Agile in Practice: Prioritising Process over Principles
20 years ago, 17 esteemed software developers met in Snowbird, Utah to propose a new way of developing software “by doing it and helping others do it.” The Snowbird 17 unanimously agreed that organisations were so focused on excessively planning and documenting their software development cycles that they lost sight of what mattered – culture, collaboration, and making customers happy.
This set of principles turned into the “Agile Manifesto for Software Development” and at the time was seen as a landmark moment. Its number one principle highlighted their shared vision of “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” [i].
20 years on it can strongly be argued that many organisations, particularly within financial services, have made little tangible progress in adherence to the principles of the Manifesto, instead sticking with a process heavy approach.
In this blog, we look at some of the key reasons behind this, and how these can be overcome.
Prioritisation of Process
Lack of full leadership buy-in. The 2019 Business Agility Report found that leadership style was highlighted as the biggest challenge to agility adoption with lack of buy in and insufficient support across leadership teams [ii]. A leader sets the tone for the entire organization. Without full buy-in and behaviours that look to adopt a new culture and way of thinking, mixed messages will be sent to the rest of the organisation, with different approaches used when implementing agile ways of working and unfortunately in many cases, preserving the status quo [iii].
Highly regulated institutions – Faced with higher levels of regulation than the majority of other industries, banks are spending an extraordinary amount (approximately 40% to 60%) of their change budget on regulatory compliance [iv]. By default, they have often stuck to Waterfall project management with the viewpoint that regulatory deadlines have fixed scope; sequential delivery provides greater transparency and visibility; and that stakeholders / end users are familiar with ongoing checks, risk and issue logs, and requirements documentation [v].
Risk averse culture. As a result of being highly focused towards regulatory compliance, financial services organisations are naturally conservative in their approach to risk management, and with good reason. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, regulators pressed down heavily on compliance. Serious failures can result in fines, further regulatory constraints, legal action, and damage to their reputation. This means process heavy ways of working have remained the norm.
Key Drivers of Change
Moving away from deeply entrenched habits and processes requires collective change and constant collaboration. Three key drivers can help financial services organisations on that journey:
- Leadership vision alignment. The leadership team must be aligned in their vision to successfully implement agile methodologies. From our experience supporting organisations on their journey, without a collective message from the top, successive layers of management cannot effectively drive the breakdown of the vision into smaller components of change within their teams. The principles of Agile espouse leadership being the change in the organisation, rather than only driving and promoting it.
- Continuous delivery and innovation. The focus must always be prioritising the greatest value in the shortest timeframe; both via delivery and through innovation. For example, spikes can be used to garner further investigation regarding a complex requirement. Proof of Concepts (POCs) can be timeboxed to effectively evaluate whether a new idea is worth pursuing further. Finally, minimum viable products (MVPs) can then be quickly turned around for early feedback and help drive future business decisions. If the idea does not progress further, it is only relatively a small amount of development work rather than many months of wasted effort that we regularly see with Waterfall projects.
- Leverage value of agile ceremonies. Planning, review and retro ceremonies act as effective vehicles to continually demo, feedback what is going well and what can be improved and helping prioritise what is committed to the following iteration. At the business stakeholder level, it can also be effective to setup targeted “Inspect, Adapt and Learn” meetings in addition to regular requirements and delivery sessions. These meetings should aim to foster a two-way collaboration to inspect the status of Product delivery; adapt through actions and refinement of product backlog and learn from feedback provided on the product and ways of working.
Agility is becoming increasingly popular and there is growing recognition of its transformational benefits – however the principles are key. Success requires aligned leadership, focus on delivery, innovation and fostering an environment of learning and collaboration. Adding layers of process only muddies the waters and adds unnecessary complexity.
[i] Manifesto for Agile Software Development (agilemanifesto.org)
[iii] Overcoming the most common challenges of an agile transformation | McKinsey