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Agile Transition Programme completed in seven months

Specsavers: Rapid scaling and embedding of Agile capability

After demonstrating the benefits of Agile via an exemplar project, Specsavers engaged us to lead its incremental and iterative Agile Transition Project (ATP) - we completed the ATP ahead of schedule in just seven months, rapidly delivering a sustainable level of Agile capability within the organisation on which Specsavers could build.


Since it was established in 1984, Specsavers Opticians has grown to more than five hundred stores in the UK, the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands, with over 16 million registered customers. This growth has been achieved through an innovative business model, where each of its retail outlets is not part of a franchise but is rather a joint venture with the proprietor optician.

The challenge

The IT division within Specsavers comprises 200 staff across two sites in Eastleigh and Guernsey. 60% of the staff numbers are provided by an offshore Indian development team.

With its innovative, joint-venture business model, the relationship with the retail outlets presents a number of challenges for IT, primarily in the area of stakeholder representation. Unlike a franchise operation where the company can dictate which systems will be used, each outlet has a level of autonomy; the stakeholders are self-employed entrepreneurs who demand that their disparate requirements are met.

At the time of the engagement, Specsavers had undergone rapid growth and the IT function had grown in line with this. Originally operating as a small IT unit unhindered by bureaucracy, the growth required new controls and procedures to ensure that systems were of appropriate quality and could be supported and maintained by different groups.

However, as is common in many organisations, the new procedures did little to improve the final product, but instead created additional constraints on the ability of IT to respond to the needs of the business. The management process required various levels of document sign-off and a strict change management protocol. This was seen as a barrier by the user community and IT was regarded as a constraint rather than an enabler.

In recognition of these problems, Michel Kahn, Specsavers’ IT Director, spoke to a number of peer companies and identified the potential offered by Agile management methodologies.

Our approach

IndigoBlue was originally approached to help to deliver a single project; to demonstrate the power of Agile development within the Specsavers’ environment, with a view to a wider organisational roll-out.

Following an approach based upon the management principles of Scrum and the engineering techniques of eXtreme Programming, IndigoBlue set an immediate objective of a production quality deliverable in a one-month iteration. The deliverable did not have sufficient features to make it usable by the business community, but the full iteration highlighted many of the real-world issues faced in an Agile project.

The first iteration review provided the basis for prioritising future work. Areas that required particular focus were identified and support was targeted accordingly to ensure that internal capability was developed. Key areas identified at this stage were stakeholder engagement and the testing environment.

It was clear at an early stage that the new approach was paying dividends; the quality of the delivered system was high, and the business community was committed to the new engagement model.

Three months after the start of the original project, the decision was made to roll-out the framework and make the Agile approach the standard within Specsavers. IndigoBlue initiated the Agile Transition Project (ATP) to build the internal Agile capability.

The ATP was executed as an Agile project. While a number of tasks were required (e.g. standards development, training, governance, compliance requirements and organisational change) these were to be completed incrementally, in parallel and prioritised.

A prioritised task list was developed in conjunction with the ATP stakeholders (IT Management and Compliance) and the tasks completed in timeboxed iterations. At the end of the iteration, a review was held, the project velocity measured and the tasks reprioritised to meet the emerging needs of the IT strategy.

After three iterations of the ATP, the review changed the prioritisation focus to look at the gap between the current position and the capability level required by Specsavers to be self-sufficient. The question “what would happen if we no longer had external support” became the key driver.

For the first project iteration, IndigoBlue provided an Agile management mentor; a senior consultant not only capable of coaching and supporting the Specsavers’ project manager, but of evaluating the wider environment.

The mentor supported all aspects of the project start-up: working with the business community to understand the new approach; assessing the capability of the delivery function; and reviewing the implementation environment. The mentor was also supported by an IndigoBlue development coach who worked alongside the Specsavers development team to drive forward the use of Agile engineering techniques. Also, where necessary, the mentor called upon additional IndigoBlue consultants to support larger review meetings and workshops.

For the transition project, the mentor remained in a similar position, supporting the start-up of new projects whilst providing continuity for the client. IndigoBlue also provided a change programme manager, and a number of development mentor roles. The team size varied depending upon the number of project start-ups at any stage in the transition, the maximum size being six consultants.

The outcomes

The initial project delivered ahead of time and significantly under the original budget, at the same setting a new benchmark for quality.

Focusing initially on one project provided a range of benefits. The success of the project started to build a momentum of interest and reduce some of the scepticism always associated with any change. Critically, the model developed for customer engagement was readily accepted and seen by the wider community as a more effective way of working. Instead of the users resisting IT, there was now the beginning of a more collaborative approach.

Most importantly, the first project allowed us to engage a number of the thought leaders within Specsavers; those individuals who drive the culture within IT. The foundation laid at this stage was to prove invaluable in the wider roll-out.

The incremental approach meant that as the transition progressed, effort could be focused on areas of particular need and deliver value where it was required. As a result, it was possible at an early stage to address the gap between the current state and the position where Specsavers would be self-sufficient and capable of completing the transition without external support.

The ATP was completed in seven months, three months ahead of schedule. Agile is now recognised as the standard for project management within Specsavers and all new projects follow this approach. While the transition has not reached a point where all staff are now ‘Agile’, there is a core capability at all levels within the organisation that will ensure Agility continues to grow.

During the ATP, 12 new projects were started, and all have seen significant improvements in quality and fitness for purpose, and many have provided business benefit through early deliverables achieved using the prioritised incremental approach.

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