Since its birth in the mid-1990s, perhaps the most remarkable thing about Agile, as an approach to project delivery, has been the way in which it has engendered such fierce loyalties amongst some organisations, whilst others have ignored or dismissed it, continuing to deploy more traditional methods.

Advocates of Agile testify to its ability to successfully transform delivery and management processes, bringing about significant improvements in delivery times, efficiency and productivity. Sceptics argue that Agile is best suited to small and medium sized organisations and wrongly perceive Agile as a limited, over-hyped business technique, with inadequate controls or a lack of discipline, negating its use in the highly regulated corporate world.

What is Agile?

The term ‘Agile’ was coined by the Agile Alliance, in 2001, and is described within the ‘Agile Manifesto’ – a document created and signed by representatives from the leading Agile approaches, such as Scrum, DSDM, and eXtreme Programming.

Agile advocates recognise that ‘Waterfall’ sequential process-driven delivery methodologies are not generally suitable in the complex world of Information Technology projects, where complexity and volatility are the norm and where a more empirical ‘inspect and adapt’ approach is required.

‘Agile’ is now the accepted generic term for the family of empirical delivery approaches that are designed to work in dynamic environments. Today, numerous organisations have already achieved significant repeat benefit from implementing Agile approaches, including those in highly regulated Private and Public Sector organisations.

The transformation to Agile achieves early and repeatable success by focusing on discrete, valuable, deliveries that incrementally provide tangible business value.

The deployment of working software, and the subsequent results’ analysis, is delivered in much faster, regular, predictable cycles than in traditional ‘Waterfall’ methods. This ensures that each timed-boxed activity or ‘iteration’ delivers measurable value to the business.

As Agile teams become more proficient they can apply the process to increasingly larger and more complex projects. The inbuilt flexibility of Agile provides the means to adapt to change while still maintaining business value. It is this important feature of Agile that maintains competitive edge in volatile industries.

Agile enables significant increases in the quality of products through visibility, predictability and repeatability of the processes, progress and functionality of the system or project being delivered; all of which are especially important within regulated industries. Agile has the ability to deliver to strict deadlines, and to adapt projects in line with the evolving business requirements.

Roger Leaton, Agile Advocate at BT, describes Agile as ‘the successful delivery of business value in a changing environment’. In other words, a significant benefit of Agile is that it allows an organisation to adapt quickly and effectively when it needs to, and to anticipate change driven by internal and wider market conditions. The learning, from the feedback on each iterative delivery, is used to ensure the project is continually providing the highest business value and promotes ongoing improvement.

The myths surrounding Agile

Since Agile focuses on teams, working to relatively short-term, incremental objectives, Agile has much in common with techniques usually associated with smaller, dynamic businesses. Therefore, Agile is most likely to succeed where a ‘small and nimble business culture’ is instilled within each development team.

However, detractors of this approach insist that Agile is not suitable for large corporate organisations, where cross-functional teams are made up of thousands of people distributed around the world. Some argue that Agile is not an appropriate method for organisations operating within highly regulated industries, such as Financial Services and Telecommunications, or even Government. Consequently, many of these sectors have failed to acknowledge Agile or to pilot the new approach throughout the 1990s and the early part of this decade.

Indeed, many organisations cling to old methodologies that promote the use of hundreds of pages of requirements (presented ‘up-front’), punitive SLAs and even accept project failure as ‘Business as Usual’ – given the public visibility and inevitable embarrassment that failed projects create, perhaps the proven benefits of Agile should now be given the attention and respect it rightly deserves?

Effectively managing risk, using Agile methods, is also a concern for many large organisations, particularly those within regulated markets. Key stakeholders are understandably worried about the prospect of multiple small teams working almost autonomously.

Sceptics perceive there to be a lack of accountability within the Agile approach, undermining any improvements that might be achieved, and only serving to put the organisation at greater risk.

Some organisations, operating in strictly controlled industries, have pointed to an apparent difficulty in demonstrating compliance when following Agile methods. Again, a de-centralised cross-functional approach, with smaller working teams, is perceived to deliver little more than compliance headaches for senior management.

Cutting through the confusion – exploding the Agile myths

Yet for all of these concerns, there are many examples of organisations, working within sectors, including Telecoms, Government and Financial Services, that have adopted Agile methods for project delivery, reaped the benefits, and are now implementing it across other areas of the business.

This demonstrates that as a means to achieve business change, Agile is not in itself flawed or unsuitable for certain complex markets. Rather, what it does is highlight that there are certain industries which, for various historical reasons, are more reluctant to undertake what Borland calls the ‘Agile Shift’.

Is this due to their unwillingness to accept change? As is often the case, with industries that are heavily steeped in tradition, it can be a challenge to convince people of the need for change, and the value of this type of investment.

Peter Measey, Operations Director at RADTAC, a specialist Agile Consultancy, believes that such resistance can best be overcome by being sympathetic to the fact that Agile is a Change Initiative. Measey advocates that achieving success with Agile is about enabling a business state where people ‘do’ Agile as a method and ‘act’ Agile in their day-to-day work. This means it is essential to take into account the cultural and infrastructural implications of implementing Agile.

Measey believes that a lot of the early scepticism shown towards Agile and its use in regulated environments stems from its early years when it was a relatively immature methodology mostly in the domain of software developers and was often implemented in isolation, showing little understanding or consideration for the cultural and human impact it had within the broader organisation.

RADTAC’s view on Agile provides a much more practical approach that has developed to the extent that, when implemented pragmatically, it invariably leads to significant improvements in the success of transformation agendas and the personal satisfaction of those involved.

Agile focuses on providing high quality products in the fastest time at the greatest productivity. Projects are increasingly required to deliver identified quality objectives within clearly fixed dates and reducing windows of opportunity, particularly within regulated environments; it is in the delivery of these important objectives that Agile has been shown to be the best way to ensure success.

BT is an example of a company operating in a highly regulated and strictly compliant market, and uses Agile to deliver key projects, both internally and to customers across many verticals, in a controlled manner and to a large-scale. Today, BT helps its own customers to deliver Agile projects within their regulated industries.

It has been proven that Agile can help to demonstrate compliance where previously a thorough, dogmatic approach has been applied. One of the key tenets of Agile is the continual evaluation of objectives and regular testing throughout the project lifecycle. Organisations within Financial Services and the Public Sector have found that rigorous and regular testing invariably equips them to show due diligence and best practice within their business processes.

Peter Measey at RADTAC notes that within the Public Sector, particularly within Central Government, there have been examples of Agile methods being integrated with Office of Government Commerce (OGC) regulatory practices such as OGC Gateways.

Pragmatic Agile – making Agile work in regulated industries

Agile has evolved with application, adaptation and experience so that well-established methods are now followed in order to effectively implement change projects across business units.

The starting point for most Agile transformations is an evaluation of the current processes and standards already in place to identify what is working, define the transformation vision, establish where the organisation or business unit wants to be, why, and by when, then establishing a simple set of pragmatic guidelines and delivery standards.

The next key stage, particularly within organisations where there is resistance to change, is to train staff in Agile methods to ensure that they fully understand the principles behind the new approach and the objectives of the project.

An Agile expert should be inserted into each team for the initial stages – eventually this mentor will coach others to become Agile experts themselves. Agile requires leadership rather than management. People are being asked to carry out tasks differently from that they are used to and, therefore, leading by example is key.

Roger Leaton believes that it is essential for Agile projects to build confidence in their value across the organisation at the earliest possible stage. He therefore advocates starting out by embarking on relatively small, easily-implemented tasks to show the wider organisation how Agile can deliver improvements to business processes.

Agile then becomes less a leap of faith, and more a logical, obvious business decision. This approach has been used widely within Financial Services organisations to secure management buy-in and is responsible for the growth in businesses making the ‘Agile Shift’ within the sector.

Self-evidently, issues within Agile have had less to do with the method itself, and more to do with its implementation, particularly within regulated industries.

However, as the realities of the business world continue to evolve at breakneck speed, particularly in areas such as IT, organisations will continue to look for the right balance between flexibility and control. Agile has been proven to be a sophisticated and accountable approach to business that will increasingly become the method of choice for organisations looking to stay adaptable and innovative, in whatever industry they operate.