Hurdles to overcome while becoming Agile/Lean

Agile is out, Lean is in! We have no time to waste. But what does being Agile really mean? And what does it take to become Lean? How to fully incorporate this into your projects? And may be even more important is how to fully involve the business side, whether this is an internal or external client. Today’s business requires focus on delivery and quick results. Introducing these modern methods is fun, but not always easy. You will have to prepare both your organisation and the client side to prevent misunderstandings. There are many potential hurdles that you will have to overcome.

The main problems when implementing Agile/Lean

Yesterday I had the honour to provide the closing keynote speech at the PMI conference New Trends in Project Management describing how to overcome all kinds of different problems that you might have to face when you want to become Agile and/or Lean. The presentation can be found below.

Based on our own experience (with clients), reader input and some online research we have drafted a list of potential issues. These issues can roughly be grouped into the following main categories:

  1. Unclear need definition by the client side
  2. Unrealistic expectation from the business side
  3. Lack of collaboration, conflict based cooperation
  4. Unclear goals, not clear why a team is working in a certain way
  5. Change issues
  6. Lack of experience.

The items 5 and 6 are rather easy to be solved. The others are a lot harder.

A gap has to be bridged

The main reason that especially IT departments would like to implement Agile practices is the fact that they are facing too many issues. They realise their development process doesn’t satisfy the client’s needs. Recent research by PMI shows that 11 up to 64% of projects “fail”.

The top four problem categories are in general caused by a lack of mutual understanding. Business has lost trust in the IT department, in general because they “never deliver anything useful on time”. The IT department complains about the business claiming that “they are always disturbing us and changing the priorities”.

To solve this situation we have seen many IT departments starting to implement Agile best practices. But too often they do not fully understand them and they do not fully realise why they want to make use of them. It is an escape to become more efficient, hoping this will satisfy the business. But sorry, too often this will not work. Just Google for “agile project failures” and you will find hundreds of thousands of hits. Should we blame Agile? I don’t think so. The main problem is that it is not being used in the right way.

While implementing we start cherry picking and implement the things we believe are useful. By doing so you will never optimally profit from the tools and methods. I won’t say it’s wrong, but it wouldn’t be our primary advise. Another common problem is that IT implements Agile practices in isolation, without including the business side, the client. Again this can improve the efficiency of the IT department, but it’s lacking essential business sponsorship.

On the other hand it is high time that the business side realises that they are to a big extend the cause of all the troubles. They honestly believe they know what they need, sometimes they even fully describe how IT should realise it. In reality the client is hardly ever capable to fully define the exact needs. And in our opinion that’s rather logical. Software is to some extend like art, it is hard to describe in details what you would like to get.

A wide gap of misunderstanding has to be bridged and basically we think the supply side will have to move first. They can better sit down next to the client, instead of opposite to him. We have to leave confrontation behind. It’s time to talk with each other and to discuss the client’s business and problems he is facing. Based on that you will know better what to offer, how to help.

What tools to use?

Whether or not you should use Agile methods is up to you. Honestly, these methods are in our opinion just tools to help us develop. These are incremental improvements regarding our way of working. Depending on the situation and the organisation the speed of implementation will differ. And implementations will not necessarily be the same everywhere. Every situation requests a custom solution. To find the right solution, first the current situation will have to be investigated. Just like a doctor does with his patients. Common sense should prevail and you have to understand WHY you choose to implement a certain best practice.

Based on trust and mutual respect you can successfully collaborate

Sometimes a good confrontation clarifies a situation, but it should be used in a functional way, it shouldn’t be the mainstream. Collaboration in between demand and supply, business and IT, will have to be based on mutual trust, respect and understanding which all together form a great foundation for team work resulting in a strong commitment to delivering real business value. An investment from both sides will be needed, but it will be worth it.

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Peter Horsten

VP Software Development Europe for Aspire Systems. Sociologist and electrotechnical engineer, a great combination that stimulates him to look for the best working software solutions for clients. Passionate about converting great ideas into new solutions. Married and a proud father of 3 great sons. Training for and participating in triathlons/runs to stay fit.