Five top tips for making agile development work for you

Agile development can deliver better services faster: here's how one company made the switch.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Agile really suits people that like to think on their feet, says Rob Harding, European CIO at Capital One.

Image: Capital One

Rob Harding, European CIO at finance firm Capital One, says the establishment of agile development -- first across key technology projects and then across the wider organisation -- has helped change his business for the better.

Like many other companies, Capital One had become tied to traditional 'waterfall' development techniques. Harding was keen to find a way to help his company embrace digital transformation, and the finance firm started piloting agile at the start of 2014 and discovered the approach provided an improvement on waterfall methods.

"There comes a point when you stare at a Gantt chart, look at all the projects you're running, and wonder whether this is the best way to get new services out to your customers," he says. "I like the focus on teams in agile and the ability to get people focused on very specific projects."

One of the firm's first successful agile projects was QuickCheck, a service-based tool designed by the IT team that allows customers to test their suitability for credit. QuickCheck became a key product and the project helped prove the benefits of an iterative way of working to the wider business.

The company used the switch to agile as a re-focussing and concentrating on the projects that mattered most: by using agile development, Capital One's European IT team managed to cut the amount of projects it worked on from 90 to 35 between 2014 and 2015.

"We use many of the principles associated to agile, such as visualising, stand-ups, and co-location, in how we run the business day-to-day," says Harding. "There are people in the call centre, for example, using daily stand-ups to analyse their metrics and customer satisfaction scores."

The aim, he says, is to create a flexible, fluid environment that allows people across the organisation to work to the best of their abilities. Here, Harding provides five best-practice tips for business leaders looking to make the most of an iterative way of working.

1. Get everyone included and set your agenda

Harding says all kinds of people across the business must play a part in the adoption process. He says success will mean everyone understands the potential benefits, from executives at the top table right through to staff on project teams.

"Agile allows your people to work on specific projects and it allows the executive team to get a lot crisper about what really matters. Get very rigorous about what you're working on and why," he says.

"You have to police your work in progress ruthlessly. You have to acknowledge what is the true capacity of your business to get things delivered and to absorb change. You then need to set your agenda accordingly."

2. Make sure you have great people

Harding says one of the big differences he has noticed as the firm has shifted from waterfall to agile development is that so much of the success or failure of an interactive project is based on the way that people interact on a daily basis, particularly in areas like daily stand-ups.

"Waterfall tends to lead to an environment in which everyone goes away, works on their document individually, and then passes it around. Agile really suits people that like to think on their feet and solve problems in a collaborative way," he says.

"Build your team from great people and set an incredibly high bar in terms of the talent you have in your organisation. Agile is never really finished, and we rely on constant re-enforcement and re-investment in the methodology."

3. Understand how geography matters

Co-location is often viewed as a key to agile success: ideally, the whole team will all be located in the same place and will sit side-by-side in the same room or space. However, 100 per cent co-location is often a tough ask.

Harding recognises most executives will not be fortunate to have an infinitely scalable, single floor building with enough space to hire all the people they need. Instead, CIOs must make best use of their existing real estate footprint.

"Ensure the facilities you have support the agile working environment," says Harding. "I often joke that the success of an agile project depends on how much wall space you have because, without that, you can't stick the Post-it notes up and you can't visualise the work."

4. Create a culture where people enjoy learning

Agile represents a significant step change in approach, says Harding. People who are often familiar with a particular way of working, such as waterfall, will have to learn to operate in a new way. Most importantly, success will rely on your people being keen to learn new principles.

"For me, a huge benefit of the agile way of working is retrospectives and being able to take tangible things that have happened in the previous sprint. When we ran a waterfall approach, we used the concept of lessons learned. But the strange thing is that it was rare that lessons actually were learnt," says Harding.

"People, unfortunately, tended to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Because the retrospectives are more frequent in agile, and often more fine-grained, more of the lessons learned during the development process do fold into the way of working and do improve team interaction."

5. Deliver great outcomes early and often

Harding recognises that all good change management methodologies encourage executives to find quick wins. However, he says proving the business benefit of agile at an early stage is likely to be critical.

"Employees expend a huge amount of emotional energy on fears around whether things are really progressing well. Being able to point to tangible things that have made a difference -- such as boosting customer service, or improvements to an internally facing project -- is a huge part of success," says Harding.

He says the firm's QuickCheck project is probably the best example of delivering great results quickly. But pilot work around big data on the Hadoop platform -- and seeing the time to market for services shift from days to hours of computation -- was also significant.

"A quick win gives you something to celebrate; it's a demonstration that the change is valid. It shows you can do some really interesting stuff through agile if you bring interesting technology and great people together," says Harding.

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