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Agile Project Governance: It Should be Easy

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Many organizations struggle with project governance, oversight, and control.  The truth is that most projects are not successful.   Over the past 25-years, only 30% of all projects are delivered on-time, on-budget, and with the desired scope. 

Traditional waterfall projects have phase gates that theoretically establish defined control and governance points.  The project must complete the work for the current phase and receive approval before progressing to the next.  In reality, these controls are neither effective nor efficient. 

Efforts to force-fit Agile projects into this traditional mold have frustrated both the agilists and enterprise governance organizations.  However, if we step outside the prevailing framework, overseeing and governing agile projects should be easy.  But it requires looking at the problem from a different perspective. 

On agile projects, the scope is not fixed, and changing requirements are welcome.  However, value is delivered incrementally, which creates visibility into tangible, measurable progress.  Agile principles and practices create human and process controls that can detect problems and make adjusts quickly.

The Fallacy of Control

Traditional project governance frameworks are based on assumptions of predictability and controllability:

  • We can document all of the requirements at the beginning of the project, and then design and build a solution without any changes to the specifications;
  • The schedule created at the beginning of the project can be followed with minimum deviation, and that following that plan will lead to success; and
  • No material changes will be introduced during the project.

None of these assumptions are valid or helpful. 

These fallacies are embodied in the phrase, “Plan your work and work your plan” from Napoleon Hill, an early self-help guru with a checkered history.  My favorite counterpoint comes from Mike Tyson, who, on the eve of his fight with Evander Holyfield, said: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Agile Governance

Agile governance requires a radically different perspective and is rooted in its core principles:

  • Committed, self-organizing teams who take ownership and responsibility for their work;
  • Incremental delivery of value which makes progress easy to track; and
  • Radical, visual transparency into priorities and status. 

Self-Organizing Teams

Committed, self-organizing teams are the cornerstone of Agile.   The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) promotes the principle of decentralized decision making, where decisions are made at the lowest responsible level. 

In hierarchical organizations, decisions are made by successive layers of management.  Those closest to the work often are not empowered to make decisions.  Consequently, they are not invested in the outcome.  How many times have you heard someone say, “that is above my paygrade?”  

Decentralized decision-making creates an environment of personal ownership and commitment.  Agile principles and practices place accountability of the project’s success on the product owner and the team.

The product owner is the one person accountable to the customers and stakeholders for the delivery of the project.  The product owner is responsible for building and maintaining the prioritized backlog of the work items to be done by the team.  The team then selects work from the backlog and commits to delivering it during the next development. 

These practices create a powerful dynamic of personal ownership:

  • The product owner has unitary accountability versus traditional projects where responsibility is often diffused;
  • The team decides how much work they can deliver instead of being told; and
  • Important decisions are made by the people closest to the work, not by distant management.

Incrementally Delivering Value

The Agile Principles state that the highest priority is delivering value early and continuously, and that completed work is the primary measure of progress.  Because Agile teams generally produce working features in 2-weeks or less, it is easy to demonstrate and measure performance.  Similarly, corrective actions can be taken quickly at a lower cost of rework.

Since the product owner and stakeholders physically see and measure daily and bi-weekly, the governance focus should shift from process- to outcome-based controls. 

On waterfall projects, the primary progress measurement is percentage complete.  Sadly, experienced project managers are all too familiar with the “90% rule” where 90% of the tasks, are 90% complete, 90% of the time.  In other words, we never get accurate status estimates. 

On agile projects, measuring tangible progress is easy.  Completed work is demonstrated and deployed to production every 2-weeks.  There is no ambiguity.  The features were either delivered or they weren’t.

Transparency

Agile promotes radical transparency, which creates accountability and promotes collaboration.  Teams have large, information radiators that are publicly displayed and show the status of the project and its work.  Kanban boards are commonly used to depict the Backlog, In-Process, and Done work which creates visibility into:

  • What are the upcoming priorities;
  • What is currently being worked and what is the status of those items; and
  • What have we accomplished?

The Kanban board is a foundational tool to govern and control the project.  Kanban boards are radiate information and promote transparency by being accessible, public displays of the team’s progress.  They are updated each morning during the daily stand-up meeting.  Since progress is both visible and timely, the need for external controls is less.

Agile Governance

Agile project governance and control should be easy—leave it to the team.  Trust the process.  Trust the product owner to prioritize work according to the business needs.  Trust the team to deliver on its commitments.  If there are problems, they should be empowered to identify and implement the solutions. 

Use the Kanban board as the primary tool for communicating status.  Use the product backlog Kanban to communicate upcoming work and priorities.  While there are many advantages to physical boards on the wall, electronic tools provide multiple reporting views and are more practical for dispersed organizations. 

Enterprise governance organizations can leverage these agile realities to improve how they govern their projects by:

  • Shifting from process- to outcome-based measures of progress;
  • Putting accountability at the lowest responsible level in the organization;
  • Using light-weight reporting frameworks that pull management reporting from team Kanban boards.

© 2020, Alan Zucker; Project Management Essentials, LLC

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