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The real measure of Agile success

Agile software development has come a long way. Today's successful Agile project managers are giving advice to the business executives.

If there is an ultimate indicator of Agile success, it is this: business executives are quietly turning to Agile project managers for advice on running their own operations.

From daily stand ups, to short project cycles, to the priority-setting process known as backlog grooming, business executives are applying Agile techniques to sales, management operations and more.

Jennifer LentJennifer Lent

Who would have thought business leaders would look to software pros to learn how to do things right? Not so many years ago, when Waterfall development was the norm, failed development efforts made software pros the laughing stock of their organizations.

The all-too familiar knock against them went like this: Software was routinely delivered late, months -- sometimes years -- after the promised date. And when the intended users fired up the new application on their desktops, they found it lacking. Where were the features they needed to do their jobs? Even though responsibility for these failed projects didn't lie solely with developers and testers, they bore the brunt of the blame.

Now, as business leaders seek management advice from Agile development experts, it's a happy, ironic twist for software pros. It's a long-awaited acknowledgement that they are getting things right, even as the faulty Web site continues to make headlines.

In this edition of Quality Time, I share insights on the how business executives are adopting Agile techniques, based on conversations with Bob Galen, Johanna Rothman and Diana Larsen, three software experts well-known to readers of

Borrowing Agile techniques

When business executives adopt Agile they don't apply the methodology to an entire project. Instead, they adopt techniques on a piecemeal basis and incorporate them into everyday business practices.

One Agile technique business executives favor is the daily stand-up meeting. It solves a problem that's prevalent in most organizations: meetings run long, people talk too much and they fail to convey key information. The daily stand-up, a Scrum practice, asks meeting participants to answer three questions and then move on:

  • What did you do yesterday?
  • What will you do today?
  • Are there any impediments in your way?

Business executives like this and other Agile techniques because they emphasize efficiency and hold each team member accountable, said Galen, founder of RGalen Consulting, in Cary NC. "When you look at Agile more broadly it is a cultural play, a way of working to transform an organization. Agile is not a technology initiative."

Encountering Agile

In small organizations, business executives have direct contact with software teams and that's how they initially learn about Agile, Galen said. When executives see the techniques in action, Agile tends to seep out into the rest of the organization. That's what happened when Galen worked at iContact, an email marketing company in Morrisville NC.

When iContact's sales team learned that the Agile software team managed its work in short iterations, they wondered if this approach might help them meet revenue goals. To find out, they called in Galen, who at the time headed up iContact's QA effort.

Galen helped the team organize their work into 2-week sprints instead of the usual quarterly and annual sale targets. Because the approach forced them to focus on steady delivery instead of the big deadline way out on the horizon, the team was able to boost sales.

At large companies, Agile is less likely to spread organically to other parts of the business. Top executives come face-to-face with it only when they are called in to set software project priorities.

Before Agile, executives simply called the shots, said Johanna Rothman, founder of the Arlington, MA-based Rothman Consulting. They decided which development projects took precedence and that was that. "But Agile teams expect executives to explain their thinking and have it challenged," she said. Some executives don't like the collaborative process. Others see the value of the Agile approach to decision making, and look for ways to apply it outside of software development.

Another factor spreading Agile practices beyond software development is the movement of millennial generation employees into the work place, said Diana Larsen, a partner at Agile consultancy FutureWorks, in Portland, OR. "They are a lot more comfortable working collaboratively." As a result, many Agile practices come naturally to them. "They want to check in on a daily basis and get feedback early," she said.

The guiding principles of Agile, including focus on improvement, accountability, efficiency, and willingness to experiment, bode well for any line of business. As Larsen put it, "Agile is a way of working whose time has come."

It's great that software pros are leading the way and showing other professionals how to get it right.

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Scrum meeting or collaboration are good, sure, but there are many other ways to track your Agile project. You can use diverse charts - i.e. the Burndown chart which is a very effective planning tool if you know how to interpret the metrics.