Alex I will take "Vast Transformations with Half Vast Alignment" for Five Thousand

Posted by Steve Elliott on Sep 26, 2016 1:22:32 PM



Question:  Is it better to start scaling before you have alignment across executives, business units and products or is it best to first get alignment and start your agile transformation with a process that is designed to keep the entire business in alignment?

Starting with good alignment is an absolute no-brainer for the rare few but that is not the reality that most large organizations live in.  So the question then more realistically becomes something akin to: Is it better to get started before we have alignment and try to iterate to alignment knowing it will be a big mess or do we wait and spend time trying to get everyone to buy in on a single framework and flow before you start.    These days I see a lot of organizations landing on let’s get started and iterate to alignment as fast as we can.  It is seriously messy and political for all involved but waiting for alignment is like waiting for an honest politician.  It does happen but it’s like seeing the northern lights (rare and unpredictable). 

With the deliberate intent of iterating to alignment in a complex and political system, in this blog we’ll take a look at the 5 steps that can get you there faster and help de-risk a vast transformation. 

#1 – Set the Terminology -  When bringing together many groups, it’s pretty common to have terminology used in many different ways. In order to set the enterprise up for success, terminology should be set across the enterprise. By doing this you will break down communication barriers from the teams through to the executives. Agile is acronym rich and confusing for business people with limited agile training to begin with.  If the groups do not use common terminology this challenge is accentuated. This gets the enterprise speaking the same language from day one.   This is true even if you have multiple methods and levels of agility at play.  Finding that common vocabulary is worth the effort.

#2 – Connect the business to technology -  A key part of the alignment is creating the connections between your business and your technology.  The epic (also referred to as a project historically) should be consistently used to link business to development.   The epic should require a base level of data to capture intake, budget, approval, high level estimation, business case and link to corporate strategy.  By creating this link, all business units and portfolios are aligned for financial, strategic and progress reporting.

#3Fix the number of backlog levels and estimation models -  An important step in the process is to fix the amount of backlog levels and estimation models. The enterprise should require a consistent level of backlog decomposition across all teams regardless of agile maturity level and a common unit of estimation across those levels (i.e. the enterprise uses the same method to estimate the epic - either team week, person week, points, WSJF or t-shirt size).  A common structure is Strategy -> Theme -> Epic -> Feature -> Story.  The flatter this hierarchy the easier it will become for the portfolio, programs and teams to right-size their backlogs and become predictable.  Other levels can be added but the complexity and estimation accuracy will likely be affected.  The task level below the story can be optional depending on level of agile maturity.   Often a portfolio will work with tasks until the teams reach a high level of predictability and are able to break stories down to low point levels at all times.  Once predictability is achieved, tasks can be removed and the teams can rely on story points alone.   A standard depth of backlog and method to size the backlog improves predictability, visibility and communication across the enterprise.

#4Get a common planning cadence - A key step of driving towards alignment is ensuring your enterprise is on a common planning cadence.  Seems like a pretty basic concept however a common planning cadence is needed to drive consistency across the enterprise and enable cross-program / cross-portfolio planning.  Decoupling planning from delivery is virtually the only reliable way to help all of the teams align risks, objectives and dependencies.   Getting all teams to line up around quarters, for example, is a common way to get everyone planning together.  Although not required, getting the teams on a common sprint cadence increases efficiency and productivity with another frequent alignment mechanism across teams.

#5Implement dependency management - The last step is to implement dependency management. You must have a team to team dependency management process for all feature level delivery. This process enables the teams to plan their roadmaps and delivery schedules.  Without a firm commitment of teams that is strongly aligned to the calendar, it is near impossible for teams to commit to dates if they are dependent on another team.  Best practices once this is in place is to analyze dependency clustering activity then optimize programs and teams to reduce the amount of dependencies.   Dependencies are an agility killer and the best way to reduce them is to modify the technology or the structure of portfolios, programs and teams (or a combination of both).  This is very difficult to do so the first step is strong management of dependencies.

A few runner ups include:

  • If possible align the states and workflow across all teams to streamline reporting and communication. 
  • Create risk definition and regular risk management for all feature level delivery items where a significant impact on variation in outcomes is advised for better outcomes.  
  • Once the backlog is delivered, implement acceptance criteria to be used at the Epic, Feature, Story level.
  • Put constraints on acceptance criteria to add guardrails for compliance by program as needed.
  • Aligning the work to strategies and themes for all business units (with placeholders where definition does not exist) provides invaluable reporting at the executive level that can be used in the future to place better bets and ensure that we are working on what will impact the business the most. 

The items above get us to a level playing field where all work is visible.  From there I submit that agile practices with dedicated teams will prove superior in delivering quality with predictability.  That fact will be very transparent and hard to dismiss.  Positive results accelerate the move to agile and build excitement to further invest in simplifying software at scale.  Transformations are not for the timid but out innovating your competition through the use of technology is the prize. 

Can that really wait another day?


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Topics: Scaled Agile, Bi-Modal, Agile

Agile 2016 – Did I just see a seven-foot YETI or did I drink too much?

Posted by Steve Elliott on Aug 4, 2016 2:30:55 PM

Once again we had another stellar Agile Alliance conference.  Keynotes were great, the best sessions had lines of people waiting to get in; we couldn’t have asked for more. We really loved introducing SAM the Yeti to everyone.  People were so excited to meet SAM and he loved hanging out with the people. We look forward to this show each year because it is a chance to not only collaborate with the best companies and thought leaders but also a chance to have some fun and poke a little fun at ourselves.  We were a little hesitant on how a seven-foot Yeti named SAM and our tradition of designing edgy / humorous shirts and swag would be received.  Based on the 100’s of pictures people took and shared and the fact each featured shirt was gone within 10 minutes; I think we did ok.  We even have a backlog of nearly a thousand requests for more AgileCraft swag.  For the record, SAM is an acronym for Scaled Agile Management and his specialty is scaling with speed and accuracy.  If you are going on an epic trip to the highest peak, having a yeti watch your back just makes sense.

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Topics: Scaled Agile, Bi-Modal, Agile 2016

Don’t get Stuck in the 80s (Hair Bands Excluded)

Posted by Steve Elliott on Jun 15, 2016 9:52:51 AM




The 80s were a big deal to my generation.  The 80s shaped my earliest memories.  I cherish the dawn of the personal computer, video games, hair bands, rap, break dancing and so much more from back in the day.  In terms of how to drive culture I have held on to literally nothing that was embraced in the 80s.  For culture I look to the last 15 years of innovation for inspiration.    

In terms of management culture what has changed since the 80s?  Just about everything.  In addition to the changes with the attitude of a servant leader, middle management’s role in development, self-organizing and rewarding teams versus individuals … a culture of continuous measurement with rapid feedback loops to adjust the plan for maximum results also has a significant impact on culture.  This is especially true when turned inward to the employees of an organization.

Did you know that John Deere measures employee engagement and morale every two weeks?[1] A company that achieved earnings of $1.94 billion in 2015 reaches back into their immense employee base every two weeks. That’s 26 times per year they are successfully conducting employee engagement surveys. So you may be wondering why such an intense focus on the employees every 2 weeks?

The reason …happy employees make happy customers. Employee measurement is the easy part, but that raises the next question: how do you create happy employees? The answer in my view is to implement an Agile methodology and mindset.

So, how does that translate into happy employees and a great culture? Imagine if you were working on an assembly line and you never got to see what the final product was. Day after day you did your part and completed your part of the task. Six, nine or even twelve months later, you were still working on the same product.  You didn’t know what others were doing and you didn’t think the broader company was aware of your efforts. Yes, you may have been rewarded for your efforts along the way, but don’t you want to see the final product? The fruits of your labor? Well that’s were Agile changes the game.

In Agile, “The highest priority is to satisfy the customer”.[2]  Agile is worth the price of admission because it enables companies to drive better results. Agile allows for increased flexibility, which enables teams to better react and meet their customer’s needs.  To leverage a famously overused cliché from Walter Gretzky (Wayne’s Dad), companies want to “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.”

Agile generates increased visibility of IT led activities within an enterprise. It creates an environment that promotes an inclusive culture through collaboration.  This results in a culture that not only requests, but welcomes inputs into projects from all business units within an enterprise.  Agile done right creates a culture that allows for experimenting and more importantly, collaboration.

Unlike other methodologies that rely on a project plan with features and goals set at the beginning of a project, Agile follows an incremental, iterative path. Agile allows for changing requirements over time. Based upon early and often feedback, the team can determine if they are headed in the wrong direction and quickly pivot. This results in eliminating the development of features that customers no longer need or want, while also eliminating the frustration within the development team.

By living and breathing in an Agile World, enterprises are more productive, able to respond and react to customer’s requests, increase internal visibility, and improve employee engagement and satisfaction. Ultimately, it results in happy employees.

So whether you refer to it as a mindset or a methodology, we all understand moving to an Agile environment isn’t easy and it isn’t a magic bullet. When your enterprise makes the decision to embrace Agile, the benefits reach farther than just the technology; it reaches to the people and ultimately the culture as well.

So put on a good hair band, grab a big white board and then design your internal feedback loops for a better culture.  Just remember to iterate on your internal process frequently and be relentlessly repetitive with messaging to the entire organization the benefits of a lean / Agile culture.  The result is a highly transparent culture that is always on the lookout for ways to better engage the team and by extension the customer.

At AgileCraft, we deliver the most comprehensive software solution available for scaling agile to the enterprise. AgileCraft transforms the way organizations enable and manage agile productivity across their enterprise, portfolios, programs, and teams by aligning business strategy with technical execution. To find out more visit us at www.agilecraft.com or follow us on twitter @theagilecraft or download our latest whitepaper An Insider's Perspective: Bank of America


[1] https://hbr.org/2016/05/why-john-deere-measures-employee-morale-every-two-weeks

[2] https://www.Agilealliance.org/Agile101/12-principles-behind-the-Agile-manifesto/




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Topics: Bi-Modal, SAFe 4.0, Enterprise Scaled Agile, Culture

Agile vs. Waterfall – It’s Debate Season Again

Posted by Steve Elliott on May 18, 2016 8:36:00 AM

Agile vs. Waterfall – It’s Debate Season Again

My view is we can declare the debate between Agile vs. Waterfall over, but before we do, let me attempt to make the case. Late last year, Gartner released a report highlighting the need for CIOs to embrace agile development along with a recommendation that IT leaders and executives adopt this methodology as quickly as possible.[i]  With many CIOs and IT leadership under intense pressure to support fast-evolving strategic transformations, companies are finding traditional project and software development methodologies unsuitable, according to Gartner. Enterprises are turning to Agile development to speed up projects and illustrate their value and companies that delay the decision are paying a big price in the market.

Technology leaders instinctively know that companies in the modern technology-driven era that are unable to drive a process that is built for rapid evolution will struggle to compete. So the why is well established but the how is still a little muddy for some.   The same driver that has been there for the last 20 years is still at play. The difference is the processes and tools to do agile at scale are now becoming main stream.

Let’s look at the two concepts one last time and discuss both approaches starting with the waterfall method.

Waterfall - The “Traditional” Methodology

Often called the traditional or classic approach – this method is linear and sequential. Waterfall is one in which each phase of a product’s life cycle takes place as part of a flow or a sequence of events. One step leads to another, hence the name Waterfall. Progress on one step needs to be completed before the next step or phase can begin. Once the concept is created it moves to design, then implementation and then further down the line until the product development cycle is completed.

In this method, all the planning is completed up front. All the requirements gathering, design work and more has to be completed before any development and coding begins. Once the project moves on from one stage to the other, there is no turning back.

Companies that followed the Waterfall methodology achieved these perceived benefits:

  1. Requires less coordination due to a stage-gated sequential processes
  2. Phase steps are clear since they are modeled and processed one at a time
  3. Cost of the project can be estimated after the requirements have been defined
  4. Better focus on documentation of designs and requirements
  5. Design phase is more methodical and structured before any software is written

Agile – A “Movement”, not just a Methodology

Agile evolved out of a variety of software philosophies to demonstrate alternatives to Waterfall. In early 2001, a group of software development practitioners discussed their shared ideas and various approaches to software development. This culminated in the introduction of Manifesto for Agile Software Development and the corresponding twelve principles. [ii]

Agile software development methodology is an approach that follows an incremental, iterative path. Unlike the Waterfall methodology, where extensive planning and design occurs up front, Agile methodology allows for changing requirements over time. A cross-functional team made up of designers, developers, testers and more focus on development of the product over a fixed period of time. This defined period of time is established by the team and usually lasts 2 – 4 weeks.

At the end of each iteration, the goal is to present a product to the business owners. The software is delivered incrementally over time instead of delivering one final product at the end. Each phase is a key part of a continuous process vs. a fixed step by step approach. With the Agile methodology, the focus is on consistent communication and short feedback loops. So, if a team is heading in the wrong direction, the feedback they receive will let them know right away vs. waiting until a lengthy development cycle is completed.

Agile provides the following perceived benefits:

  1. Faster Feedback Cycles
  2. Identifies problems early
  3. Higher potential for customer satisfaction
  4. Time to market is dramatically improved
  5. Better visibility / accountability
  6. Dedicated teams drive better productivity over time
  7. Flexible Prioritization focused on value delivery


 Which approach is better?

This question seems to never go away but the software world is finally turning the corner on the debate. Two truisms: Software Eating the World = TRUE and Agile is Eating Software = TRUE. There are cases for a slower and more stage gated process with some projects but for the vast majority agile is the future.

Blending the two worlds is important during the long transformation journey but the debate on the merits is clear. With the continuing need for enterprises to retain a competitive advantage in their market place, Agile is an established methodology allowing companies to drive better results (plain and simple).

Agile allows for increased flexibility, which enables teams to better react and meet their customer’s needs. Agile creates the ability for companies to capture maximum value for the dollar and avoid unnecessary overhead / budgetary spending.  

In the end, it comes down to enterprise business agility. What you call your software process / method is not the point. The point is your process had better be flexible enough to drive innovation and keep up with your market / your competitors or you may end up the Kodak, Circuit City or Blockbuster of the software world.

What’s next? Check back for part 2 of our series “We’ve decided to go agile, now what? Key steps to readiness”


[i] Gartner clients report "Ten Things the CIO Needs to Know About Agile Development."

[ii] Principles behind the Agile Manifesto http://www.agilemanifesto.org/principles.html

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Topics: Bi-Modal, SAFe 4.0, Strategic Planning, Enterprise Scaled Agile

Using Agile Based Strategic Planning Across Your Enterprise

Posted by Steve Elliott on Mar 11, 2016 5:00:00 PM


What does it mean to have an “Agile” strategic planning process?

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Topics: Bi-Modal, SAFe 4.0, Strategic Planning, Enterprise Scaled Agile

Help: My Teams Are Agile But My Execs Are Waterfall! (Part 2)

Posted by Steve Elliott on Nov 5, 2015 5:00:00 AM

In our last post we framed an approach that PMOs and Program Managers should take when caught in between waterfall planning and agile execution. Tactical questions you may have include:

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Topics: Bi-Modal