Agility Training

22 November 2017

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Blog written by Natalie Scott, Principal Consultant, Interpret Geospatial Solutions

In the world of GIS consultancy, most of our work is project-based. It’s important for us that these projects – large and small, straightforward and complicated – are well managed in order to ensure that the client is delivered a useful result, on time and on budget. One of the tools we use to help us with this is the "agile framework".

"Agile" is a buzzword, that's often waved around in the tech industry as a panacea for a project team’s shortcomings. The reality is, switching to an agile strategy is unlikely to solve deep-seated problems with projects and project management. But like most tools, if it can be applied in the right way at the right time, it can help to make project management valuable rather than just an overhead.

Here at Interpret, we have taken on board some of the key messages from agile processes and use them to help support our work. Rather than implementing ‘full agile’, we’ve chosen to pick up the bits that deliver the most value for our clients. I’ve outlined a few of these below.

We have a strong focus on building long-lasting relationships with our clients and partners, being "connected" is one of our company values. This allows us to work closely alongside our clients throughout the project, to clearly understand the business environment and problem(s) we need to solve, whilst seeking regular feedback.  It also means that any issues that arise during the project can be dealt with immediately.

We frequently have a number of different projects on the go at one time. It’s critical to keep track of each one so that nothing falls through the cracks or gets forgotten. To help with this, we’ve started using Kanban board to track the progress of everything that’s being worked on. Without going ‘full scrum’, we have daily stand-ups, which are a opportunity to chase up anything that hasn’t moved forward in a while, and to celebrate the completion of longstanding tasks.

Having a Kanban board has another positive outcome which I didn’t anticipate. Because all of the things we are working on are visible on the board, it’s immediately obvious how much we have going on. Making our "Work In Progress" (WIP) visible is a key part of being agile, and it’s been very useful to help us understand just how busy people are. Additionally, by having all our WIP represented physically on a board, we’ve discovered that we eventually run out of room to put new things up. This is a pretty good indication that we need to focus our attention on getting work completed, rather than looking for more work.

The biggest effect of moving to an agile framework has been to increase transparency and autonomy within the team. There’s no hiding the progress (or otherwise) of a project when it’s discussed daily. Once made visible, issues and delays can be addressed. Staff working on a project are able to see what needs doing and can make smart choices about what they should be working on. We believe that by hiring smart people, we can trust them to sensibly undertake work without requiring micromanagement. This frees up the project manager to look after the big picture.

While I would never say that we have implemented agility in its entirety, I think the tools we have drawn from the agile framework have had a significant positive impact on our ability to manage projects. Like most things, it’s an ongoing process of learning, testing and evaluation.

While this is a blog about agility, we should also mention that it’s a methodology, not an ideology. In most cases, we align ourselves better with our clients’ project management preferences – some people prefer a more waterfall-y approach, others have a strong requirement for agile practices. Projects, too, can be better suited to different approaches. We aim to be flexible enough to work provide the best outcome, no matter where on the project management spectrum our clients sit.

What are your thoughts? Do you use an agile framework, or is agile a dirty word at your organisation?  Does it help, does it hinder, or does it make no difference whatsoever?  We’d love to hear your experiences!