Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 11

Eleventh in a Fifteen Part Series

By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations.  Below is the eleventh in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices.  I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 11: Select a Pilot Project

Simply put, the pilot project must be a project that is representative of, and similar to, other projects executed at your office.  It cannot be a “one-off” or unique project.  For example, projects related to mergers and acquisitions are typically not good candidates, whereas projects related to ongoing enhancements of technology services are good candidates. 

Sponsor alignment during the selection process is required.  The sponsor must be aligned on the purpose of selecting the pilot project, which is to allow the team to test the execution of agile fundamentals from beginning to end, and gauge agile’s feasibility for your environment.  If the project is a success, it will give momentum to the transformation initiative.  If the project is a failure, it is not the end of the world.  Aspirations and expectations must be tempered while the team learns their new work patterns. 

To guide the pilot project selection process, you will want to evaluate projects against six (6) key criteria:

(1) Duration: Select a project with an expected duration between four (4) and twelve (12) weeks. Shorter projects do not allow the team adequate time to execute the repeatable agile processes. The team must have enough time to fumble through things and recover while they learn, and be able to deliver meaningful feedback on agile’s effectiveness. Longer projects have an ineffective feedback loop for those learning new work patterns. Additionally, longer projects slow down the organization’s ability to effectively integrate the new work patterns across many teams.

(2) Priority: The project must be at least moderately important with an adequate level of investment and expected return. The highest and lowest priority projects in the organization are not good candidates. Look for a project somewhere in the middle of the organization’s priorities.

(3) Risk: Similar to priority, you will want to find a project with some risk, but not so much that people working on the project feel pressured to revert to old work habits. Resources working on the project must be in a relatively low-stress setting when initially executing the newly learned agile processes. Similarly, never pick a project that if it fails to deliver, the company could go out of business.

(4) Human Resources Required: Look for a project that requires several cross-functional resources to deliver. An IT software development project will typically have a business analyst, architect, one or more software developers, testers, and a project manager. Feedback from each of these roles as they execute the new work practices is critical to the success of your agile transformation initiative.

(5) Project Lifecycle: Look for a project that traverses the typical phases of an IT project. You’ll want a project that goes through the normal initiation, planning, design, development, testing, implementation, and support phases. Having a project that only produces a design or delivers business requirements is not a good choice. Your team must be able to see their product perform in operation to gain insight of the effectiveness of the new work practice.

(6) Sponsor Engagement: Your Sponsor must play the role of Product Owner during the pilot project. Ideally, your pilot project will be selected from your Sponsor’s list of projects. If your Sponsor does not have a project that matches the pilot selection criteria, your Sponsor must partner with another executive to use one of their projects as the pilot. If this occurs, your Sponsor must still play the role of the Product Owner on behalf of the partnered executive. This requires a level of trust between your Sponsor and the executive that he / she chose to partner with. This arrangement is only appropriate for the pilot project and serves to shield the team from unnecessary outside criticism while they experience the agile learning curve.

Compare the organization’s list of pending projects against the selection criteria above to yield a list of potential pilot projects. Have your Sponsor select the pilot project armed with the information above. This is not a decision to be taken lightly. Success or failure will impede or accelerate your transformation initiative.