Making an Agile IT Strategy

 Posted by on Jul 16, 2013  Add comments
Jul 162013

An agile enterprise is a flexible, robust organization that is capable of rapid response to unexpected challenges, events, and opportunities. Agile enterprises achieve continuous competitive advantage in serving their customers by following strategies that facilitate speed and change. Enablers of enterprise agility include diffused authority; flat organizational structures; trust-based relationships with customers and suppliers; and, of course, an agile information technology strategy. In this post, I focus on what it takes to have an agile IT strategy.

IT departments that are truly agile, or are at least on the path to becoming so, exhibit several key characteristics. First, the majority of their project teams are taking an agile approach to the full delivery lifecycle. This typically is either a disciplined agile delivery (DAD)-based strategy or a strategy that they formulated themselves that is evolving toward something that looks a lot like DAD. This doesn’t mean that all project teams are agile, but most are and the ones that aren’t are starting to move in that direction. Second, the IT organization natively supports — and more importantly, embraces — agile strategies for cross-solution activities such as portfolio management, operations, enterprise architecture, asset management, enterprise administration, governance, and other activities. Third, the IT organization seeks to optimize all of these activities as a whole, to borrow from lean terminology, instead of suboptimizing around functional silos as they may have in the days of the waterfall/traditional paradigm. Let’s explore each of these characteristics one at a time.

The DAD framework forms both a foundation from which you can scale agile techniques as well as a basis from which to evolve an agile IT organization. DAD does this by promoting enterprise awareness; the understanding within a disciplined agile team that they must address organizational issues as well as their own team-focused goals. Disciplined agile teams leverage and enhance the existing organizational ecosystem, work closely with enterprise teams, and follow the business and technical roadmaps of your organization where appropriate. One aspect of DAD’s enterprise awareness is having devops practices and philosophies baked right into the framework, providing the hooks required to optimize the IT whole instead of just the development part. The DAD framework is also a hybrid, taking proven techniques from Scrum, XP, Agile Modeling, Kanban, and many other sources. DAD does the hard methodology work for you by showing how these techniques fit together and provides advice for when, and when not, to apply them via its process-goal-driven approach. DAD also explicitly promotes effective governance strategies, providing a coherent path for organizations to adopt more coherent ways to support and enhance their IT delivery efforts. In short, the DAD framework provides a non-prescriptive, end-to-end strategy for mature agile solution delivery.

The second leg of your agile IT strategy is to adopt techniques for cross-team or cross-solution issues. There are several sources for these techniques, including the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), which addresses important aspects of agile portfolio management, some enterprise modeling practices, and an enterprise release process. The Project Management Institute (PMI) is in the process of addressing portfolio and program management, although my gut tells me that they are years away from having workable agile approaches to these activities. Another source of techniques is the Enterprise Unified Process (EUP), which in hindsight was poorly named. Its agile approaches to enterprise architecture, enterprise business modeling, strategic reuse/asset management, and enterprise administration are of particular interest. For operations and support practices, ITIL is a good source of ideas, although they are often presented from a very non-agile point of view so you will need to take this material with a grain of salt. Another source of ideas is CobiT, although it also suffers from an obvious lack of agility.

The third aspect of agile IT is to optimize the whole; to have a coherent strategy across all of IT. As you can see from the laundry list of overlapping and contradictory resources — DAD, SAFe, PMI, EUP, ITIL, and CobiT — that I described above, there isn’t a single comprehensive source for an agile IT strategy. The best vision of this that I have run into is the “lean IT” movement, although I believe that it is still early days for them.

From what I can tell, nobody’s really got agile/lean IT right yet, in part because it’s hard but also partly because the agile community still is just starting to move out of the “Scrum era” and the philosophical baggage that goes along with it. This baggage makes it difficult to look beyond the needs of construction, not to mention the needs of a single development team, so we need to do better — hence my earlier claim that DAD forms a true basis from which to formulate an agile IT strategy. I suspect that over the next decade or so we’ll see organizations move toward a true enterprise agility mindset. Whether IT departments lead this move within your organization or are forced by the business to evolve remains to be seen.


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