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Adopting Agile Execution Doesn’t Necessarily Make Your Business Agile.

Written by Ben Chamberlain on April 21st, 2021 at 10:32 am

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It’s a familiar story.  You adopt Agile techniques to start delivering projects, and it seems to work well.  So, you start delivering more projects using Agile, and that works well too.  Sure, there are a few missteps and a few areas where it’s less successful, but you gloss over those, because, well, it’s Agile!  Over time, teams start to create custom processes, you lose any standardization that you may have had initially, and pretty soon, gaining any insight into what’s happening from the top-down becomes impossible. The classic story of the perils in trying to scale Agile.

Agile teams may love focusing on velocity and team satisfaction, but that doesn’t help you manage your portfolio of investments.  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether your work is delivered using waterfall, Agile or ad hoc methods. What is important is knowing the value that is expected to be delivered, whether that value is actually being achieved and how much that value is going to cost you in effort and financial terms.  And you simply can’t get any of that if your Agile transformation is being driven from the bottom up.

Governance shouldn’t be hinderance

If that’s not enough this Agile expansion is resulting in poor governance, a lack of alignment between strategy and work, a lack of transparency into where your money is going and a whole bunch of missed dependencies.  You’re no better off than you were when all the work was being delivered using waterfall methods, and in some cases you’re worse off because at least your waterfall approach had some sort of project governance framework built in.

Rightsized governance ensures teams have the flexibility to execute – with an appropriate level of standardization – while also ensuring that the key stakeholders have the visibility and insight required to change course as needed.

Unfortunately, this is typically the story of numerous Agile transformations in countless organizations.  Somewhere between six and 18 months into the process, the organization hits the wall – any semblance of progress disappears and there is a realization that there has to be an investment in top-down governance – a way to give executives visibility, reporting and control, along with capabilities to maximize the return on investment with optimized, relevant value – for this approach to the work.

Manage your portfolios no matter how work is executed

That’s the path to true business agility – a strategic portfolio management framework that allows executive oversight and control of all work regardless of the modality.  Portfolio management does exactly what it says.  It manages the work of all of your portfolios to ensure that there is constant alignment between the investments being made, the purpose behind those investments, the work being done, and the benefits being achieved.  Portfolio management really is the hub of strategy execution – everything goes through it both from leadership and from the front-line work teams.

Connecting and aligning all execution with strategy is critical, and top-down business planning and controls are the key to integrating all portfolios and improving project execution to accelerate business transformation.

From a top-down standpoint, the function helps ensure prioritized work is resourced and scheduled appropriately.  It also helps ensure full resource utilization and appropriate distribution of work from both an execution standpoint and an organizational change perspective.  It supports the analysis of options when circumstances and objectives shift and ensures changes are implemented effectively and efficiently.

The glue that holds it all together

From a bottom-up standpoint, portfolio management consolidates and interprets information from all work teams, working in all modalities, to provide a consolidated picture of what’s happening to leadership in a way that is focused on value and set in the relevant context for each executive function.  It also acts as a delivery expert, guiding and advising leadership on the most appropriate changes to optimize performance.

Powerful interactive portfolio analysis features enable any stakeholder to utilize key metrics and measure the impact of any change to the current state of their portfolios.

For all stakeholders, portfolio management acts as a translator – providing information in a way that is relevant to the audience and is a catalyst for success – improving the likelihood of positive outcomes occurring by supporting everyone from the CEO to project team members.  Simply put, portfolio management increased success rates.

Top-down meets bottom-up

None of these portfolio management concepts are ‘anti-agile’, and they’re certainly not legacy waterfall approaches expanded to agile projects.  Take a look at any of the formal strategic or scaled agile frameworks – there are several, and you’ll see that they are all built on the concept of decomposing execution from the overall business strategies and priorities while leveraging continuous and adaptive planning.

And that’s really the point.  By all means expand the use of agile.  But do it as part of a strategy to improve the delivery performance of your portfolios.  Agile as an approach to work can do that at the front line.  But to create an enterprise capable of agility takes much more – it takes strategic portfolio management. Next we’ll go beyond projects.

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