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Exchanging Industry Experiences with Agile Methodologies

Posted by Ben Linders on May 23, 2014 |

In many countries there are federations which support the IT industry in exchanging knowledge and that stimulate innovation.

Organizations can join such federations to share experiences with other organizations and learn from each other using for instance case studies and real-life stories.

Activities that federations do are hosting centers of expertise, publishing study reports, lobbying activities towards continental (e.g. European), national and regional governments to obtain an optimal business environment, stimulate business development, introduce new trends and techniques and organizing events where people from the organization can meet to present and discuss their experiences.

Earlier this year the Agile Consortium Belgium, Sirris and Agoria organized an event to share experiences with agile methodologies like Scrum, Kanban, visual management, XP, DSDM and Lean. The Agile Consortium Benelux published the presentations on Agile Software methodologies that were given at this event (slides are in Dutch or English).

InfoQ interviewed Carl Danneels from the Agile Consortium Belgium and Ingrid Reynaert from Agoria (Belgian federation for the technology industries) about the different agile methodologies that were covered, on using agile for innovation and how events where organizations share there experiences can help the industry to adopt agile practices.

InfoQ: Thanks Carl and Ingrid for doing this interview with InfoQ. Can you tell our readers something about the mission and purpose of the Agile Consortium Belgium and Agoria?

Carl: Glad you ask, Ben. As a matter of fact, we actually spent quite some time the last couple of months to fine-tune the mission and purpose of the Agile Consortium in Belgium. As you know, the old saying goes : “A new spring, a new song”.

Our motto now is : “Agile Consortium Belgium - The Agile thought leaders” - Run by and for organizations. The launch of this new motto is powered by a new board and a new president, Jan De Baere.

This truly reflects our main goal, which is to offer organisations an independent platform where Agile knowledge can be shared. By learning and sharing best Agile practices, we strive to inspire our members and guide them to become more effective.

Ingrid: Agoria and Sirris set-up together activities to support the software industry. This industry has specific needs which are different from the manufacturing industry: Software is intangible; A software product is rarely finished and released in increments; The threshold to enter the software market is low; The user play an important role in software development.

Agoria and Sirris offer services to the software builders on the level of engineering, innovation and business. For this both partners run a project KATALICT, which is supported by Agentschap Ondernemen (Flemish Government).

Agile Consortium Belgium is an excellent partner to collaborate offering the right expertise on agile methodologies. Some of the Agoria members are also member of the Agile Consortium Belgium.

InfoQ: Why did you organize this event? What kind of companies attended?

Ingrid: During company visits we notified that there was a different level of maturity using Agile methodologies. Moreover Scrum, Lean, Kanban are hot topics today. The event had two purposes, provide an overview of different agile methodologies on the one hand and sharing best practices between Agile experts and software builders on the other hand.

Agile Consortium Belgium provided six top agile experts bringing their view on Agile practices using the pecha kucha method. Afterwards the software builders could exchange expertise and ask questions to the experts in an interactive set-up. All views were shared during the conclusion.

40 companies meaning big, SMEs and start-ups, attended the workshop. Most of the participants used partially agile methodologies or did not use it at all. The event was positive evaluated. Moreover the participants let us know to have more interest in in depth information on agile methodologies combined with cases and practical experiences. So a next challenge for a collaboration among Agoria, Sirris and Agile Consortium Belgium.

Carl: As far as Agile Belgium is concerned, we were especially charmed that Sirris & Agoria approached us to help Belgian software builders thrive in a competitive market. Applying the right technologies and the right practices in specific situations is the key for success of these entrepreneurial companies. Sending our best experts to elaborate on Agile practices, was a perfect way to contribute. 

InfoQ: In the event several agile methodologies were explored. What made you choose agile?

Carl: The process time between production and design has shortened significantly. Software builders are subject to constant transformations - pushed by market and technology evolutions – that have to be implemented at an increasingly rapid pace. Agile is a perfect approach to meet the concerns of the software development community and deal with the ever changing needs, including those of the customer.

InfoQ: How can organizations use agile to stimulate innovation? Can you give some examples of organizations who are doing this?

Ingrid: There are different opinions about agile as stimulator or killer of innovation.

Success is not only about having an original idea for a business but it is highly dependent on timing and execution. Being the first one to get to market is very important, and being able to do it with a product that satisfies the needs of your customers is essential. You have all elements here for a perfect marriage between innovation and agile.

It can be a powerful tool to solve blocking issues quickly, or to take the ideas of the client into account. If agile practices are used in the right way they can improve the rates of innovation, generate greater efficiencies and enhanced customer experiences. And in the end it is all about people.

From what I have seen and heard until now about Agile practices, it is not a specific methodology for the software builders only. The use of agile can improve the innovation process in each industry no matter which sector. You can see it as a high level, interactive and flexible project management tool.

Carl: A classic example in Europe is Spotify. Spotify managed to outperform industry giants Google, Apple, and Amazon by applying Agile consistently. Spotify has approached Agile very systematically. Incredible management buy-in, utilisation of small/independent teams and constant removal of roadblocks and waste is their magic formula.

InfoQ: Carl, you did a pecha kucha on "value driven planning". Can you elaborate on that?

Carl: One of the key beliefs of Agile is that you should avoid waste by focusing on the development of code that really matters. This is more difficult than it sounds. It all starts with prioritising the high level business needs (‘epics’ or ‘themes’) that benefit most from IT enablement. ROI, NPV, Payback Period are all relevant tools for that. The question concerning value optimisation trickles down to lower levels however and becomes a quest for the most valuable ‘features’ per release or ‘stories’ per sprint. 

InfoQ: And why again is that so difficult ?

Carl: Well, for starters, value is very often perceived differently, depending on the profile of who will use the epic or feature. My experience is that it is still harder when the software should serve internal business needs of a company, rather then external commercial purposes. The availability of a representative, omnipresent and knowledgeable ‘Product Owner’ is key. (The Product Owner is the one that has a pivotal role between the Development team & the Business) .

Secondly, we should actually rather talk about ‘net value’, taking into account the development cost to build a feature or epic. We all know that estimating these costs is very often a challenge, even with all the intelligent techniques (like planning poker) that Agile provides.

InfoQ: Kanban was also one of the agile methods that was covered. Can you name some of the differences between Kanban an Scrum, things that Kanban doesn't do or does in a different way?

Carl: Firstly, Kanban is much less prescriptive as Scrum, in fact it is a change management approach, not a methodology. You have to start from an existing process, but by applying visualisation, work in progress limits and flow your organisation will gradually change to a more responsive, lean and value adding company. Secondly, Kanban implements a continuous flow instead of an iterative process. Third, work in progress limits are set per process stage instead of the scope per iteration as we do in Scrum. Most teams however will agree that many of the Scrum principles and ceremonies fit well in a Kanban flow.

InfoQ: Some of the other presentations focused on the role and function of project management and planning in agile. Can you share some of those conclusions?

Carl: The main conclusion of this presentation was that becoming Agile is no excuse for doing no or bad project management. On the contrary, Agile teams do more and more frequent planning than a lot of traditional teams but in a different way. Agile planning focusses much more on the outcome (value) for the customer and how to deliver and track that. And also output is measured in terms of how much working and ‘done’ product is delivered instead of the percentage of work or effort that is done.

In general Agile project management switches to real measurements of done product instead of estimates as soon as possible and makes risks and uncertainty explicit in the planning. And Agile plans embrace and incorporate the fact that the world is changing, and make (scope) changes cheaper and easier.

InfoQ: Lean was also covered in the event. Earlier InfoQ did an interview with Régis Medina about combining an agile and lean approach. Do you recognize things that are mentioned in this interview? Are there additional things that came up during the event?

Carl: Yes and No. We should be very careful when using the term “Lean” in Agile contexts.

What resonates well in the article is the bullet about ‘Making the right products’ and ‘going to the field in order to understand the client context and to formulate the problem he is trying to solve.’ As far as I am concerned, we are talking about ‘Lean Startup Practices’ here.

These techniques can certainly help in understanding the true problems of the end users better by hypothesis and experimentation. This was really a hot topic during our Katalict day. The other two bullets in the text of Régis – as I see it - have little to do with ‘Lean Startup’. 

When we start talking about the bullet “Delivering more at the end of each iteration.”, I tend to disagree. Régis states: “…. agile teams are often clueless because they don’t know how to develop faster while preserving the quality of their software and not working long extra hours.” Developing faster should be the outcome of following Agile practices in an exemplary way (due to which the team organically starts to become more efficient), not because of increased pressure by the client. Plus: hitting the high value features is often more important than trying to do much more. 

Focusing on the last bullet (“Learning how to better collaborate with the other departments”), I believe the Agile mindset and methodologies like Scrum (through the role of a Product Owner or fully aligned Product Owners) have all the potential embedded to yield true collaboration. 

InfoQ: What did the attendants learn from this event on experiences with agile methodologies?

Ingrid: As general conclusion we can say that there is no one common Agile methodology and practice. Each expert has his view. The attendants saw it as a complex and useful tool, but not something you implement in your organization overnight. There was a high request to receive more in depth information on the different Agile methodologies in a following event. 

InfoQ: How do you think events like this can help the IT industry to adopt agile and become more innovative?

Ingrid: Bringing the software builders in contact with top Agile experts and real case owners give them more confidence in using Agile methodologies. Implementing Agile methodology in an organization causes a drastic change on the level of organization, processes and people. The more best practices and exchange of knowledge and experiences takes place the more change people and organizations will be convinced to use it. In the end it is all about reducing costs and making money.

Carl: I believe that listening to experts in the field is always helpful, especially when these experts put in the energy to align their presentations and focus on knowledge sharing rather than commercially inspired persuasion. 

I would like to take the opportunity at the end of this interview to thank my agile colleagues. The answers to the questions above should be considered as the aggregate knowledge of all of these Agile experts. You can find their Pecha Kucha presentations here.

About the Interviewees

Ingrid Reynaert is Expert Innovation at Agoria – the biggest Belgian federation of technology companies - in Brussels. She provides advice to companies setting-up innovation projects and growing strategies. She participates actively to the European, national and regional research and innovation policy. You can follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter @ingridreynaert.

 

Carl Danneels is Board Member of the Agile Consortium Belgium since 2010 and presiding Lean Startup Flanders (70 members) since 2013. From 2003 on, he is Manager of Plethon Consulting, a company introducing & optimising (agile) project and portfolio management practices in companies from different industry sectors (eg Axa, Agfa Healthcare, Elia, Fortis, Niko, Sanoma,Total, …).

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