Agile transformation for continuous improvement
The world just keeps spinning. But it seems to be spinning faster these days when it comes to product delivery. Post-pandemic pressures, workforce issues, and shifting expectations have created a conundrum: how to achieve successful product delivery in a quickly changing world.
Amid all these pressures, perhaps you’ve been met with the mandate for your organization to “be more agile!”. Maybe you have hit some difficulties in your current approach to product delivery and feel there has to be a better way. You may have watched other companies, the competition even, coming out on top with feature-rich deliveries and continuous improvement. You may have started to wonder if moving your teams toward agile delivery methods might be worth it.
So what is Agile? Agile is a popular approach to managing product delivery. It involves working in short, iterative cycles focusing on continuous improvement and regularly adapting to change.
“Agile” has been around for more than 20 years. It’s true that it’s not new, but it is different from traditional software development and delivery methods. In this article, we'll explore these differences as well as the benefits of implementing an agile approach. Whether you're new to agile or looking to improve your current process, read on for valuable insights and practical tips for embarking on effective agile product delivery.
What’s the difference between agile product delivery and traditional methods?
Traditional product delivery is tied to a sequential software development life cycle, typically with highly-defined requirements solidified early on in the project. This type of software development approach involves the following phases:
Analysis (requirements definition) > Design > Develop > Test > Deploy (launch and maintenance)
These traditional methods rely on the careful planning and completion of each phase of the development life cycle before moving on to the next. Ultimately, the team works to deliver exactly what was defined at the beginning of the project.
This traditional approach has an important place in software development. Organizations that are developing products to support a well-defined process or deeply regulated industry typically rely on this method. Those with safety as a central requirement (like NASA, pharmaceuticals, transportation, utilities, etc.) benefit from the rigor of traditional life cycles. When the desired product requirements are well known and highly defined, a successful project outcome is measured based on how closely the software matches the required features.
Agile product delivery, on the other hand, is especially well-suited for projects in which ongoing user guidance is most helpful, when pivoting among different options, or when it is difficult to predict the requirements up front.
A shift to agile moves from the predetermined features of traditional methods to a more fluid incarnation of capabilities. This means that as each feature set is developed, the product leader works with the customer and the development team to build out and refine the specific requirements (in agile, called stories). Continual customer feedback is key in the agile process from inception to delivery, with the team “returning to the well” of customer insight for confirmation all along the way.
In addition to being a creative method that is highly responsive to change, another key difference of agile is the move from traditional forced sequential project phases to an iterative and incremental approach. In agile, prioritized features are identified in a project roadmap for each release. The features (often called “themes”) are broken down into “epics” and then into smaller “stories” to be implemented over the course of well-defined sprints. Work is estimated through story points or time estimates by team members so that in any given sprint, stories can be completed reliably inside the sprint time parameters. The agile strategy keeps the work focused by controlling the number and scope of features delivered within each sprint.
These differences create a meaningful shift from traditional product development and delivery approaches. Throughout the course of the project’s sprints, a cadence emerges that reflects the average number of stories the team can complete in a given sprint. Understanding how much work can typically be done equips the product leader to manage the backlog of work for future cycles effectively.
Additionally, teams can more easily accommodate customer feedback and changes from sprint to sprint. They can “steer the ship” little by little, making adjustments along the way rather than making a major course correction and undertaking substantial rework.
Using agile doesn’t mean throwing rigor and structure out the window. It means focusing on ongoing improvement, effectively estimating and forecasting, and controlling the schedule with digestible deliverables and tighter feedback loops. Agile doesn’t eliminate the software development life cycle; it just tames it into manageable, responsive, and continuous iterations.
Why agile product delivery is needed
Too often, products take many months or even years to release. By the time a major release is ready, features are frequently outdated or end up falling short of user expectations.
Agile product delivery yields significant time-to-market and customer satisfaction benefits. Agile approaches give organizations the structure as well as the adaptability they need to meet their business goals without the weight of what can be an inflexible development process. Collaboration, responsiveness, and cohesion are baked into the agile delivery process.
Here are just a few of the key benefits organizations enjoy by practicing agile:
Agile organizations are flexible, responsive, and efficient.
Teams are empowered to make decisions and respond to changes quickly, rather than following a rigid hierarchy or predetermined plan.
- Increase alignment
- Improve cross-team work
- Increase cohesion
- Reduce redundancy
- Reduce stress and anxiety
Iterative and incremental development drives faster, more consistent progress that’s based on rapid development and client feedback.
- Faster time to value
- Responsiveness to change
- Manage risks
- Avoid costly mistakes
- Customer satisfaction
Continuous improvement helps increase communication and collaboration while improving business operations and reducing costs.
- Identity and eliminate waste
- Streamline processes
- Automate tasks
- Remove bottlenecks
- Mitigate risks
- Simplify workflows
- Update tools or processes
- Provide training and support
- Embrace best practices
By taking an agile approach, teams can effectively manage the risk of low adoption or even project failure. Agile methods also reap financial benefits by avoiding costly mistakes, reducing rework, optimizing performance, increasing customer satisfaction, and decreasing time to market.
The Path to Agile Transformation - A “More Agile” Way
As long as software development has been around, so has the focus on creating improvement in techniques. The search for a more agile way came out of this drive. But agile “transformation” seems like such a big undertaking. How can it be managed successfully? As daunting as it can feel to adopt something that feels fast, new, or just different, agile is meant to be approachable.
Steve McConnell, well-known agile expert and author of Code Complete and More Effective Agile puts it this way, “Once you move beyond the thinking that “Agile” is an irreducible concept that must be applied all or nothing, you become free to adopt the specific Agile processes that are best suited to your organization. If your organization needs to support business agility, modern Agile software practices are a natural fit. If your organization needs to support quality, predictability, productivity, or some other not-obviously-agile attribute, modern Agile software practices are also valuable.”
While not a one-size fits all approach, agile is a proven method for creating a path to delivery that is streamlined, customer-centric, and based on flexibility and collaboration. Teams delivering any type of project can benefit from a “more agile” approach.
Ok - I’m ready to try Agile. Now, where do I start?
Implementing agile product delivery within an organization isn't always easy, but it can be done practically, and with real results. Here are a couple of options for starting an Agile transformation in your organization:
- Option A: Choose an appropriate project and get moving with agile! If you are ready to try agile for the first time, and are “all in,” choose a product initiative and, ideally, project team members that are best suited to the agile approach. For a first-time project, this probably means one that is less defined, has room for change, and has access to ongoing customer feedback as part of the development process. Team members should have attributes similar to the benefits of agile: they should be flexible, responsive, efficient, and collaborative.
Identify an agile framework that you feel would work best for your organization (such as Scrum, Kanban, or SAFe) and follow the approach, looking carefully for ways to improve along the way. Be intentional about capturing your experience with a project retrospective so that you can incorporate best practices and improve areas that need work the next time around.
- Option B: Take baby steps toward agile. If, on the other hand, you are moving from entrenched traditional development and delivery methods, or are otherwise hesitant to take the agile leap, consider taking small steps toward agile. The secret is to combine discerning discipline with a streamlined process, flexible, customer-centric focus, and an iterative, incremental approach.
One way to begin an agile delivery approach in this scenario is to do it, well, agilely. Start by getting a basic understanding of the agile product delivery approach and modifying as many of your current processes as you can to be more agile each step of the way. Then, be ready to adapt as you go.
This means peeling away a bit of the forced sequential nature of your traditional methods and focusing on continuous improvement, examining how to make each phase more agile and responsive. For example, boil down the details of your product vision into key features, reduce the scope of each release through a product roadmap, work to improve estimation, and increase the effectiveness of design and prioritization through regular customer feedback.
Regardless of which of the approaches above you chose, agile product delivery often starts with teams developing a prototype or a working feature set based on initial high-level requirements. As the work iterates, a minimum viable product (MVP) materializes that the team can validate and refine, and ultimately deliver.
Whether you are starting off fresh with Agile, or are modifying traditional methods, here are a few key practical measures that you can take to help you on your way. Implementing effective changes, and adapting as you go is, at its heart–agile!
A Quick Start Guide to Agile Transformation
- Start with the basics
Understand the principles of agile product delivery to begin adopting an agile mindset. Ensuring leadership is on board is critical to a successful adoption.
- Choose an agile approach
The framework you choose doesn’t have to be set in stone, but review agile processes that are out there and select the one you feel best fits your organization. Popular methods include:
Extreme Programming (XP)
Organizations such as Agile alliance https://www.agilealliance.org/ and PMI https://www.pmi.org are excellent places to start.
- Introduce your team to the selected framework to ensure they understand how to apply it effectively
Focus on the key aspects of agile you want to implement, their benefit, and the role of your team members in helping to apply agile principles.
You may have some agile experts in your midst. Bring their ideas and experience to the table as they help you engage in agile delivery.
Provide feedback and support, especially if Agile is new to your team members too.
In the agile world, customers are essentially part of the team. Identify who can best provide feedback to your team in an ongoing way.
- Decide on a few, and only a few, performance indicators to help you measure the success of your initial efforts
Performance indicators can be OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) or SMART goals (goals that are Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant and Time-bound) or other methods to help you measure the success of your efforts.
If you have already been tracking project performance with a set of performance indicators, use those to compare the results of new agile efforts to past performance.
When starting out, limit your performance indicators to a few of the most critical and traceable in order to manage how much you are measuring. Focusing on key results can help you undertake repeatable, sustainable change.
- In the beginning, undertake a few key agile practices that best facilitate collaboration and continuous improvement
Rather than implementing everything at once, you can choose to implement agile practices that set you on an agile path.
One of the key ways Agile works is to get ongoing customer feedback. Starting with a simple product/project statement and an early prototype that customers can respond to can put you well on your way. Tools such as Figma can help make prototyping easy and effective.
Using user feedback from your prototype, work on an initial MVP, or minimum viable product, which is a set of working features that would allow users to achieve basic success toward their goals in using the product.
Ready to “go more agile”? Here are a few more “next level” steps:
- Define your product vision and priorities, and use them to guide your product roadmap
A roadmap is a prioritized list of features that drives the order of your efforts over the course of your project. These include feature sets you intend to produce with each release.
- Plan your sprints by working through the roadmap of features
Roadmap items should be tied to the value you identified through your product vision and priorities. Roadmap items are often referred to as themes or epics-a larger feature that can be broken down into a set of individual requirements, or, in agile-speak, stories.
Roadmap items help guide the development of both the initial MVP and the more complete product that is developed as the work takes shape in response to customer feedback.
- Continue to plan and execute work in short cycles, or "sprints," to regularly deliver working solutions
Control the schedule more closely through closely managed sprints, only pulling in the work that needs to be done during that cycle in order to work through the feature list on the roadmap for that release.
To further manage the load for each sprint, employ the use of WIP (Work In Progress) limiters.
- Manage a backlog tied to your roadmap
A backlog is a set of features or user stories that have been identified but have yet to be assigned to a work cycle.
Product leaders assign stories to the appropriate sprint.
- Implement key Agile “ceremonies”
Agile ceremonies are simply practices that teams use to ensure agile steps are carried out consistently.
Especially helpful ceremonies such as daily stand-up meetings, sprint reviews, and project retrospectives keep the team on track and connect the work to continuous feedback and improvement.
- Establish a system for regularly incorporating customer feedback and prioritization into the development process
Sources for obtaining customer feedback can take many forms. Here are a few:
- Formally identified user or customer groups working in cooperation with the development team. These team members are often strongly connected to the project and provide feedback during sprint planning, sprint reviews, pre-release testing, and retrospectives.
- A PAC (product advisory council) - this can be a group of external customers, internal users, collaborative volunteers for start-ups, or other combination of key stakeholders.
- An SME (subject matter expert) community
- Support team and call center resources
- Move through the software development life cycle within each sprint:
Rather than moving through the SDLC one phase at a time through your project, go through mini-life cycles during each sprint:
- Analysis: Detail/refine your user stories.
- Design: Create the solution through collaboration between engineering and users. Until working code is in place, use design tools such as Figma for initial user feedback.
- Develop: Code.
- Test: Use developers/engineers to perform in-cycle testing. Use testing tools to increase agility. Additional necessary testing should still be practiced.
- Deploy: Deploy stories to the release.
- Improve: Stay focused on Agile
Identify and eliminate any activities that do not add value to the project such as unnecessary meetings or paperwork.
- Reward agile practices
As your team improves its agile practices, reward those achievements. Encourage agile adoption by celebrating agile efforts and attitudes. Model an agile mindset by practicing the art of incremental improvement, ongoing evaluation, adaptation, and a customer-centric focus.
How should you manage agile work? An Agile tool
An organization’s strategic projects, their roadmaps, and all the work that has to be done by teams during project iterations have to be managed somewhere. Priority tracking, product feedback, work status, and resource allocation are all critical, regardless of the methodology.
That is where agile project and portfolio management software to support agile product delivery comes in.
Hint! DevStride is such a tool, allowing teams to align product delivery to goals, plan and manage sprints, assign resources, and visualize the health of projects all along the way.
By following these practices, you can begin implementing agile product delivery in your organization. As McConnell emphasizes, “selective, well-informed use of modern Agile practices offers a proven path toward more effective software development and all the benefits that go with it.”
Agile product delivery is a flexible and responsive approach to development that prioritizes and delivers highly desirable solutions to customers. By practicing agile product delivery, organizations can stay focused, efficient, and competitive–even in a fast-changing world.
DevStride Can Help
If you need access to better tools to help you deliver exceptional products, schedule an introductory call with us today.
DevStride easily supports both agile and traditional project management frameworks. A refreshingly easy-to-use tool, DevStride provides the robustness and insight project teams and leaders need.
DevStride provides a full range of features and tools that can help you navigate and manage agile product delivery, including:
- Strategic project and portfolio alignment and planning
- Scheduling, task, and milestone tracking
- Communication and collaboration, including unified workspaces, AI capabilities, and notifications
- Custom automated workflows
- Agile framework capabilities, supporting both Scrum and Kanban
- Sizing and estimation including story points, PERT, and WIP limiters
- Instant filtering of project and portfolio data across the entire organization
- Advanced AI features supporting workstream creation, workspace and item descriptions, and more
- Rich analytics for key insights, including real-time burn up, burn down, throughput, and progress reports
We’ll show you exactly how DevStride can help your teams manage project and product delivery successfully. For projects big and small, DevStride is here for you!
Ready for a more detailed guide to product management? We have a fantastic resource, and it’s free! Download DevStride’s Product Delivery Guide.
To find out more about how you can deliver products successfully through DevStride, contact Chastin@DevStride.com.