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MegaAgileTron and Sharpie Man Move To A Smaller Tent

A friend of mine works for a company that did some one-stop shopping and hired the vendor of their agile project management software to also run their IT organization transformation.  Handily, the transformation consisted of implementing the tool, which I'll call MegaAgileTron, and then providing training on the tool.  Apparently, at my friend's Friday's stand-up meeting, one of the people on his team said proudly "Wow, I have a lot of work to do today in [MegaAgileTron]!" And everyone nodded enthusiastically about how agile they have all become.  As my friend said, "it wasn't funny at the time, but now that I think about it..."

Agile project management tracking software has become its own industry, and the gadget-oriented CIO may be tempted to think that the best way to take her organization to the next level is to buy, install, and provide training on a new project management tool.  This approach, once taken, has the handy side effect that she can now easily prove the "success of the agile transition" by grabbing some readily accessible metrics, like "how many people are using the tool?" or "what projects are being tracked in the tool?" or, in the extreme case of my friend using MegaAgileTron, "how many hours a day are people spending in the tool?"  And really, that's fine with MegaAgileTron, especially for the short term, because at the end of the day, they're in business to sell licenses.

On the other hand, agile zealots, with whom I uneasily align myself at all times, sometimes lose track of the fundamental fact that what you're trying to do in your organization is become more effective, not become more agile, although of course we all like to think that these two are correlated.  But if purists believe it is "more agile" to limit oneself to a wall covered messily with sharpie-annotated sticky notes than to install a tool, then they will advocate violently for the sticky notes and the sharpies.  I am aware to my sorrow of a project on which purists were asked to update both the card wall and the electronic tool, and refused to do it, because "double-entry isn't agile," even though for their particular situation, double entry was the least evil of the available options to keep the project moving forward.

So as MegaAgileTron takes on Sharpie man for the banner of agile process purity, I have to ask myself, "why?"  Why does talk of "agile" slide so quickly into talk of processes and tools?  I think the answer is that it's harder to talk about something big like "IT's return on investment to the business" than something small like "what did I do when I clocked into work today."

An effective organizational transformation to agile techniques and philosophy requires an old-fashioned quantifiable business case which should be revisited by a high level corporate steering body on a regular basis for results.  "Make a good business case" is not an agile concept--it's a business concept upon which agile depends on many levels, from justifying an agile pilot to justifying any given project within the agile portfolio.  Building a good business case is hard, and requires the best attention of your best business strategists.  Tool-buying decisions and decisions about how an individual project team plan to conduct business can be done with far less rigor in most corporate contexts, since these decisions get made by "the tool department" or the individual line manager.  With time, passion, and energy at a premium in all corporations, the business case doesn't always get made, and that's to the detriment of the transformation.

If you're toying with the idea of "going agile," please work to understand how you will measure the actual business value of changing your IT organization, before you do much investment in highly paid internationally acclaimed speakers, professional services, tool-buying, or training on tools.

In its simplest form, the Agile Manifesto would ask you whether post-transition, you now get "Working Software" out of your IT organization:
  • faster, 
  • cheaper, 
  • and/or with more reliable quality. 
Or if you're taking a longer view, you might also measure whether your organizational transformation has impacted:
  • executive confidence (does the process seem more predictable than the old process, allowing for executive flexibility as the project team learns more?), 
  • customer satisfaction (do they like you better now that they get to participate in your process?), 
  • sales (overall, has your company reputation improved, and with it, your overall new sales?), and
  • employee turnover (do your employees like the new process, and flee less?).
If you are writing software for the internal use of your own company, rather than sale to customers, you may also want to measure:
  • how productive are the users of the software, in terms of the goods or services THEY produce, before and after the change to the IT organization.
You will also want to factor in the cost of change itself--your experiments with agile will have their own cost, so in your measurements, you will want to make sure to ask whether things are taking longer or being more expensive for your company due to the use of agile, in a way that will remain relatively constant over time, or whether the effect is a short term effect of being in transition.

Luminaries like Jim Highsmith and Michael Mah have long since made a rigorous, quantified case for how agile software development has paid off in businesses like yours in the past.  Read their work and ponder its impact on your business.  But as you actually proceed with your own transformation, let me just issue the simple reminder that you want to keep focused on the health of the business as you proceed, and not get lost in the sideshow antics of the process people.  Choose tools to use based on the business problem you're trying to solve.

[Disclaimer:  I am necessarily agnostic with regards to tools, since I think they should be chosen to fit your actual business need, but my firm, ThoughtWorks, does sell one, Mingle, which seems to have been quite good in a lot of contexts.]

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