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The Agile Wild West

Feb 1, 2020

Agile is held up as the new way of doing things faster, and more in tune with the markets' demands. But it's not necessarily the pancea to solving the problem of creating software that does what it needs to do, and in a timely way unless discipline and governance is still applied. Governance and discipline are often seen as the barriers to progress and for some agile teams, seen as an unnecessary, and avoidable burden.

As reported in the New Zealand Business Review (13 Feb, 2020), the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) spent NZD 6.7m on a failed agile project and the reasons for this were reported by Deloitte.

Does any of this look familiar?

Innovation privilege

Deloitte calls the reasons as being down to an 'innovation privilege', a term used to describe the “special considerations, unique environment and free steer given to teams to work in new and experimental ways.“

Such privilege led to the agile part of the organisation circumventing the normal procedures, checks and controls that the rest of the organisation had to adhere to. In fact, the director had financial discretion to make high-cost decisions without requiring oversight of the technology governance group. 'Stage gates' and other risk mitigation procedures to prevent bad decision making and ignorance of security issues were seen as hindrances to the new way of working.

Furthermore, Deloitte also added that the NZTA director involved believed that following processes was a time-consuming burden, which did not support the urgency of innovative decisions being made”.

Across the rest of the group, practices and cross team alignment was limited.

The group also committed to significant levels of development without clear transparency and was not aligned with the organisation’s approach to procurement.

“While Agile and DevOps can drive value by accelerating time-to-release, enhancing quality and reducing waste, the enterprise-wide adoption of these methodologies is complex,” the report said.

DevOps

According to Wikipedia, DevOps is "is a set of practices that combines software development (Dev) and information-technology operations (Ops) which aims to shorten the systems development life cycle and provide continuous delivery with high software quality." 

"Agile can be viewed as addressing communication gaps between customers and developers, while DevOps addresses gaps between developers and IT operations / infrastructure."

As reported by Deloitte, "Agile and DevOps form part of a spectrum of delivery methods. If done right, they offer a speed and flexibility that a traditional waterfall project methodology struggles with ... However, it requires the same degree of oversight and accountability as traditional approaches to working."

DevOps, however, requires particular skills and training and the use of specific software tools, which are typically integrated to automate as much of the development process as possible.

NZTA, in contrast, had no central practice management to define and standardise integrated tools. "The result was tools selected on an ad-hoc basis resulting in a proliferation of tools with little monitoring of practice," Deloitte found.

The Agile manifesto

The Agile manifesto describes the culture of being 'agile'. It states that we value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation (understanding the customer need and being a partner)
  • Responding to change over following a plan

NZTA had a "move fast and break things" mentality, where the focus was on delivering working products over documentation and on customer-centricity and quick software change responses over scoping and planning." It appears that NZTA took elements of the Agile manifesto to the extreme.

The immature controls and high level of autonomy allowed NZTA to avoid processes, and buy their own IT tools and software.

Deloitte advised, "Should Agile or DevOps be used in the future, clear boundaries, expectations and parameters must be developed".


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