story

ACs (Acceptance Criteria as we call them for short) are the conditions to be met in order for a task to be marked as completed and accepted by the management team.  Well-written acceptance criteria help avoid unexpected results in the end of a development stage.  Stakeholders, managers and users are satisfied with end results that have been designed and engineered into the product.

If you haven’t used ACs as a part of your planning and documentation, consider doing a little research and implementing this tactic.

 

Improve Your Estimate Process

Just like our branches of government have checks and balances between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial systems, have you considered more transparency across your estimates?  Within Agile, a routine ritual is that of writing user stories.

What is a user story?

In software development and product management, user stories are casual.  They are informal write ups from the perspective of a user journey within a system. A user story is a tool used in Agile software development to capture a description of a software feature from an end-user perspective. A user story describes the type of user, what they want and why. A user story helps to create a simplified description of a requirement.  We do this with the goal to shift from writing technical requirements to better understanding how it affects usability; more importantly it’s used a series of practical conversations about the desired functionality.

Group estimates are better than an individual’s estimate

Once we develop the stories, our production team can review the information and provide estimates that we quantified in a group setting.  Getting estimates from cross-functional teams allows us to break down situations where there are disagreements.  It forces our production team to think through multiple perspectives and gain estimate details from an entire group that works together.

Not only does this make the estimate more accurate, it allows better preparation and documentation for what needs to be executed within a collaborative environment.  People within the team know what to expect, when they will participate, and what they need to deliver which will impact other team mates.  Paying attention to a small degree of contingencies and dependencies means that teams are proactively preparing for the various stages of an initiative.

It’s fascinating to hear our teams when they estimate.  When we have two different opinions, we can quick get information from several perspectives which help qualify and deliver better accuracy.  It also takes pressure off of one person being wrong.

Lastly, estimates within Agile are on-going because it is impossible to pre-plan every little feature or function that gets approved by product owners.  There will always be more stories that reflect enhancements for a given system, which is why Agile is mostly about repeated cycles and continuous improvement.  The focus is on a dynamic process rather than a fixed bid initiative.

 

In Summary

Examining a few principles that you can adopt at your organization to better understand and experience what Agile can do is a step in the right direction.  Becoming Agile starts with practical insights and a supportive team leadership structure that believes in optimization and elimination of waste.  Though many of the concepts don’t require talent, they do require common sense and a degree of discipline.

We shared a handful of insights that can help you based on Agile Principles:

#1

Creating an annual plan that is reinforced by an actionable roadmap that builds momentum across all four quarters.  Meaning you are trying to build momentum and accomplish critical tasks at appropriate milestones to give you the best shot at success once the year is over.  Develop a clear vision, leave yourself some flexibility, and adapt per your monthly results. 

#2

Break down silos and collaborate across teams to get better insights across your operations.  Sometimes you create better decision gates that save you time and energy.  For examples, we never review design solutions of our websites and applications until they are reviewed by engineering.  This is because both designers and engineers should work together to deliver the best solution.  Saving time on any ritual that will reduce risk, eliminate errors, and make a product function better needs to come from an organized team across many perspectives.

#3

Understand and set expectations for the results everyone on the team needs to achieve by preparing Acceptance Criteria ahead of the execution.  Therefore, when your production team feels they are done, you can objectively examine the quality for the solutions proposed.  This check and balance system leads to less bureaucracy and empowers teams to deliver the best user centric solutions within the parameters provided.  And while it impossible to consider everything, establishing Acceptance Criteria aids in developing a culture of transparency.

#4

Improve your estimate process by leveraging team information instead of placing one individual with the responsibility.  The more perspectives and cross-related experience across several members, the more accurate and comfortable you might feel with your estimates.  Provide reasonable timelines and ranges so you are stuck with a fixed bid.  And allow for flexibility and adaptation where appropriate.  After all, there is a reason Agile works, it’s meant to be based on actual work along with dependencies and contingencies.  We will never have 100% of information required to make a decision, but you can create a culture that is accurate and transparent with the proper methodologies supporting your operating ecosystem.

Learn to think like an Agile Shop and enrich your culture with some of these simple modern concepts. 

 

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