Sep 092009

In thinking about business agility I’m drawn to Virginia Postel’s words. “How we feel about the evolving future tells us about who we are as individuals and as a civilization: Do we search for stasis — a regulated, engineering world? Or do we embrace dynamism, a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition? Do we crave predictability, or relish surprise?” (Postrel, Virginia. The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress. Touchstone, 1998).

In today’s economic downturn many companies are waiting, waiting until the fuzzy future becomes less fuzzy. But, there is no way to predict what the economy, your industry, or your competition will look like in the next few years and even the best of strategies will need to be revised. Isn’t this the time to build capability for the future, to invest in creating an agile enterprise — one that embraces the dynamism that Postrel identifies?

To become more agile companies should look at four portfolio management strategies: 1) focus on strategic advantage projects, 2) keep projects short, 3) re-align portfolios quarterly, 4) implement value-driven success criteria.

First, there is always a mix of frontier projects (that support new initiatives) and continuing operations projects in the portfolio. Make sure the frontier, strategic advantage projects don’t get delayed.

Second, keep these frontier (and other) projects short. Short projects produce earlier ROI and give companies greater flexibility. Just as user stories enable flexibility in a project as new stories get put on the backlog and scheduled into plans, short projects can do the same for portfolio management.

Third, re-align portfolios quarterly. This strategy is enabled by having short projects. When all the projects in a portfolio are 12-18 months or longer, quarterly reviews can’t have much impact. Project can be cancelled, and others started, but little else can be done. With a portfolio of 3-6 month projects, re-alignment can be done easily without loosing value.

Finally, to enable this flexible approach, companies need to alter their project success criteria from a single-minded focus on schedule to a focus on value delivered. The first question should be, “Is this project delivering a quality, releasable product to the customer?”

Adaptation can be considered a mindful response to change. Change may be random and unanticipated, but adaptation is our considered response to that change. Having an effective business agility strategy may help your organization through these troubled, changing times.


Jim Highsmith

Jim Highsmith was the founding director of Cutter Consortium's Agile Product & Project Management practice.


  2 Responses to “Business Agility — Dynamism or Stasis”

  1. avatar

    Jim: Interesting. It would seem to me that “dynamism” or “stasis” might be the last thing on the minds of companies right now. I would be very interested to see how Cutter defines “agility”, as I have seen other analysts define it, but I do not see how on the Cutter website to immediately find your or Cutter’s definition of agility. Then I would find it easier to understand what capabilities you are recommending that companies add.

  2. avatar

    Basically agility is the ability to create or respond to change. It is a focus on adapting to change over conforming to plans.

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