Winning Over Executives with Agile
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Published by , on Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Much has been written about Agile software development for engineers. In these occasional posts, I discuss Agile from the perspective of a business manager and require no previous knowledge from my readers. My goal is to spread the virtues of Agile while allowing developers and executives to imagine their shared issues from the others’ viewpoint.

As a consultant, selling Agile can be a tricky business. To many executives, “Agile” smells like time and materials. Even if an executive hasn’t been burned by time and materials, the concept sounds like the risk rests with him rather than with you.

Yet internally, this is the way an executive pays for all of his projects. So where is the disconnect?

  • Is the difference that executives trust their staff more than they trust a consultant? Maybe a little, but that's the challenge to overcome.
  • Is it that executives know they can fire their own staff, but they can’t fire a consultant? Probably not, because both can be fired – in fact, a consultant is much easier to fire!
  • Is it that they simply believe that they have greater opportunity to keep tabs on their internal staff than they do on an external consultant? Now we may be on to something.

Executives want the same four things from every consultant they hire. First and foremost, they want a solution to their problem. Second, they want transparency. They want to believe that they know what the vendors are working on and how the money is being spent. And they want to see the progress vendors are making on a regular basis. Third, they want the ability to make changes as they refine their vision of the project at hand and as business needs change. And finally, they want all of this delivered in an environment of minimized risk.

Selling Agile

Good consultants working in a traditional project management environment do their best to comply. They offer to build a solution which they believe solves the executive's problem, even if it hasn’t been fully articulated – or even fully envisioned. They offer weekly written status updates and occasional in-person meetings. Demos are largely out of the question until the product is nearly complete, but executives are promised that they will love it when they see it. Change is difficult for both sides, but that’s what change requests are for. But as for minimized risk? Not so much. Consultants and executives know that the final product will change from the original vision. They know that will impact delivery dates and budget. How much, no one is sure, but both sides promise to communicate fully to minimize the disruption.

Most people involved on either side will agree that this is a very fair assessment. But does it come even close to matching the executive’s wishes with the consultant’s deliverables? No, it really does not.

But there is an alternative. Agile delivers what the executives want. It minimizes risk, increases communication and demonstrations of progress, and embraces change. So why is it so hard to sell Agile to an executive?

“Ok. Stop. Step back a bit. Remind me what Agile is again?”

Agile is a framework that helps us deal with the complexity of not knowing. It is not about doing everything faster - rather we work in short, tight, time-boxes, we quickly do something, we inspect and adapt, and then we apply that learning right away as we try again or solve the next biggest challenge.
- Dave Dame, TED Lecturer and Enterprise Agile Leader

This is a great description because it doesn’t limit the framework to software development. However, within the fairly narrow focus of Agile technology consulting, it means tackling small solutions quickly, reviewing them with our stakeholders, learning what we did right and wrong, and then either improving them immediately or moving on to the next solution before repeating.

Good consultants working in an Agile environment can deliver exactly what executives want

Agile leads to a solution to the problem – not just the requested requirements. Because Agile allows consultants to deliver, show, and learn if the spirit of the requirement has truly been achieved. Everyone gets smarter before heading back to the drawing board or moving on to the next most important deliverable. This ensures that the real problems get articulated and eventually solved.

By building deliverable products and demoing progress on regular short intervals, executives and product owners always know where the product stands, and how the budget looks. And they do so without overwhelming amounts of communication. Weekly status reports are still prepared, but they are completely redundant.

As one would expect from the word, “Agile” is a framework built to manage change. Because requirements are actively refined, and the priority of deliverables is determined with each iteration, evolving vision or changing business needs are steps toward the right product rather than changes from the original requirements.

More will be said about risk in subsequent blog posts, but Agile minimizes risks. By focusing on only the minimum viable product and delivering that quickly, the risk associated with an extensive requirement gathering process is averted. Furthermore, but breaking the product down into small measurable deliverables, delivery date, and final budget can be predicted with heretofore unprecedented accuracy.

In summary, Agile may seem hard to sell, but the secret is to steer the focus away from time and materials and toward delivering the four things that every executive wants from his vendors:

  • A solution to the problem, even if it isn’t well explained up front.
  • Transparent easy-to-digest updates that keep executives comfortable with status and expenditures.
  • The ability to make inevitable changes in a friendly, welcoming, and economical environment.
  • And finally, all this delivered in a neat package of minimized risk.

Stick to these realities of Agile and you will be selling better projects to happier executives.

Categories: Agile,Agile Scrum,Scrum,Project Management

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