Digital Economy Dispatch #053

12th September 2021

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The True Role of Agile Project Management in Driving Digital Transformation

I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning

Stevie Smith, Not Waving but Drowning

We’ve all been there. That strong feeling when you know the project you’re managing can’t possibly deliver anything meaningful in the time available. The endless emails and slack messages all asking, “who’s on first?”. Project progress meetings where no one wants to speak up. The Zoom calls when everyone is on mute with the camera off and you’re convinced that half the people who should be paying attention are busy updating their CVs on Linkedin. In short: A car crash waiting to happen.

Yet, these projects march on. Despite this shared dread spreading across the team, there seems to be a sense of powerlessness and inevitability. The head honcho has planted the flag, and forward we must go. It is a dispiriting and familiar experience.

It doesn’t seem to get any better when one bright project manager declares that you need not worry because they have now “gone agile” and split up the project into a series of 2 week sprints. A Gantt chart is distributed with a 30 week timeline (no dates!) broken into 2 week chunks that cascade one after the other down the page. You ask for a few more details and the project manager seems confused. The magic agile pixie dust has been sprinkled. What more is needed?

I hope this little fictitious scenario does not resemble the projects on which you’re spending your valuable time. Although, from feedback I’ve been receiving from several people lately, I have a strong suspicion that it might!

While several leading figures have declared that the past few months have brought the equivalent of several years rapid acceleration in digital transformation, on the ground and in the trenches for many people the challenges remain frustratingly familiar. Projects are late and over budget. Individuals are overwhelmed with growing “to-do” lists and full inboxes, feeling out of control bouncing from one top priority project to the next, and engaged with sprawling teams where coordination is lacking and the end goal never quite seems to be within our grasp.

Project delivery practices have remained disappointingly poor. Even as organizations have increasingly directed their focus toward digital transformation, their concentration has predominantly been on delivering digital products and services to meet the needs of their clients and digitizing working practices to gain efficiencies across the organization. These have brought significant benefits and had a major impact on financial performance. However, surveys and reviews of the digital maturity of organizations consistently highlight that these advances are necessary but not sufficient to ensure meaningful improvement to project management. Changes are required in the mindset, attitudes, and day-to-day activities of workers across the organization. Although digital technology adoption is well underway, project delivery now requires significant attention to drive progress.

Here, agile approaches offer a great deal of promise. Bringing flexibility to projects is a key reason why digital transformation is most often defined using the terminology and practices that have been promoted by agilists for the past 20 years.  Agile project management topics have been essential to the agile movement from its earliest days. Indeed, it can be argued that the foundation for the “Agile Manifesto” lies squarely in the need to change the perspective on delivery to avoid the project “death marches” too frequently experienced in large complex situations in favour of a stream of product features providing increasing customer value. So why is this aspect of an agile approach so poorly applied in digital transformation activities?

I believe an important insight into this failure lies in a misunderstanding the  role it plays and establishing the right starting point in applying an agile project management approach. This is seen clearly in large established organizations (LEOs) with a core skill set and culture of large, complex project delivery based around traditional engineering-inspired management models. When faced with the need to address uncertainty in delivery outcomes and build additional flexibility into the delivery schedule, the tendency in project managers is to look at agile practices to address the question of “how” to break up the project into smaller delivery units. The conclusion they reach is both obvious and misleading: in short sprints. Thinking that this holds the key to agile delivery, they become maniacally focused on the mechanisms of agile (backlogs, sprint velocity, standups, and so on) and miss the more fundamental changes in ways of working that this requires.

Instead of the emphasis on “how”, a better way forward for those looking for more agility in their project management approaches is to broaden their perspective. Change the question:

  • Why. Who is the customer? How can I know more about their needs? What are their priorities for solving this problem? How can they best consume these products/services?
  • What. Which capabilities are critical to the customer? Are the features requires sufficiently understood? How will we learn quickly to reprioritize features?
  • When. What is important to the customer now? Are we delivering the minimum feature set to meet the customer need? Can some features be delayed to reduce delivery burden? Do we currently have the capability and capacity to delivery effectively?

To accelerate your digital transformation efforts, a rethink of your agile project management practices is essential. Moving toward shorter, timeboxed iterations in sprints will help. But only if that is accompanied by addressing some of the more difficult questions of “why”, “what” and “when”.

For successful agile delivery, addressing these questions must precede (or at least align with) the concern about “how” to deliver. Without this consideration, breaking complex project schedules into short sprints is like using a chainsaw to slice up your car’s engine for repair. It is relatively simple to do, but will not help as you try to bring the modified pieces back together again for reassembly.

The importance of addressing these concerns has never been more urgent. Noone would deny that digital technologies have helped many people and organizations through the challenges of the past 2 years. However, the force and pace of the digital disruption on our lives has taken many by surprise and the pressure of these digital transformation journeys is certainly taking its toll. This is seen in the rise in stress-related absenteeism, increased concern about the negative impacts of digitization in the workplace, and “the great attrition” facing many companies as employees look for new positions following the pandemic lockdown. Finding better ways to manage project workloads in volatile times is now a matter of personal survival.

Maybe it’s just me. But if your next project seems less of a joy ride and more like a pending car crash then maybe it’s time to apply the brakes and look for another way of driving your digital transformation.

Digital Economy Tidbits

The Great Attrition. Link.

Whether it is “the great economic reset”, the “the great dispersion”, or some other key aspect that will drive the biggest impacts post-covid remains to be seen. Now we have the “great attrition”. Can’t wait to see what’s next!

A record number of employees are quitting or thinking about doing so. Organizations that take the time to learn why—and act thoughtfully—will have an edge in attracting and retaining talent.

The Social Dilemma. Link.

If you have not yet watched this documentary, I would urge you to do so. It raises many important digital ethics issues. Most of which I think we’re aware of. But the discussions and interviews with people working on these technologies are very revealing. This gives us lots to think about.

Access to this material is free through the end of September.

The dilemma: Never before have a handful of tech designers had such control over the way billions of us think, act, and live our lives.

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