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Fanning the Flames of Agile

The brilliance of agile is that it is easy to understand

Knowledge creation is a major source of value creation. And great companies -and their employees - know that continuous learning is a key to generating knowledge, and thus value. The agile mindset, particularly in development, is gaining popularity, with credit to a suite of powerful ideas and practices commonly known as the agile methodology - defined by Wikipedia as "software development methods based on iterative and incremental development."

Agile on Paper
In February 2001, a group of 17 software developers wrote the Agile Manifesto, the Magna Carta of the agile movement. At just 68 words, it was elegant, but at that point just words on paper. Early attempts to apply it came by adapting existing techniques such as lean manufacturing (adapted from Toyota's methodologies), Crystal, Scrum and XP (Extreme Programming). Admittedly, we were still learning. Buying into "agile" signaled your ideals were more lofty than grounded. Agile supporters were revolutionary, but agile was not.

Later that year, Ken Schwaber and Mike Beedle, two of the manifesto's signatories, published the watershed Agile Software Development With SCRUM. The authors noted how the Agile Manifesto could map to tangible business practices and showcased how they actually applied it. They described agile in a real-world setting, and the world hasn't been the same since. They moved SCRUM from abstract rugby imagery to concrete possibility.

We learned that agile is an approach for value generation - an approach for moving ideas from an early ideal to sustainable, real-world changes.

Most of all, we learned that agile concepts are valid.

Agile in Practice
Concepts are one thing, but successful application is quite another.

Let's look at the company where I work. SAS is the world's largest privately held software company, and we have been proponents of the agile mindset since the company's inception in 1976. SAS invests 25 percent of revenues back into R&D and regards itself as a learning company. We learn by listening; we learn by doing.

SAS first evaluated agile Scrum in 2007. Teams heard of early wins and wanted to apply agile in their own areas. Since then, SAS has formally trained thousands of personnel and invested in an infrastructure for its R&D portfolio. At SAS, agile is applied across the enterprise. It's used to manage small projects and very large projects encompassing hundreds of staff members. It's also used to bring a common approach to how SAS manages its products.

Agile is empirical - that is, we apply, learn and adapt. It is true for applying any one specific agile practice, and it is true for applying agile at scale over years. This leads to some questions: What did we learn? How did we adapt? Moreover, what cultural norms did we lean on to help garner such a strong embrace of agile and its benefits? Knowing the answers to these questions could help accelerate your own success story.

We Learned One Size Does Not Fit All
Agile books and blogs make it all sound so clean: Do A, then B, then C. Further, with so much positive press on agile development, it is tempting for any firm's executive or business controls team to mandate a one-size-fits-all approach.

Instead of mandating the same approach for everyone, we fostered a grass-roots movement. Concurrently, we used a senior executive as an advocate and recruited an operational agile champion to drive the rollout. It is important for the executive team to understand and expect agile from its teams, but not from a single template.

We adapted by creating the flexible SAS Agile Framework. It includes three integral parts: setup (training and coaching), defined practices, and an agile team self-assessment survey. The framework is helping us meet demands and energize teams with the freedom to envision and realize exciting opportunities.

Agile is applied differently in R&D, Pubs, IT, Professional Services, and other divisions in SAS. Practices are configured in the best way for the teams and markets they serve.

We Learned to Nurture the Movement
Bottom line: We watched and we listened. We nurtured our cultural norm of not accepting the status quo, and to keep a skeptical eye. More specifically, we worked hard to make sure teams weren't buying in just because of the buzz. It was important that they understood the business drivers of agile, planned time for training and startup, and applied the right agile practices in the right way for their project.

Just as with every team member, every team is different. When a team member became critical of certain agile practices for a team, we listened closely.

A Journey, Not a Destination
View agile as a journey: It takes a moment to learn, but a lifetime to master. Teams typically invest in group training, and then a small pilot. Agile is not unlike other practices where at first it's awkward, challenging and even slightly less productive. However, as a team becomes more comfortable, you'll typically hear people say they would never go back. We're all motivated by accomplishments, and agile creates the thriving state of productivity and morale we need to achieve them.

We Adapted Our Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC)
SAS is like other software development firms where the existence of an overarching software development life cycle is important. At SAS, agile holds ours together. It serves as the glue between all groups and ensures that products flow along an orderly and controlled path. Five years into agile at scale, we re-evaluated the process, then made it less linear and extended it to overlap even more than it already did. We halved the lifecycle size. We reduced the number of management checkpoints and cut back the number of required artifacts. Yet because of how agile overlays the entire process, it resulted in a better way for R&D.

We Adapted by Investing in Agile Coaches
Coaching can make a big difference, and not only in sports.

A common question asked with enterprises new to agile is: Who should play the role of the Scrum master? At SAS, this role fell to our project managers. We were fortunate. Publicly held firms find this challenging because of the required mechanisms and extra control systems their project managers must handle. Although SAS is a $3 billion dollar company, we're private and can operate unencumbered.

In our journey we noticed that teams fared better when they engaged with experienced agile veterans - they got up to speed faster. We looked closer and found by internal survey data that coaching has a positive correlation on all of intended benefits of Scrum. We now have a large team of trained coaches engaged with their own teams and others as well.

We Adapted by Tirelessly Encouraging Transparency
We also applied the agile philosophy of transparency about larger project risks and mitigations to being frank and open with individual team members. This helped create healthy, self-directed work teams.

For example, our teams openly discuss the agile self-assessment surveys. Teams independently record and then jointly discuss summary and detailed data scores and write-in comments. The discussion is useful for identifying two to three action items, but even more useful for helping teams build trust and maturity.

A word of caution, however: Be careful when looking at agile metadata between teams. Teams perform at different rates, have different compositions, and come to know requirements estimates (story points) differently. Asking a team why its numbers are different from another's can threaten its freedom and inadvertently move them to game. Can we benefit from enterprisewide analysis? Yes, if we thoroughly describe to teams the intention of such an analysis and why it's being done. It helps drive corporate training and updates upper management on progress, for instance.

We Adapted by Bringing a New Meaning to the Term ‘Flexible'
At SAS, we were able to establish a different type of relationship with our product owners, development and test teams, and support teams. We moved from setting long-range targets with multiple commitments and promises to shorter-range iterative targets. Demos now occur routinely, and that in turn builds confidence with all project stakeholders.

Benefits, Compounded
Practices yield benefits. Better practices yield better benefits.

In the internal survey mentioned earlier, we noticed something profound. Teams that tended to adopt agile practices with a higher degree of maturity tended to have better results overall. Intuitively, one might suspect this to be true - and the data objectively proved it. That evidence makes it even easier for staff members at all levels to commit.

SAS is an agile company. Our customers and workforce are increasingly receptive to the large-scale implementation of agile Scrum. It's now a part of our daily fiber and undoubtedly will continue to be part of our ongoing success.

The brilliance of agile is that it is easy to understand. The danger of agile is that it is easy to understand, and can be underestimated. Be mindful of what it takes to employ it well to yield the most benefit. Engage. Find a cohort, a validation pilot, a way to connect. Most of all, enjoy the journey.

More Stories By Tim Arthur

Tim Arthur, MSMOT, PMP, CSM, draws from the experience of very small to very large private and public projects managed under various models. He’s been with SAS for 15 years. Prior to that he led mission-critical 24/7 global software systems with IBM for 17 years. As the SAS Agile Champion he’s helped train and coach over 3,000 people on teams of all sizes, worldwide.

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