3 Ways to Start the Journey to Agile


Agile is becoming mainstream, but many organizations with established waterfall methods continue to grapple with what that means in practice. Blending agile and traditional methods requires a cultural shift – success depends on changing hearts and minds.

Whilst a growing number of organisations are recognising the benefits of agile, traditional methods continue to have a place in their delivery toolkits. Striking a balance between the two and getting them to work together is the challenge facing new agile adoptees.

MI-GSO | PCUBED recommends approaching Agile strategically, establishing an enterprise vision for operating model changes. Starting with smaller initiatives and adopting a pragmatic approach, you can deliver clear benefits that build support for agile practices and adaptive delivery in the future.

Let’s look at three ways this might be achieved:

1. Use a Digital Lab

A Digital Lab provides a self-contained environment for a team to deliver user-centric change using agile techniques.

Young group of coworkers making business decisions

Organisations that use waterfall methods will almost certainly have a function resembling a lab that maintains their presence online. It may be managed by a business function or report into a Chief Digital Officer and exist under the radar based on widely accepted, but informal, dispensations to traditional gating assurance processes run by Corporate IT.  

This is fine until something goes wrong.  The fallout mainly impacts Corporate IT even though they may have had no influence over the cause. The ‘traditional’ response is to implement additional ‘controls’ to prevent similar problems; an approach that limits the agility of the lab and leads to frustration all round.

Formalising the lab function provides a clear governance framework and enables the lab team to operate more effectively. This entails establishing clear boundaries within which the lab has autonomy and explicit governance touch points.

Once this groundwork has been laid, it is perfectly feasible to reuse the same model and techniques for internal developments. 

The lab approach is most effective when applied in an area of the business that is supported by a single technology solution over which it has full jurisdiction. It is especially applicable for systems that have a high degree of user interaction, particularly where usability and timeliness are important – for example retail tills and logistics PDAs.

Whilst the lab model doesn’t readily scale, its benefit is in that it showcases the delivery velocity that can be achieved with agile methods without disrupting the host organization.

2. Embrace ‘Shadow IT’

CIOs of larger organisations often bemoan systems implemented without the involvement of the corporate IT department, so-called ‘Shadow IT’. 

While these systems can operate without the inertia of corporate IT, Shadow IT solutions often fall short in terms of scalability, security and resilience. Resulting incidents are likely to land in the CIO’s lap, hence their resistance.

But attempts to supress Shadow IT typically fail because the underlying needs remain.  Furthermore, recent technology advances have helped the proliferation of Shadow IT.  A recent survey of 200 CIOs reported that 83% believe cloud based solutions will increase the procurement of technology outside corporate IT; 68% also report the need for fast deployment of new applications as an extreme or significant concern.

The existence of shadow IT is a clear indicator of a need for greater agility, presenting an opportunity for corporate IT departments to establish capabilities to fulfill that need.

Establishing this agility requires a tapered approach to governance and assurance or Adaptive PPM, whereby a ‘light touch’ is applied to those projects deemed low risk. The key to harnessing the energies directed at Shadow IT initiatives lies in getting the ‘soft’ factors right.  Corporate IT must reach out to business managers and respond to their needs rather than being seen as blockers; they should educate business managers about the risks inherent in their choices.  Jointly owned policies for managing risk can then be agreed.

Embracing Shadow IT is not without its challenges, but provides an ideal environment for developing agile practices that demonstrably solve the business problems traditional methods have failed to address.  Given that the lack of business support and cultural factors are the main causes of failure when adopting Agile, Shadow IT represents an opportunity that should be seized.

Business Team Meeting Project Planning Concept

3. Blend Agile Analysis and Design into Traditional Projects

Blended agile and traditional practice is often derided as ‘wagile’ and ‘scrum-fall’ by its detractors.  Having successfully used blended approaches, we at MI-GSO | PCUBED don’t understand the aversion. True, a blended approach won’t deliver the velocity of pure agile; but if going fully agile is out of reach, then the argument about velocity is purely academic.

Introducing agile techniques within gate-based project assurance provides an opportunity to start the cultural change-based journey:

  • Establish a project team workspace for co-located working of user community and solution delivery personnel
  • Secure commitment from user community managers for their people to be based in the team workspace for a percentage of their time
  • Use a Kanban or Scrum board for planning activities and tracking progress
  • Run daily stand-up meetings
  • Develop needs (requirements) using agile elicitation techniques: epics; user-stories
  • Time box requirements elicitation: the DSDM Structured Timebox works well in this context
  • Prioritize needs based on business value
  • Adopt ‘just in time’ requirements elaboration, deferring as much as possible to the sprints
  • Use scenarios to develop the business solution
  • Develop the business and technology solution in sprints
  • Use scenario walk-throughs, prototypes and demonstration labs to get feedback during sprints
  • Plan multiple releases; deploy a minimum viable solution to production and then further releases at regular intervals thereafter.

History shows that evolution rather than revolution is often the more effective approach.

We have found that users relish the increased engagement and appreciate the value of defining requirements in a more natural format. For most organisations, the agile versus traditional debate misses the point; both have a place in an adaptive change delivery framework.  Agile doesn’t need to be all or nothing.

Continuing the Journey

Starting with smaller initiatives and adopting a pragmatic approach can provide visible benefits that will support agile delivery.  However, as many organisations are discovering, a ‘bottom up’ approach to agile is unlikely to be successful or sustainable. Without cultural change, ongoing friction will occur where agile and traditional practices meet. To deliver solutions more quickly, everything else needs to speed up: up to 80% of the delays that occur in technology projects happen before development starts.

Merely tweaking existing processes will not suffice.  Existing boundaries need to be broken down and cross functional teams formed. Functions that straddle the boundary, such as the Project Management Office, will strongly affect whether an organization succeeds with agile.

Eric Singleton is a Pcubed Principal Consultant with expertise leading business design and change programs for public sector, logistics, finance, aerospace and manufacturing clients.  Whilst at a large UK logistics company he helped define the Digital Lab’s operating model, introduced agile techniques into the project delivery model and trained business project managers on how to utilize agile techniques in their projects.

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