The lean advantage: How companies are racing to make IT more agile

More companies are forgoing traditional IT practices for a lean, agile approach. Here's why it matters and how it could change your organization's approach to technology.
Written by Conner Forrest, Contributor
Image: iStockphoto/GeorgeRudy

Once merely the manifesto of Silicon Valley startups, the agile development methodology has become increasingly visible in the enterprise over the last few years.

In fact, a 2015 survey of nearly 4,000 organizations found that 94 percent of respondents were utilizing agile practices in some form or another. Increasing priority management, productivity, and project visibility were listed as some of the top reasons for deploying agile practices.

Many folks in IT would point to the 2001 Manifesto for Agile Software Development to explain the trend. The manifesto can be summed up in four distinct tenets:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  4. Responding to change over following a plan

However, recently the term 'agile' has come to encompass many aspects that can be ascribed to 'lean development' and 'fast IT' as well. Continuous software delivery through iteration and a focus on simplicity and adaptability are key to these trends.

While it may not be for everyone, the agile IT framework isn't going away anytime soon. Here's what you can learn about agile practices from two companies that have implemented them.

Why go agile?

There are many potential reasons that an organization begin engaging with agile techniques. For PayPal, the conversations around agile IT began as the company was experiencing severe growing pains.

"As PayPal grew from a small startup into the leading payments innovator, our processes simply didn't scale with our growth," said Kirsten Wolberg, vice president of technology at PayPal. "The time to get from product idea to releasable code had shifted from weeks to many, many, many months."

Engineers were frustrated, business partners were frustrated, and customers were frustrated, Wolberg said. PayPal's technology had become "a very expensive black hole." But, once they began to implement agile development, things began to change.

The company moved from an internally-focused model for product design to a customer-focused iterative model using agile methods. It allowed them to streamline the company around their core products and drive ownership and accountability for product development. According to a PayPal spokesperson, by using agile methods, they have improved productivity by approximately 29 percent and reduced team size by 8 percent.

For Medullan, a digital health agency in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the push towards agile began with their clients needing a way to get their product to market faster. Tim Smith, vice president of program management at Medullan, said that his leadership team combined the lean product management approach with agile development techniques to solve the problem.

Now, Smith said, agile has redefined nearly every aspect of their organization.

"Starting with the language we use both internally and with clients, to the way we approach a problem, to the types of people we bring on board, no stone has been left unturned," Smith said.

Who needs agile?

Just because agile is a prevailing trend, doesn't mean it's a good fit for your organization. Of those respondents to the survey mentioned above, only 53 percent said their agile efforts were a success.

Wolberg said that agile development contributed much in terms of productivity and velocity, but huge benefits came in terms of the transparency it offered across the organization.

"From CEO to individual scrum team members, everyone can see progress against commitments and expected completion dates," Wolberg said.

So, if your organization needs a productivity or speed boost, or you want a better window into what is going on, agile may be a good solution. And, while Wolberg recommends agile IT in both small and large companies, she said the real impact comes in alleviating some of the issues associated with growth and scalability.

For Smith, the major 'pro' of lean/agile practices is eliminating the guesswork in solving major problems. It helps his team validate that they are "solving the right problem with the right solution."

However, he said, they do experience some resistance from hesitant clients. Traditional approaches to IT have long been deeply embedded in many industries, and healthcare is one of them. If they can convince the clients, though, Smith said there is often no turning back.

If you are considering an agile IT path, Smith said, bear in mind that it requires a unique relationship and a clear set of expectations between business partners. Those in a typical vendor/buyer relationship may encounter some problems.

"Agile IT will deliver value in shorter, smaller increments, but it will require the ability to embrace change, actively collaborate, and champion how these practices may challenge your organization to evolve," Smith said.

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