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06 Mar 2015

| Author: Anthony Flack



Over the past ten days, I have attended three networking events, each was different in origin and type of attendee, all were interesting for a variety of reasons, and what I want to reflect on is the differing commentary that I observed about 'Agile' and 'agile'…

The first event was run by a network set up to support membership groups. They were launching the annual survey results on the power of digital in the sector. The key message was about getting your business onto the web, the supposed death of CRM, mobile – responsive, personalisation and other such current fare.

There was a lot of trend analysis where prior-year comparison was used to look at who had progressed, and who had not, across a variety of measures. The event is very heavily sponsored and therefore branded by one of the membership sector's major suppliers. It was one of the most hands-on sponsorships I have ever encountered, perhaps to the extent that it felt a little bit like the network was losing its identity. However, I do not think the messages were diluted and I have no problem with the MD of the sponsor gently pitching his firm's solutions against the requirements suggested from the survey results.

What I found interesting was that the MD mentioned Agile a couple of times referring to the way his company delivered software. It was not clear to me whether he was referring to Agile as a methodology for development or as an adjective i.e. to respond in an agile way. My suspicion is that he intended it to be a reference to the Agile methodology but its introduction was incomplete and without adequate context, so any intended impact was lost.

The second event was another network, this time an MBA alumni group focused on strategy and consulting.  There were approximately 40 people in attendance with a nice mix of attendees from the big four, from niche suppliers, of the one man (or woman) type and others looking to get into consultancy. The keynote speaker was from a well-known and respected research organisation that specialises in the consultancy sector. Topics of discussion included sector growth areas e.g. big data, digital, pricing and measuring successful outcomes. There was also an interesting focus on how clients are now demanding better value for their money – not necessarily lower prices, but expecting suppliers to come in with the answers and not spend lots of time and money in early-stage analysis.

It was interesting was that project methodology did not feature at all in any way, there was no mention of Agile, PRINCE2, Waterfall or anything else. A topic suggested for a future event is connected to why projects succeed or fail – if I do not manage to weave methodology into this in some way, then it is time to throw in the towel.

The final event was the most interesting from an Agile (and agile) perspective. The event was the annual conference of a major HR and payroll supplier, it was an impressive spectacle with the opening session delivered by some dancers in laser suits with the room blacked out, I think from Britain’s Got Talent – the MD then appeared with a black cape which he could not get off (reference to Madonna, I think) – it was all very good fun. 

The first mention of Agile was made by the keynote speech from the truly inspiring CEO. The first context was connected to the company values, which he made a point of saying were intended to be different from the norm (this is of course difficult when everyone tries to be different). The first value was Agility – and in this context it was referring to the responsiveness of the organisation in particular in listening to what its customers wanted. Then, when describing a major transformation programme where the application backend was being replaced with another, he made a very eloquent description of how the Agile teams were working to the Agile methodology, planning incrementally and it was working really well. 

Later in the day, one of the guest panel’s speakers, a Minister in the current government, was describing an interesting project that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is planning – a website is being developed that will allow people to see the consolidated value of all the pensions they have accrued over the years, whether private or state. A couple of lighthearted comments were made by the Minister – for example, it is a two-year project, "which is quick by Government standards", and then he made direct reference to Agile, commenting on how the Government does not understand stuff like this and it is a real problem. He even saw a room with lots of post-it notes and people talking about sprints. 

Finally, later in the day I sat through the most impressive product demonstration I have seen in years, it was for Workangel. The MD talked about the product, was brave enough to do a very good live demonstration (on hotel Wi-Fi) and made strong and relevant reference to the development teams working to the Agile methodology.

So what is my point, you might ask, at least if you have bothered to read this far. I have a few.

  • Two of the events mentioned Agile as a development methodology they were following. There was a reason for doing this, a reason I interpreted as one of positive association with Agile i.e. it is good to say “we are doing it, and it works”.
  • I was stuck that a group of 40 or so management consultants made absolutely no reference to project methodology
  • It seems to me that Agile as a methodology is more frequently entering the lexicon of business talk, I doubt it would have come up quite as often a couple of years ago

My final point is that clearly not everyone understands Agile, e.g. in the context of the third event, the Minister, and does there come a consequent risk with that lack of understanding? The lack of understanding could be interpreted as a view that Agile is either dangerous, out there or not suited to Government. 

However, I suggest that the solution is that we do not need to make the Minister understand, but what we need to do as consultants is provide the governance framework for Agile to enable the Minister and others in Government to have a bit of a joke about that sort of stuff, but critically at the same time to have the confidence, information and end results to believe that as a methodology it is the right thing for Government.

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Anthony Flack

Anthony has wide experience and success in the delivery of digital and business systems transformation. He has specialist knowledge in incremental planning, sustainable delivery through teams and the pragmatic application of Agile.


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