How BT learnt to be Agile

An understandable myth is that large organisations cannot possibly be agile. They are simply too big, complex and geographically dispersed to successfully deploy an agile approach to IT and business. BT has proved this wrong.


The arguments for an ‘agile’ approach to IT, particularly agile software development, are well established. Organisations can minimise the impact of business change by increasing collaboration between the business and IT functions. The IT department can then deliver prioritised functionality faster and more frequently, thus reducing budget overruns.

To date, agile has been seen almost exclusively as a solution for smaller businesses. There are countless examples of organisations that have benefited from agile, but these are nearly all relatively small, with slender IT departments and simple business models. More often than not these organisations are co-located, geographically and metaphorically close to their customers and have a reasonably short and simple supply chain.

An understandable myth amongst the business and IT world is that large organisations cannot possibly be agile. They are simply too big, complex and geographically dispersed to successfully deploy an agile approach to IT and business.

However, the potential benefits of agile for large corporations are tremendous - far more so than for smaller businesses. With success rates for software development below 30 per cent (The Standish Report, Standish Group (2004)), clearly the current approach to software development amongst large organisations is not working.

Reports of poorly planned and badly managed large-scale IT projects continue to dominate the news and IT agenda, as these projects appear to consistently run over budget, are delivered late and fail to meet business and end-user needs.

Stretching big business to be agile

Many of the problems facing large IT projects arise because software development teams are unable or unwilling to adapt the project to reflect continually changing customer requirements. According to Forrester research, 30 per cent of software development projects currently fail due to unattainable requirements. (Forrester Research (2004))

Business priorities within the customer change and evolve during the project lifecycle, making it virtually impossible for the customer to predict all their requirements at the start of a project that could last months or years.

Agile supports the belief that with most software 80% of the benefits are delivered by 20% of the functionality, which is a major factor in explaining why 67 per cent of functionality delivered to businesses are never or rarely used, and therefore deliver little or no business benefit. (The Standish Report, Standish Group (2004) )

According to a recent report in The Economist, software development failures cost the global economy $119bn each year (The Economist (2006) ).

Clearly, a new more flexible approach to software development is needed which streamlines development processes and provides development teams with the freedom and flexibility they need in order to be successful. This has led to the emergence of the agile approach to development.

Certainly, implementing an agile approach to IT within a large, multi-national organisation such as BT is challenging. BT has an IT function that employs over 14,000 people, 6,000 of whom work offshore, not to mention the other 80,000 people in the business who need to collaborate with IT to a variety of degrees.

To transform an organisation this size over to a radically different approach is a difficult, long-term undertaking. In the three years since BT started its agile initiative, agile software development has been rolled out to around 30 per cent of our IT projects. It is very much a work in progress.

However, despite all of the challenges that BT has faced within the Agile Transformation Programme, we are already reaping the rewards of doing so. Large-scale agile enablement, when done properly, really does work and transforms IT project delivery and business performance.

Agile practices do deliver business value for large blue chip companies, enhancing the ability of the IT department to manage changing priorities, increase productivity and team morale, reduce project risk and accelerate time-to-market.

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