How to Transition to Agile Software Development

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agile software development

Agile software development involves building software iteratively and incrementally. The results of early phases influence the planning of later phases.

Flexibility and Change

While agile methods have proven to yield benefits for many companies, their successful adoption requires significant changes in processes and attitudes.

Gene Gendel, an experienced agile coach, points out that “managers have to give up their commanding/controlling power and rights to dictate best practices to their subordinates,” as agile approaches emphasize self-management. He further notes that “conventional project management heavily relies on centralized control and assumes a clearly defined hierarchical reporting structure,” which may cause managers to question their roles when supporting self-managing teams.

Dave Prior, an agile project management professional at BigVisible Solutions, advises organizations to “walk into an agile transition with eyes open. Patience and management commitment are required. Positive outcomes are possible, but it takes a while and a lot of trial and error.”

Agile approaches stress transparency and openness, which, he observes, may not sit well with senior managers who dislike sharing bad news. He warns that despite their benefits, agile transitions are difficult and painful, as every part of an organization is affected.

Software architects, developers, business analysts and users will also have to learn new ways of doing their work if they are assigned to projects that use agile approaches. Staff accustomed to working in conventional environments based on top-down management philosophies may not always be comfortable working without explicit written requirements or design documentation. They may resist working in a highly collaborative environment if either they or their fellow team members don’t possess the interpersonal skills required for comfortable working relationships.

While the Scrum framework emphasizes collaborative effort, it requires a single individual to be designated to make final product decisions and work closely with the development team. Gendel has found that management may struggle to empower someone to handle this “product ownership” role if no single person can be found who has the necessary time and skills. He says a common but often ineffective fallback is a “product owner committee” approach, but involving more people often results in a lack of accountability and decision making, which can inhibit progress.

William Bridges warns in his book Managing Transitions that “the single biggest reason organizational changes fail is [that] no one thought about endings or planned to manage their impact on people.” He recommends applying transition management best practices carefully.

Clear reasons for trying agile approaches must be defined and articulated to affected employees. For example, an organization might decide to introduce such approaches to build a product when there is a lot of uncertainty about the product’s requirements.

An agile process would allow a team to build functionality and features in stages. Stakeholders would be given regular opportunities to review what has been built and suggest changes.

It is critical to include all key stakeholders in planning for your change initiative. You should understand their opinions about existing processes and get them to buy in to the new approach before moving forward with any process improvement initiative.

This gives those charged with implementing process changes a better sense of issues worthy of attention during the transition. Any affected group needs to be consulted. This would include managers in finance departments, project management offices and enterprise risk management staff.

Kaplan Test Prep's Ilio Krumins-Beens, executive director, Agile Practices, and Mariya Breyter, director of Project Management and Agile Practices, implemented agile processes at the organization. With executive support, they worked with their peers to identify and acknowledge the problems in their development processes. By raising awareness of the problems throughout the organization, they were able to build a desire for change.

They took care not to oversell the potential benefits of using agile methods. Breyter shared a comment she heard at a conference: “Agile is not a silver bullet. It is a silver mirror.”

This observation helped Kaplan Test Prep employees understand that every problem wouldn’t be eliminated overnight, but the transition would help them learn about their strengths, weaknesses and flexibility. Even if it failed, the attempt at transformation would highlight their potential for change.

This article was originally published on 2013-11-06
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