Incremental software delivery has been around in some form for at least 60 years, with the manifesto for Agile Software Development recently celebrating its sweet 16th birthday. Since this time, a proliferation of frameworks, tools and methodologies have grown up, blossomed and thrived with millions of projects across hundreds of thousands of teams worldwide benefitting from iterative development. Enabling technology solutions have emerged alongside these project delivery frameworks including the rise of DevOps and continuous integration to support what has now become the norm rather than the exception across software, digital and IT projects.
Through the successful implementation of Agile processes at the team level, many organisations will invariably start to encounter different challenges and issues when they try to scale this up to the programme and portfolio level. Issues such as funding models, prioritisation across multiple teams, environmental constraints, consistent reporting and getting agile teams to work in a portfolio with those teams still working in a waterfall process are all common pain points.
With this exponential growth of agile delivery there has been a growing response to scaling challenges, with new scaled agile frameworks such as LeSS and SAFe® amongst the most popular scaling frameworks. Whilst these approaches can and do work in the right environments, the reality is that in most organisations who are looking to scale Agile jumping into and selecting the wrong framework can cause more problems than it solves.
The critical factor for successful scaled agile implementations at the portfolio level is the recognition that there is no ‘out-of-the-box’ or ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. Every business has its own unique environment, cultural nuances and structures that should inform the style or flavour of agile portfolio management that should be implemented. Before starting on this journey, it is important to first understand the why and establish a set of guiding principles.
Why do you need Agile Portfolio Management?
Understanding the problem you are trying to solve will largely dictate how you should shape your approach. It is important to understand that Agile is not the goal – your goal needs to be aligned to your business strategy. Some areas of focus include:
- Improved prioritisation across projects, programmes and portfolios
- Greater degree of control and predictability across feature releases
- Greater control over funding and approval of projects
- Increased focus on value realisation
- Increased customer feedback opportunities
- Improved collaboration across teams/departments/portfolios
- Greater visibility on project progress across the portfolio
- Better ability to manage dependencies across the teams
- Ability to increase resource capability and flexibility across the portfolio
- Increased risk mitigation activities
Typically the needs of different areas or departments within an organisation will differ. The needs of the PMO versus marketing, IT or sales will have a different focus, therefore it is important to understand where the real business value lies and align your strategic capability accordingly.
How do I Implement Agile Portfolio Management?
Or how should we go about solving the problem and addressing the why from the previous step? As with any problem, the devil is in the detail and this is where organisations can benefit from leveraging the knowledge and experience from individuals and organisations who have been through this before. As mentioned above, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and situational awareness is crucial. It is important to establish a set of guiding principles, informed by the why before you can plan the how. These principles should include:
- Situational Awareness
- Start with a Bold Vision
- Engage Leaders
- People First
- Go beyond frameworks
- Use Agile to implement Agile
We will explore these principles in more detail in future articles, but the key to transitioning to effective Agile Portfolio Management is understanding that this is not a simple ‘additive’ framework to impose on top of an existing structure, but this needs to be a deliberate people-focussed effort that encompasses broader change management principles.
Having understood the why, agreed on a set of principles and designed an appropriate framework, the next step is to implement this effectively. Using an agile approach to scaling agile is a highly effective way of doing this. Agile by its nature lends itself to projects that have an uncertain outcome, and introducing an appropriate scaled agile framework in an organisation is not without its share of uncertainty. With all this in mind, and taking a framework-agnostic view there are a number of approaches you can take. These include, but again are not limited to:
- The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®)
- Large Scale Scrum (LeSS)
- Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM®)
- Nexus Scaled Scrum
- Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD)
- Agile Portfolio Management (ABC)
- Hybrid/tailored approach
A hybrid approach is typically where most organisations tend to start when transitioning into Agile Portfolio Management. The reasons for this are generally a question of maturity and the ability to move through the necessary transitionary steps before moving to a fully agile portfolio. The hybrid approach, whilst setting up an environment where agile and waterfall projects can co-exist should generally be considered as a temporary state on the longer term journey towards true Business and Organisational Agility.
Most organisations have considered, trialled or run agile projects at the team level, and those who haven’t would benefit from doing so. If you are now considering scaling agile or have tried and faced challenges and issues then the incremental why, build, test, learn approach to your transition is a solid base from which to start. Agile portfolio management or Scaling Agile is a natural progression on the Agile Maturity Continuum, but is certainly not the end of the journey. The decision to move to agile is a decision to change the way you run your organisation and is a learning journey that will be ongoing: