For the next interview in our series speaking to Agile specialists from around the world, we’ve welcomed experienced Agile practitioner Jean Ballard, Senior Manager at Actualize Consulting.
Jean has over twenty years of experience implementing business solutions in the mortgage industry and financial services sector. She also has a proven track record with implementing product, process reengineering, and software development initiatives, including Agile approaches from concept to implementation.
How did you get started in the Agile world?
I was interested in the concept from the start since developing project plans with 1-2 year timelines with many unknowns seemed a stretch at times. The idea of iterative development that reacts to new information just seemed logical to me, so when the idea of shifting to Agile arose, I advocated for it and found we were able to implement key functions to users more frequently and with improved quality.
Instead of a release once or twice a year, we were able to complete three releases a year, packed with more features. So then it made sense to introduce Agile to other projects throughout the company until most were Agile.
Has Agile changed a lot over the years?
When I first started with Agile roughly ten plus years ago, it was newer and frankly not prevalent. I think a lot of companies were looking at it but having challenges thinking about how to go from its structured PMO organization to something like Agile. Most companies were still doing waterfall development practices.
However, since that time, many companies have shifted to Agile, realizing it can provide them with results they are not getting currently. Many companies try it out first as a pilot, see the success, and then adopt more and more projects to the methodology.
What’s the one thing people usually get wrong or misunderstand about Agile?
Many believe that if you use Agile, you do not have any documentation and controls – this is definitely a myth. Agile is about ‘rightsizing’ the oversight, eliminating unnecessary documentation and controls but keeping what is needed.
For example, one Agile project team I led learned that it was necessary to get legal comment on the messages the system sends to users since the messages must be consistent with the policies in place. So, a process was established to ensure legal input and comment. And the Agile methodology is not against this – this legal review is a necessary step.
At the same time, organizations need to consider what governance is really a must-have and avoid adding layers of bureaucracy into the Agile process and defeat the purpose of going Agile entirely.
What challenges have you faced with implementing true Agile practices?
COVID has undoubtedly made it tougher with collocating teams, but even before that, team members could be in different offices and with back-to-back meetings, making it difficult for team members to walk over in time for the daily standups. But virtual can work- it’s different but necessary in these current times.
What advice would you have for other organisations?
Try Agile out with a pilot project. Give the team free rein to govern and select team members who are open to change. Monitor its progress and track its performance. Compare the results to other waterfall projects. Then, decide where to go in the future based on the pilot.
__Are there some qualifiers to see if a company is eligible or qualifies for Agile? __
Any company is a potential fit for Agile; however, the ones that will succeed require the support of the organization, including senior leaders. Agile values individuals and interactions over processes and tools, working software over comprehensive documentation, customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and change over following a strict plan. These values are universal and can be applied to any business – whether developing a product, software, or service.
What tools have you found most useful for working in an Agile way?
While the Agile textbooks often show ‘sticky notes’ as a forum for recording user stories, I find it preferable to use one of the Agile tools in the industry. There are several software options for recording user stories, making it easier to draft and edit them as needed to ensure the stories are rich, clear and complete.
Where do you see things evolving and changing for Agile in the next five, ten years?
With more companies shifting to online and away from the traditional five days a week in-person work setup, I see the need for more online collaboration tools to support brainstorming and visualization. They say a picture is worth a thousand words – this is true. So there needs to be a way for Agile teams to be able to draw and share information virtually.
There needs to be an online whiteboard where team members can create, draw and convey their ideas through pictures. Teams don’t want to spend unnecessary time creating pretty pictures for everything, so this would be a casual way to explore and communicate with handwritten pictures conveying key points.
What advice do you have for aspiring Scrum masters and those new to Agile?
Keep an open mind. Try it out at first and see how you like it. Think about what documents you are producing provide value versus which ones are just checking boxes. Shift your mindset to taking on more risk but obtaining more gain. When issues arise, think of how to move forward as a team and let go looking for someone to blame. Trust the process.
Do you have any big projects that you are working on that you wish to share with our readers?
I’m very interested in helping a client who has only used waterfall processes and has many layers of controls and bureaucracy embedded in their processes. This client, in particular, I expect will see huge gains in leveraging Agile – I envision them not only completing projects quicker, but also they will be able to identify issues earlier, be able to adjust to changing conditions, and see results quicker – not having to wait till the end when it’s too late to react.