Leveraging Agile to Recover a Struggling Program

Date: 
Monday, January 9, 2017
In delivering working software early and frequently, agile approaches have proven to be successful mainly within the software industry. Within that context, the present debate is largely on how to adopt more agile ways of delivering and how to transform one’s delivery organization to be more flexible and adaptable and move away from traditional, sometimes too rigid ways of planning and delivering projects and programs. Utilizing a lean agile approach can help re-establish momentum and focus within even the largest global and complex program environments.

In this article we do not elaborate on this actual debate, but share an example of how an Agile approach was rapidly and pragmatically adopted to recover a troubled program.  We highlight how that resulted in regaining the much needed delivery momentum and allowed for real time and informed decision making, focused on tangible results.
 
Pcubed was recently brought in to help define, plan and deliver a major transformation program for a large global organization providing innovative next-generation technology solutions and services to their clients; clients who themselves are changing their end-to-end delivery operations, and adapting their businesses in the context of the current global business ecosystem.
 
This transformation program was focused on improving the end-to-end service delivery process, while drastically reducing operational costs. Global in its reach, the program covered 7 geographic regions with multiple core and enabling workstreams to ensure governance and coordination of delivery necessary to achieve the needed business outcomes. 
 
In addition, within one of their major automation sub-programs, the client was encountering delivery challenges. Pcubed was asked to perform a Program Diagnostic and subsequently implement the proposed changes with the goal of establishing a continuous flow of work leading to fast and incremental value delivery.
 
Mapping the failure modes
 
Through the program diagnostic Pcubed was able to identify and map key failure modes and focus areas:
 

  • No strategic prioritization of the program
  • Insufficient availability of capital resources leading to a “do the best we can with what we have” approach
  • Disconnect between the business and delivery functions
  • Unsubstantiated benefits not based on anticipated functional and process improvements

 
Defining the Intervention
 
The overall competitive business environment led to the client needing to react and adapt continuously on all fronts in order to achieve their required revenue and operating income targets. This resulted in a very challenging and ambiguous program delivery environment, where the entire program and its related projects were subject to constant change, redirection and repeated aggressive cost reduction measures.
 
There’s a way to do it better – find it. – Thomas A. Edison
 
Pcubed recommended that major intervention steps be taken to reset the delivery approach to be fit for purpose, primarily focused on the rapid delivery of incremental benefits and results.
 

  1. Evaluate the entire portfolio of projects in terms of alignment to overall objectives, recommending to stop those efforts that were not aligned and redirect associated delivery resources to support priority areas.
  2. Strengthen focus on operational data mining and analysis, with initial attention on the worst performing delivery areas before subsequently widening to other areas where significant improvement was expected to be achieved based on industry benchmarks.
  3. Adopt an Agile approach and supporting framework, utilizing SAFe1, with the objective to deliver incremental value continuously and faster, i.e. enabling any delivery effort to be redirected based on changing priorities and identified business impact.

 
Pcubed’s approach to Portfolio Optimization in step 1 was useful in re-establishing focus, however we highlighted above that the dynamic environment that this client operated in resulted in constant change.  Adopting a lean Agile approach with supporting Framework, Technical Enablement and Training, Coaching and Change Management fundamentals helped create the necessary momentum to turn around this program.
 
Transforming the Organization
 
Framework:  Pcubed adjusted the overall delivery governance, processes and cadence in alignment with the SAFe Agile framework. The goal was to establish a continuous (incremental value) delivery flow through the adoption of a lean-agile mindset against currently ongoing (non-Agile) projects. Ensuring that the framework was flexible enough to support the wide variety of delivery efforts was a key success factor.
 
As a result, the following improvements addressed the existing failure modes of the program:
 

  • Introduction of program/workstream backlogs and project level backlogs allowed for easier (re-)prioritization and reduction of the workload based on the cost of delay when the overall environment and/or objectives changed
  • Establishment of an Agile meeting cadence at the program, workstream, and project level allowed for faster decision making
  • Avoidance of start-stop-start project delays as a result of consistent management of overall backlogs and delivery of smaller, more manageable batches of work
  • Business and delivery stakeholders working together more closely to review backlogs and throughput weekly

 
In addition to the above improvements, the SAFe approach allowed for the implementation of incremental planning, which is addressed within the SAFe framework through Program Increment (PI) planning.  These planning workshops were focused on a number of different goals.  First, the business vision was stated and discussed to ensure all team members understood the bigger picture, removing any disconnect between the business and delivery functions. 
 
From there the teams focused on planning the increment objectives and subsequent work to be carried out.  Aligning the increments to fiscal quarters also introduced benefits tracking.  Within each increment, the sprint cadence was set.  This allowed for the program to arrive together on benefits at the end of each increment thus addressing the execution misalignment. Overall by taking this approach it established better communications across all teams, alignment on business objectives, identification of dependencies, and accelerated decision making.
 
Technical Enablement:  With the lean-Agile framework in place, Pcubed then shifted focus to the technical enablement required to deliver the transformation.  JIRA was chosen as the agile project management tool to enable planning, management, and overall tracking of the work.  The tool was a logical choice as it was already used within the client environment, but mainly within the development teams. The environment was set up specifically to allow the flexibility needed given the different types of work performed by the project teams.  The team maintained a general cadence within the tool for increments and sprints to ensure consistent timing through the platform.  JIRA was then setup to track objectives through epics which were all linked into an increment release allowing for the creation of dashboards for increment tracking.  Pcubed development of an additional detailed program level view of progress against all epics and epic status charts within Excel enabled management to get to the further level of detail required to accurately assess the status against any objective within the increment.
 
Training, Coaching and Change Management:  Lastly, managing the change that any organization will go through during a transition from a traditional waterfall framework to an agile framework is critical for overall success.  The program and project management staff all had varying levels of agile knowledge and experience. Some had run agile programs and projects before, while others understood only the basic concepts.  Agile training was offered internally within the client organization, combined with JIRA user guides, and scrum master follow on training, allowing the existing staff to come up to speed quickly, while also providing an environment where new team members were rapidly integrated into the fold.
 
Culture eats strategy for breakfast. – Peter Drucker
 
At the start of the transition, early proactive communication prepared the organization for the upcoming transition.  Communicating the vision and establishing a sense of urgency, created a foundation for team work and collaboration.  Second, internal successes needed to be evident early on to support any adoption.  It takes time to embed an agile mind-set in an organization and even longer to realize the benefits.  Even the best strategy is worthless if no one implements it.  By sowing the seeds with empirical evidence that the approach works, agile can begin to pervade an organization for the better.  Identification of agile ambassadors within the client organization, who promoted the benefits of the lean-Agile approach and pointed to the early adopter successes, helped in driving the client’s needed change.  Finally, ongoing top down support from senior management drove the adoption downwards through the organization.
 
Throughout their transformation, Pcubed consultants aligned with the organization, supporting the new scrum masters in embracing agile methodologies, assisting them in development of objectives based backlogs, helping them manage the introduction of a regular agile cadence and finally delivering continuous improvements in their respective areas.  In doing so it further enabled realization of benefits from this program in a timely fashion.  The result was more visibility and further adoption of the agile approach within the organization.
 
References: 
1 Scaled Agile Framework
 

For further information on this article and Pcubed, please email info@pcubed.com.