There’s no real point in having “Agile” IT departments in waterfall business contexts; in fact it isn’t even possible. Agile is first and foremost a mindset; it leads to a way of working; the way of working has a number of desirable outcomes; many of the desirable outcomes are manifested in successful IT implementations.
But there’s no Agile without active and enthusiastic business participation. Which leads to a problem. It is not uncommon to find significant pockets of organisational cynicism about IT; partly as a consequence to the boom and bust of the late 1990s, partly in response to the Battle of Professions, and partly resulting from poor experiences with IT in the past, there are many executives that find it hard to trust IT. As the saying goes:
Perception is reality distorted by the lens of experience.
As a result, many organisations find themselves at a pretty pass, a singularly vicious circle. They don’t believe in their IT departments because they “don’t deliver”. The departments don’t deliver because the requirements are unstable and hard to articulate. To solve this they need to think and act Agile. This requires them to trust their IT folks. But they don’t. Because they “don’t deliver”.
How can we get around this? By educating everyone. Which is why I post regularly about Agile, seeking to describe what happens in analogues, so that we can achieve a greater understanding of what Agile means.
So today’s sideways look at Agile is rooted in journalism. Let’s take a look at what happens in a weekly magazine.
- The time and date of production are immovable and regular. Every week, at a fixed time, the presses must roll and the magazine must hit the neswstands and the postal services.
- So there’s always an immovable deadline, as a result of which we see a number of desirable behaviours, outlined below.
- The first is an understanding of the critical chain of events that would lead to the achievement of that deadline, working backwards from the desired outcome. When the page proofs must be okayed. When the pages must be made up. When the galley proofs must be okayed. Editorial copy deadlines. Advertising copy deadlines. You get my drift. Note that these sub-deadlines are independent of the content of any particular issue.
- In similar fashion, there is a stream of activity that distinguishes a particular issue from another. The theme of the issue, the editorial direction, the cover story, the cover illustration, content-driven layout and graphics, and so on. These too have deadlines, with sub-deadlines easy to infer.
- The deadlines implied in points 3 and 4 often interact with each other, making planning and predictability very hard. Unless some steps are taken to reduce complexity of interaction.
- Which brings us to a level of relentless standardisation. Advertisements are taken in standardised sizes, thereby simplifying the layout process. Style guides are drawn up in order to improve the quality and consistency of the output, reducing error rates to do with spelling and punctuation, with fonts and formats, with look and feel in general.
- There’s always a modicum of stuff ganging aft agley, so there have to be some contingency measures, some Blue Peter things-prepared-earlier. Articles kept in abeyance for that time when you need to pull an article in a hurry. Arrangements with customers for discounted “late-availability” advertising slots. Ready-to-use topical filler.
- And all this happens with teams of people working together in an environment of high pressure. Poring through drafts of what each issue looks like, critiquing mockups, pulling out all the stops to make deadline, then celebrating the outcome.
What do I know? I haven’t really been a journalist for over a quarter of a century, but that’s what it was like back when. And the parallels are interesting.
- “Requirements” captured by iteration through a series of drafts.
- Focus on outputs rather than inputs, a clear understanding of the critical chain of activities and the underlying constraints.
- A base of reusable components made available in a predefined architecture.
- Slack built in for the unexpected rather than the mismanaged.
- A willingness to throw away and start again while treating the deadline as sacrosanct.
- A distributed operation with staff all over the globe, yet a production process that focuses very heavily on facetime and collocation.
- A consistent ratio of fixed and predictable to volatile and unpredictable.
- A number of tasks that can be done in advance, a number of tasks that must be done in advance, and a number of tasks that cannot be done in advance.
- Creative activities underpinned by processes steeped in regularity and standardisation.
I think we need to keep looking at Agile business practices that have nothing to do with software, in order to learn more about how we educate our business partners.
Business agility is no longer a nice-to-have, it is an imperative. It can only be arrived at by implementing Agile processes from cradle to grave, from soup to nuts, across the board. Agile is not about IT per se, but about business outcomes. So we need to educate educate educate.