Let go of certainty, start using your brain: How to make the most of agile development

Agile can help deliver better software faster: top CIOs share how they are making the transition.

CIO Johan Kestens: "Agile allows great engineers to be greater -- they have the freedom to use their brains." Image: Romolo Tavani
Modern CIOs operate in constant state of flux. Help comes in the form of agile methodologies, which can help IT organisations match their development efforts to the fast-changing demands of business users and end customers

Software analysis and measurement specialist Cast held its European CIO Forum in Brussels recently, where IT leaders from across the continent discussed strategies for successful digital transformation. Here are four ways for CIOs to make the most of agile development methods.

1. Keep a watchful eye on your project backlog

Johan Kestens, CIO at ING Belgium, says driving the change associated with digital transformation can be tricky. "People underestimate how difficult and expensive it is to create a new future," he says. "It can be very tough to get the chemistry right."

ING uses agile to respond proactively to fast-changing requirements and to plan, change, and deploy applications. "Modern software technology allows us to abandon waterfall and go back to a team-based approach, which is the way that a great, surgical team operates," says Kestens. "Agile allows great engineers to be greater -- they have the freedom to use their brains."

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He says ING has 400 DevOps projects up-and-running in total, with about 30 under his stewardship. The business helps developers to prioritise certain initiatives. Projects are then run in two- to four-week sprints.

"In agile, there are often too many things happening at the same time. There's so much dust in the air that it can be very challenging. Experience really matters in these areas," says Kestens.

"You have to keep track of the total backlog and think carefully how you will work through different systems. To keep everything together, we use the concept of release trains -- you need great station-masters to make sure all the different trains come through."

2. Concentrate on the front-end systems of engagement

An alternative view comes from Gerdy De Clercq, head of integrated solutions and transformation at mobile telecoms company Proximus. De Clercq says agile represents about five to seven per cent of the firm's development efforts and about 30 staff. Their work is centred on mobile and web.

"We want to introduce agile wherever we can," says De Clercq. "It would be great if we could move towards 40 per cent of IT development during the next few years. Possibly one approach is to start with the mobile agile team and work from there."

De Clercq believes cultural change can be one of the biggest barriers to the use of agile working methods. He says agile efforts at Proximus will stay directed towards customer experience rather than legacy technologies.

"You don't want agile everywhere -- people can only stomach so much change and some systems work just fine as they are," says De Clercq. "Our back-end systems will stay at a slower pace. Agile should be focused on the front-end systems of engagement. That's where the opportunities exist."

3. Build strong project guidelines and quality standards

Paul Thysens, CIO at BNP Paribas Fortis, says his IT organisation has just started using agile methodologies. He says the key lesson for technology chiefs is to recognise that agile needs structure: BNP has strict guidance around how people work. The objective for the firm is to get 20 to 30 per cent of development efforts switched to agile during the next 18 months.

"Agility requires different quality standards," says Thysens, comparing the technique to traditional IT development. "Measurement has to be creative; our people have come up with great ideas around automated testing. They measure themselves -- it creates a positive mindset. It's a good place to start."

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Thysens says the move towards agility forms part of a company-wide digital transformation. Agility, he says, allows staff in the company to gain a deeper understanding of how changes in products can lead to improvements in customer satisfaction. Such awareness helps build worker pride.

"People start to get an idea of who the customer is and why their requirements matter," says Thysens. "The objective is to be part of a chain that delivers great results for the customer. Measurement is only part of that chain -- but it's very significant and can help push a change in mindset."

Another key element, says Thysens, is management. Agile methods require senior IT employees to work closely with line-of-business functions. "Managers need to make sure they're not distracted and that they can deliver the right results on time. The manager will then be able to work with stakeholders. They have to support their people," he says.

4. Focus on portfolio management to create long-term change

Andrew Agerbak, associate director at The Boston Consulting Group, says digital transformation and agile development present huge opportunities to organisations. To take advantage of those openings, businesses must be able to measure, iterate, and improve. And like Thysens, Agerbak recognises that management concerns will play a crucial role in success.

He says a movement to agile requires a strong focus on staff training. Certain roles absorb more change than others. Agerbak's research suggests senior IT workers find the changes to be the most complex. "It's profoundly unsettling to let go of perceived certainty," he says. "You need to deal with that perception head-on in order to be able to drive changes."

Agerbak says portfolio management is key. Rather than treating project reviews as an annual event, progress evaluation should become a continuous, iterative, and long-term conversation.

"Meaningful engagement requires a focus on value -- qualitative chatter will not be enough. You need to get executives to point out how projects will lead to business improvements," he says.

"Moving to agile means letting go of product prioritisation -- the developers will find it hard to see that other people in the business are in charge of the project backlog. But there are behaviours to champion --- promote flexibility and train people. Leadership behaviours will be crucial in this context. It's crucial to think about how managers use information to change culture."

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