By Simona Bonghez PhD.
Managing Director @ Colors In Projects
In our professional career, sometimes we made errors, as Simona Bonghez explained in detail to all the participants in the BCN PMI Chapter annual event held last November. At the early beginning of her successful career as project manager she made a trivial calculation error in the preparation of a budget project offer. At that time, she was afraid that the error could imply she was fired, however, the supportive and positive reaction of her line manager made her realize that the failures are the tuition we have to pay for our success. In our professional journey, we have successful experiences but also unsuccessful ones. We always shall learn from our mistakes as the agile mindset is not a destination, it is a way of travel.
1. Defining the Terms
Firstly, let us think about why we use agile in our professional life. Different types of projects may require different types of approaches. Many factors are in consideration, like the context, the complexity or the detailed requirements and the technology behind if they are known. Nowadays, this yields to think in two different dimensions in the most of the cases: the predictive or waterfall approach (the traditional approach) or the adaptive or agile approach. However, others terms may be considered like hybrid, Iterative, incremental or related to new practices as continuous delivery and advanced agile, like fluid agile. As PM we need to know several to know which is the best approach that will suit better to our project.
In 1970, Winston Royce wrote what could be considered the first scientific article about the waterfall approach. He presented and listed the main challenges behind it focused in its use in software development in the IT industry. This approach was later exported to others industries. Can this be done with Agile? Could several industries embrace agile? May be not for the full agile concept, but it can be for many of the ideas behind it. The adaptation of Lean principles used in industrial projects to software development triggered the Agile development. If we compress the waterfall approach in very short iterations, then we basically have small waterfalls in short time iterations. What is the huge advantage of doing so? yes, that we are force to deliver something valuable at the end of each short iteration. We are force to focus on delivering fast, therefore we do not spend time on wondering things about the project future. Potentially this leads to an increase of the productivity and effectiveness as it helps to avoid procrastinating work towards the end of the project. So it naturally provides a way to fight against what in project management is known as “the student’s syndrome”.
2. One size fits all-solution
In the agile world, short iteration matters, but what it is also key is to deliver something valuable for our client, something that he could use and provide feedback from. Could we achieve this in all our Company’s projects? The most likely answer would be not. PMI’s Agile Practice Guide provides a questionnaire to support Project Managers in opening a discussion with company managers and project sponsors about the suitability of applying or not an agile approach in your projects. The questionnaire considers aspects like the Culture (Is there a supportive environment with buy-in for the approach and trust in the team?), the Team (Is the team of a suitable size to be successful in adopting agile, do its members have the necessary experience and access to business representatives to be successful?) and Project specifics (Are there high rates of change? Is incremental delivery possible? How critical is the project?).
Once agile basics are defined, we could be tented to think on a solution that could fit in any industry, organization or company. However, there is not such a thing or model. Many companies considers agile as the magic one tool that once being adopted and used it solves all magically, increasing productivity rates and making everybody happy instantly. Would this be possible? Every year, VersionOne company carries a market survey research focused on the evolution of the trends, tools and challenges related to the Agile implementation and escalation approach. The survey reveals many challenges like culture, people resistance, cost, organizations structures or inadequate sponsorship/management support. However, the most relevant one in the last two years has been the Organization Culture.
Existing culture use to be strong and deeply anchor in an organization. It defines how we do things to succeed, which tools or the common language is being used to communicate, etc. Therefore, the culture is the main aspect that stops defining a common model to adopt and implement an agile approach. Although there are many different ways of thinking about corporate culture, William Schneider in his book The Re-engineering Alternative defines an interesting one as it leads to actionable plans. It considers four distinct cultures:
- Collaboration culture is about working together.
- Control culture is about getting and keeping control.
- Competence culture is about being the best.
- Cultivation culture is about learning and growing with a sense of purpose.
Based on this model, the best types of cultures which accommodate better the adoption or transformation towards agile mindset are the Collaboration and the Cultivation ones. The hardest culture to embrace agile mindset is the Competence culture where the lack of team sense and awareness make it complex and difficult.
We differentiate between adopting or transforming agile. In the first case is about changing some aspects of how we work, in the second case, we are talking about changing not only what we do, but also what we are. we are not picking parts of the agile framework, we are really transforming our mindset and the organization culture. So, Shall we embrace changing our full organization in adopting agile mindset? The answer is not, we could start adopting parts and with the time may be we could think on completing the transformation.
3. Learning from others
Let us talk about some real examples and their challenges.
The first one, at national cultural level, is from ING Netherlands that in 2015 started a journey towards agility by transforming the full structure of the bank with the support of McKinsey consultancy. They studied models like Google, Netflix or Spotify. They decided to adopt the model from last one and according to they own conclusions they succeeded to improve the time to market, to boost employee engagement and also to increase productivity. The effort required for the transformation was huge as the model had to be adapted from IT to banking industry and also to a different country culture (from Sweden to Netherlands). Three years later, they tried to export the model to ING Romania, however, in that case, the differences in the culture make it less successful. Many people left the bank. Nowadays, they are still struggling to complete it. An interesting reference to understand why country cultural differences are so relevant is the Erin Meyer country mapping tool (https://www.erinmeyer.com) that allows to compare how two (or more) different cultures build trust, give negative feedback, and make decisions.
The second one, at organizational level, is about an IT company with offices in France, Germany and Romania. This company was really focus in performance. On many of their development teams they had a kind of talented superhero profile who was solving all technical complex issues working extremely hard few days before deadlines. Given that agile focus on teams and interactions and not individuals, the adoption of agile practices was difficult as that kind of profiles tend to see it as a threat. In that particular case, many of them left the company and for those that stay they had too invent they own agile approach as it was not possible for the company to loose all their talent.
The last one, at individual level, is about an online platform called Leanpub. A writers platform where people can publish their own books and users can buy in progress books. That is, writers could write a Minimum Viable Product of their book and publish it. Then allowing readers to provide early feedback and causing the writer to improve/adapt the book and publish new versions.
As a conclusion, we could say that there is not an end line while adopting or transforming agile, we always go for the next, it does no matter what happens during this journey to agile, we could use each of the steps to learn something.
Simona Bonghez, Ph.D., Managing Director of Colors in Projects, has over 20 years’ experience in Project and Change Management. Author and speaker at Project Management conferences, she is leading the delivery of consulting services and training programs of Colors in Projects both in Romania and worldwide. Even though professional experience is a defining aspect in her activity she thinks that she would not have come this far without a good sense of humour. Simona has been volunteering for PMI since 2004. She served as Chapter President, as member of the PMI Leadership Institute Advisory Group and Chapter Member Advisory Group, and she is currently enjoying the cooperation within the PMI Ethics Member Advisory Group.