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Agile Digital Transformation Insights Lean Startup Organisational Change

I Googled ‘Agile’ — and wish I hadn’t.

I Googled ‘Agile’ and discovered my worst fears. Confusion and mis-information about Agile software development, how it works, and how to make it effective as a method of digital solution delivery.

Following on from the short, rather poorly animated video, let me share a slightly more concise and coherent insight on how Agile should work and how it’s possible to make it a means of delivering exceptional outcomes. Spoiler alert: it’s probably not what you expect or want to hear, but please know I’m here to support you if you feel in the slightest bit unsure about what to do next.

The methods used to build solutions with software haven’t changed significantly for 30 years. And even though we’ve lived in the The Age of Agile for almost 20 of those years, the time it takes to deliver solutions, not to mention quality and efficacy, are still falling short of expectations.

Beyond Agile, examined why software development failed to meet the lofty aspirations of the Agile Manifesto founders. The book also explained how to avoid some of the classic mistakes of Agile software development.

A talk given by one of the creators of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, Dave Thomas, underlines the dysfunction caused when the principles of the manifesto are misinterpreted or distorted to fit an enterprise IT agenda. He half-jokingly attributes the downfall as our tendency to turn adjectives into nouns; so instead of the title Manifesto for Agile Software Development, people turn it around a truncate it to — Agile Manifesto, thus losing its meaning and purpose.

Beyond Agile explores many of the noteworthy lightweight methodologies in use today, some of which pre-date Agile. This provides context and explains why software development often fails to meet expectations. Another founder of the Manifesto for Agile, Alistair Cockburn, puts it simply:

“The Agile Manifesto was the product of seventeen people from different schools and backgrounds. No one person is responsible for the words we came up with — it is clear that it was the product of all seventeen people. The addition or removal of any one person would have changed the outcome, something we recognised and discussed at the end of that meeting.

Whether you think ‘Agile’ saved the world or poisoned it, be sure always to recognise that it grew from a rich compost (joke intentional) of backgrounds. The next time you read a would-be history of the Agile movement, look for all those names. If you don’t see them, it is not a history; it is one person’s recounting of their journey, years after the event (as indeed, this one is).”

Cockburn’s statement gets to the heart of why Agile is such an enigma: few people bother to understand or respect it for what it is, choosing instead to follow second-hand interpretations of the manifesto or, worse still, adopt a consultant’s cheap imitation of it.

Agile often fails, not because it is inherently flawed or lacking in some respect, but how people interpret and apply the principles. The Agile Manifesto and its core principles are, in fact, quite logical and straightforward. The problem with Agile is it was released into the world and then distorted by people unwilling and unable to think about the true meaning and purpose of the method. Kent Beck, the creator of Extreme Programming and another of the creators of the Agile Manifesto, calls this the ‘staring dog problem.’

“If you try to point something out to a dog, it will look at your finger,” he explains. “If you explain an idea in terms of concrete practices — like test-driven development, pair programming, continuous integration — people will fixate on the practices and stop thinking.”

Kent is calling out that often we’re unable to make the cognitive leap between practice and application. Scrum and other so-called enablers of Agile fail precisely because they compensate for lack of intellectual integrity. They shroud important ideas like user-centricity and fast iteration in rituals and catchy names. The Agile manifesto left too much room for interpretation and not enough specific rules. It feels like we’re back where we started in the late twentieth century with powerful technology and tools but no idea how to make them relevant to the ever changing needs of our enterprise users and customers.

Beyond Agile, describes three outcomes Agile practised well delivers:

  1. Eliminates (or at least reduce) waste in software development;
  2. Creates software that people use; and
  3. Delivers projects on time and budget.

An analysis of fifty thousand software projects conducted by The Standish Group in 2015 found 29% of projects was successful (meaning they were delivered on time, on budget, and to a satisfactory standard). The remainder, 71% were either failures or failed to meet expectations. Just think about that for a moment: starting a large-scale technology project, there’s only a 1 in 3 chance of success. Not very good odds. The same report in 2018 showed the situation got worse, with only 23% of projects successful and 77% unsuccessful.

Other sources corroborate these stats. In a paper presented to the 7th International Conference on Knowledge Management in Organisations, Stanley and Uden proved that software projects typically overrun their budgets by two hundred per cent, and exceed their scheduled completion dates by fifty per cent.

But it’s the cost of project failures that’s the real issue here. It’s nothing short of tragic:

– The cost of re-worked and abandoned systems costs the US economy an estimated $75 billion per year;

– In Australia, $5.4 billion is wasted each year on IT projects that don’t deliver value or are abandoned completely;

– One project alone — the infamously abandoned National Health Service patient record system in the United Kingdom — cost taxpayers £10 billion.

To put those numbers into perspective, the United Nations estimates that a yearly investment of $267 billion would end world hunger by 2030. A meagre $175 billion per year would eliminate extreme poverty globally.

It’s been almost two decades since the Agile Manifesto was written, and even longer since Winston Royce published Managing the Development of Large Software Systems. But little has changed and no single methodology has improved software development; it’s still a hugely expensive and wasteful endeavour that rarely meets expectations. And that’s hard to accept, in any era.

It shouldn’t be beyond humans to come up with a better, more reliable way of developing software solutions. Just as garment makers and car manufacturers in past centuries industrialised their domains, so too software coders need to do the same. Digitisation begets automation.

Methods like Beyond Agile address some of the shortfalls, but it’s by no means a silver bullet. The method requires skilled people, disciplined practices, full engagement with users and problem owners.

When I Googled ‘Agile’ I was hoping for the answer to some of the more taxing questions surrounding the method. What I came away with was this: to make Agile software development successful, there are four areas that align closely to the original manifesto principles:

  1. Start by defining the challenge or problem to be fixed
  2. Define the project outcome in terms of a quantifiable measure
  3. Describe the first 6–12 features or functions the solution must have
  4. Identify the first half a dozen users you’ll engage at the outset and throughout.

Rinse and repeat.

Digital Village is a community of IT professionals dedicated to providing flexible IT project team solutions in an authentic Agile way to enterprises in Australia and New Zealand.

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Customer Success Digital Transformation Insights library Payment Solutions

Are Payment Platforms in Australia on the Right Track?

by Paul Scott, Director and Board Advisor at Digital Village

Photo by Ronaldo de Oliveira on Unsplash

Payment Platforms are often referred to as the rails on which commerce transacts. It’s an interesting analogy, given the gauge of rails used today on most of the world’s train tracks were established by the Romans over 2,000 years ago, and has not changed significantly since in most parts of the world. Payments Platforms haven’t been around for the equivalent of seconds, but we have multiple incarnations, and none entirely seems to meet customer needs.

Technology can be tricky bedfellow. Take payment platforms for example. Before ‘digital’ was even a twinkle in John Vincent Atanasoff’s eye, banks were using multiple payment reconciliation methods — all paper-based of course. Records were kept in dusty ledgers scribed with ink pens by crusty men in starched shirts and voluminous morning coats.

Roll forward 90 years, and here in Australia, we have an abundance of digital payment platforms. Which is odd, because usually when technology replaces manual processes, you’d expect some degree of consolidation, streamlining and a leap forward — innovation perhaps.

Eftpos was born some ten years later and stands for electronic funds transfer at point of sale. It’s principally aimed at credit, debit and payment terminal transactions. Its also owned by the big four banks via a company called Cardlink.

BPAY was established in 1987 by the big four banks in Australia. It was the world’s first phone-based payment system. Nowadays its a full-blown digital bill payment platform.

The New Payments Platform is owned by 13 banks. It’s the new kid on the block, formed in 2013 and launched to the public in 2018. They were given an innovation mandate and launched an instant settlement process which uses phone numbers, email addresses as well as ABN’s.

Between them, each of the three principle payment platforms serves every business and consumer in Australia, but why three? Well, it’s a result of several factors, federal, industry institutions, regulators and the banks all had a hand to ensure the applecart remains upright.

Now there’s a move to seek consolidation, but just how long that will take and what the composition of the outcome could look like is anyone’s guess. There’s a bucket-load of vested interest and the glacial pace of change in banking to consider. In their wisdom, Australian Payments Council chair Robert Milliner has been appointed as the independent convener of a special industry committee examining NPP Australia’s proposed merger with BPay and Eftpos.

Robert Milliner

Not content with the existing complexity APC’s decided to have Milliner’s committee operate within a NPP-owned subsidiary, Industry Administration Committee Pty Ltd (ICA).

The purpose of ICA is to establish a governance framework for “making non-binding recommendations” on the merits of merging NPP Australia’s operations with the two domestic payments schemes.

The technology aspect of this is interesting. It’s a classic case legacy myopia. The core systems underpinning BPAY and Eftpos are 40 years old. Ask any digital solution builder what they’d recommend its likely to be ‘Reno’ versus ‘Doer-Upper’. In other words, it would be easier, quicker and better to build from scratch. Why? Because it takes 1/10 of the time to build the equivalent of 40 years ago and costs a fraction of what it takes to consolidate and build on top of existing computer code.

Speaking to people like Andrew Walker — the Impatient Futurist and you understand the logic. He’s spent a career showing retailers, banks, and insurance companies that building and consolidation on top of old systems is a waste of money and never delivers the desired outcome. Better to start with a blank screen, start solving one problem at a time and deliver outcomes users need.

Likewise, a senior executive in one of the three principal platforms explained it as follows: “Another industry insider concluded: “I feel the big four banks, in their current form, are not good for Australia, particularly over the longer term. They need to innovate, with a view to extending their business into a ‘platform’, with open support and collaboration for new entrants. An ecosystem if you will. Only this will deliver useful products and services to the Australian market and ensure the ongoing relevance of the big 4.” He concluded: “Otherwise, bring on the ‘asteroid’ for these dinosaurs.”

What happens next? Well, major shareholders in each of the platforms — the banks — will examine the landscape, sound out the regulators and oversight boards and decide what they can get away with. Sorry, I mean they will have an epiphany, recognise the extraordinary opportunity they have to leap forward with a new technology solution to payments people want and need. Maybe.

Categories
Insights Organisational Change

Creating Cult Status

I’ve just read Tim Duggan’s remarkable book Cult Status. It’s a fascinating insight into the way millennial-run businesses are changing the landscape of commerce, work-life balance and the way we perceive brands.

Tim’s been around the millennial revolution for most of his working life. He has first-hand knowledge of the challenges of appealing to the fickle, often illogical ways millennials engage with suppliers and service providers. He led a very successful media business in Australia in the early 2000s and has gone on to achieve remarkable results with Junkee Media, Australia’s leading digital publisher and content agency for millennials.

He’s interviewed hundreds of people all over the world to distil the essence of what makes a successful cult-status brand. It boils down to following a seven-step process he claims is a common thread. I won’t list all seven steps here — you’ll need to read the book. But they do follow a logical path to achieving success, provided you have the necessary determination and passion for meeting the needs of a generation seeking more than just great products and services.

Steps one to three are: Think Impact First; Question All The Small Things and Refine your Superpower.

Think Impact First is about purpose and visualising outcomes. Most successful entrepreneurs can envisage and articulate a tangible impact they can make on peoples lives, from the get-go.

Question All The Small Things refers to the need unravel the way business is traditionally done and question whether there are better, smarter ways to do things. In essence, they are asking ‘why?’ – a lot.

Refining Your Superpower explores how successful people concentrate on getting better and better at one thing, becoming an expert, while recognising success doesn’t always mean being big.

The book concludes by reminding readers there’s no magic bullet to success. Hard work and clarity in your strategy and execution rarely have short cuts.

One other step intrigued me: Step six: Lead From The Middle. Duggan points out many successful businesses growing in this era are led by people exhibiting very different leadership skills to those of 10 or 15 years ago. Leaders today tend to build a strong sense of belonging to those on the journey with them, be they team members, partners or customers. New-age leaders are better listeners and enablers to others around them.

The book is packed with case studies and examples. It’s no longer about creating great products and services; businesses need a higher purpose, to make an impact — not just a profit, give something back — not only supply a product but advance the life-experience of being human. An excellent read for anyone questioning the purpose of their business or themselves for that matter.

PS: For those who can’t wait for the book to arrive, there’s a great interview on YouTube with Glen James with Tim describing the seven steps. Enjoy.

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Digital Transformation Insights library Organisational Change

Dawn of a new age of opportunity in IT services

by Paul Scott, Director and Board Advisor at Digital Village

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Australia’s unemployment rate shot up to 7.1% in July 2020. Some sectors were worse affected than others, with travel, retail and hospitality feeling the brunt of it.

The IT sector got off lightly with less than 15,000 redundancies and around 20,000 furloughed staff out a total number of 250,000 working in the industry nationally, when you add full time and self-employed.

The ABS statistics only tell part of the story. The more significant revelation from COVID has been a realisation that the way organisations adopt and operationalise technology needs to change. Put bluntly, most organisations are paying too much for resources they don’t need — at least not full time — and when they do need them, they can’t manage them effectively to deliver business outcomes.

Why is this so? Well the experience of many organisations during COVID has been their IT has run perfectly well with either contracted in resource, shifting them to work remotely or a mix of offshore services to onshore — mainly those services involving IT support and end customer technical support. The same goes for innovation and systems development. The gig economy and rapid growth of IT services platforms like UpWork, Equal Experts and Digital Village has made it easy for businesses to pick resources they need off-the-shelf, with clearly defined outcomes at a competitive price.

The big takeaway for those who were employed during the lockdown was that remote working is both productive and often preferred. Provided there is a dedicated space at home and decent WiFi bandwidth, the overall work-life balance equation improved and the sense of being in control of one’s life also ticks up.

Many people felt stressed and unsure, to begin with, but by the time lockdown came to an end and they were able to make choices about whether to work from home or return to the office, the vast majority wanted to continue homeworking to some degree. Atlassian, Australia’s largest locally owned IT company, tells us 76% of their staff prefer to avoid their office altogether when they need to concentrate on a project. This stat, along with 40 others gathered by Hubspot, underlines remote working is here to stay and has profound implications for the IT services sector in particular.

Any organisation seeking to optimise its IT resources post-COVID has the opportunity to make some changes which both improve their capability to develop and support systems. It’s also going to be a relatively easy sell to people if they chose to move to a remote working or semi outsourced model, as most have now come to terms with the benefits and ways to make it work for them.

But there is a word of warning: “Most anyone can learn to be a great virtual employee. The top skills to learn are setting healthy boundaries between your work life and personal life and building relationships virtually.” ― Larry English, Office Optional: How to Build a Connected Culture with Virtual Teams

Categories
Agile Digital Transformation Insights Lean Startup

Time to pump up the tyres on Agile — without a budget blow-out

by Paul Scott, Director and Board Advisor at Digital Village

Photo by Henry Perks on Unsplash

The fall out from COVID-19 has yet to be fully understood, but one thing’s for sure; enterprises will be seeking fast, efficient and flexible ways to solve their problems with digital solutions. Projects have been backing up during the lockdown and now’s the time to begin clearing the backlog. It’s likely to lead to an uptick in demand for skilled resources, but will they be able to deliver fast enough and to quality?

The announcement this week of the budget blow out at the Australian Digital Transformation Agency’s son-of-Mygov project hows just how quickly things can get out of control without a laser focus on solving one problem one at a time.

The methods used to build solutions with software haven’t changed significantly for 30 years. And even though we’ve lived in the Agile Age for almost 20 of those years, the time it takes to deliver solutions, not to mention quality and efficacy are still falling short of expectations.

Beyond Agile, examined why software development failed to meet the lofty aspirations of the Agile Manifesto founders. The book also explained how to avoid some of the classic mistakes of Agile software development.

A recent talk given by one of the creators of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, Dave Thomas, underlines the dysfunction caused when the principles of the manifesto are misinterpreted or distorted to fit a corporate IT agenda. He half-jokingly attributes the downfall as our tendency to turn adjectives into nouns; so instead of the title Manifesto for Agile Software Development, people turn it around a truncate it to — Agile Manifesto, thus losing its meaning and purpose.

Beyond Agile explored many of the noteworthy ‘lightweight’ methodologies in use today, some of which pre-date Agile. This provided context and explained why software development often fails to meet people’s expectation. One of the founders of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, Alistair Cockburn puts it simply:

“The Agile Manifesto was the product of seventeen people from different schools and backgrounds. No one person is responsible for the words we came up with — it is clear that it was the product of all seventeen people. The addition or removal of any one person would have changed the outcome, something we recognised and discussed at the end of that meeting.

Whether you think ‘Agile’ saved the world or poisoned it, be sure always to recognise that it grew from a rich compost (joke intentional) of backgrounds. The next time you read a would-be history of the Agile movement, look for all those names. If you don’t see them, it is not a history, it is one person’s personal recounting of their own journey, years after the event (as indeed, this one is).”

Cockburn’s statement gets to the heart of why Agile is such an enigma: few people bother to understand or respect it for what it is, choosing instead to follow second-hand interpretations of the manifesto or, worse still, a consultant’s cheap imitation of it.

Agile failed not because it was inherently wrong or misguided. The Agile Manifesto was an irrefutable thing of beauty, and its core values are spot-on. The problem with Agile is it was released into the wild and then co-opted by people unwilling and unable to really think about it or understand what it meant. Kent Beck, the creator of extreme programming and one of the original signatories to the Agile Manifesto, calls this the ‘staring dog problem.’

“If you try to point something out to a dog, it will look at your finger,” he explains. “If you explain an idea in terms of concrete practices — like test driven development, pair programming, continuous integration — people will fixate on the practices and stop thinking.”

Scrum and other lightweight spawns of Agile are failures precisely for this reason. They shroud important ideas like user-centricity and fast iteration in practices, rituals, silly names and guiding principles. The Agile manifesto itself, despite its brevity, left too much room for interpretation. And now it feels like we’re back where we started in the late twentieth century with powerful technology and tools and no idea what to do with them.

Beyond Agile describes the three reasons why the method was created :

  1. To eliminate (or at least reduce) waste in software development;
  2. To create software that people actually use; and
  3. To deliver projects on time and on budget.

An analysis of fifty thousand software projects conducted by The Standish Group found that in 2015, an average of 29% of projects were successful (meaning they were delivered on time, on budget and to a satisfactory standard). The remainder, 71% were either failures or ‘challenged’ to meet expectations. Just think about that for a moment: starting a large scale technology project you only have a 1 in 3 chance of being able to celebrate success. Not very good odds. The same report in 2018 showed the situation had got worse with only 23% of projects successful and 77% wither challenged or failed.

Other sources corroborate these worrisome facts. In a paper presented to the 7th International Conference on Knowledge Management in Organisations, Stanley and Uden proved that software projects typically overrun their budgets by two hundred per cent, and exceed their schedules by fifty per cent.

But it’s the cost of the failures that’s the real issue here. The financial impact of project failure is nothing short of tragic:

  • The cost of re-worked and abandoned systems costs the US economy an estimated $75 billion per year;
  • In Australia, $5.4 billion is wasted each year on IT projects that don’t deliver value or are abandoned completely;
  • One project alone — the infamously abandoned National Health Service patient record system in the United Kingdom — cost taxpayers £10 billion.

To put those numbers into perspective, the United Nations estimates that a yearly investment of $267 billion would end world hunger by 2030. A meagre $175 billion per year would eliminate extreme poverty globally.

It’s been a long time since the Agile Manifesto was written, and even longer since Winston Royce published Managing the Development of Large Software Systems. But nothing has changed and no single methodology has really improved software development. Software development is still a hugely expensive, wasteful endeavour that rarely meets expectations. And that’s unacceptable, especially as we approach the end of lockdowns in the COVID era.

It shouldn’t be beyond humans to come up with a better, more reliable way of developing software solutions. Just as garment makers and car manufacturers in past centuries industrialised their domains, so too software coders need to do the same. Digitisation begets automation.

Methods like Beyond Agile address some of the shortfalls of alternative methods, but it’s by no means a silver bullet. It requires skilled people, disciplined practices and full engagement with users and the problem owners. Indeed its quite likely that many of the principles distilled in Beyond Agile can and should be applied to other development methods. This would go some way to fixing Agile.

In summary, to make Agile methods work there are four areas to consider which align closely to the original manifesto:

  1. Start by defining the challenge or problem to be fixed
  2. Define the outcome in terms of a quantifiable measure
  3. Describe the 6–12 features or functions the solution must have
  4. Identify the first half a dozen users you’ll engage at the outset and throughout.

Rinse and Repeat.

Digital Village is a community of IT professionals dedicated to providing flexible IT project team solutions to enterprise in Australia and New Zealand.