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Author Q&A on Agile Value Delivery - Beyond the Numbers


Larry Cooper and Jen Stone have written a book titles Agile Value Delivery – Beyond the Numbers which provides advice and techniques for blending agile practices with portfolio, program and project management, taking a value focused approach to managing the outcomes of initiatives rather than focusing on the activities and practices which are at the center of many methodologies and approaches.

The book has been produced using an agile approach and new releases are available to all purchasers. The book can be purchased here and a sample chapter from the book can be downloaded here.

In addition to the book they have a supporting website which will contain worked examples, detailed practice descriptions, tools and templates. The website is expected to be up and running in late September. 

They spoke to InfoQ about the book and the ideas behind it.

InfoQ: Please can you give tell us about yourselves, why are you the right people to write this book?

Larry: Experience and age. I’ve been in the industry since 1978 and over the past 25 years I have worked and taught in portfolio and project management and IT operations. I had done my entire computer science degree on punched cards in the 1970’s and here I am now walking around with a phone watch. But it not just the technology that’s changed.

In the 1970s we did almost everything ourselves – requirements, analysis, design, coding, testing and deployment. Then, in the late 1980s and 1990s, we started to specialize.

As I watched the different disciplines emerge into bodies of knowledge and certifications and job titles, I was struck by how specialization introduced complexity and division rather than clarity. I’ve always been the type to look for the common thread weaving through a seemingly disparate set of topics, so this trend had both fascinated and bothered me for years. I finally decided to see if we could tell a more comprehensive story, one that allows people to see how they connect to an integrated whole.

I chose to work with Jen because we see things in complementary ways. She brings extensive skills and experience to our partnership, not just in the IT and business realms, but in writing and teaching as well.

InfoQ: What is the underlying reason for writing the book, what is the problem you set out to solve?

Jen: In our work with many diverse organizations, we often find that individuals and departments are disconnected from one another and out of touch with where they fit within the larger system. This division is exacerbated when people adhere to practices without understanding why they are doing them or knowing what results they are trying to create.

When people develop an almost religious devotion to practices they fail to see the limitations of those practices, these devotees, who Larry has named “Method Lemmings,” don’t apply the essential “inspect and adapt” concept to their practices, and they don’t connect those practices with how their organizations create value. For them inspect and adapt only applies to their outputs but not to the practices they use every day.

We don’t ascribe to the idea there is a “one true way.” A good friend of ours, @collinsrod, says that there are many right answers to every problem, so the best thing we can do is to choose the ones that fit the situation. In the book we show how different practices can be used in many different situations. To do this, we start with understanding value and making the practices themselves subservient to value creation.

InfoQ: The book is named Agile Value Delivery - There are many viewpoints about what value actually means – what do you think of when you talk about value? 

Larry: Value is an interesting word and one that generates a lot of different opinions. One of the most common views of value is Shareholder Value, as described by Milton Friedman, in which creating return on investment was the primary measure of value. As counterpoint, Peter Drucker argued that value was determined by the customer. When tested in the real world, an interesting pattern emerges – return on invested capital has steadily declined for the firms focused on shareholder value, while it has steadily increased for those that focus on customer value.

So value is not about money; it’s about perception. That was why we added the subtitle “Beyond the Numbers.”

Jen: By the way, Agile practices don’t define Value either – only that we should prioritize according to highest business Value, which is apparently achieved by prioritizing features in a product. That’s important to do – but what do you base those priorities on? We feel that the answer lies in practices such as Outcomes Management, Impact Mapping, the Business Model Canvas, etc. – all of which get us looking at the results we want to get to as the basis for taking any action or intervention into business operations.

InfoQ: You talk about “Value Delivery” – this is a term which will be new to many people, what do you mean by Value Delivery and how is this different from the way portfolios and projects have been looked at in the past?

Larry: I was introduced to the Benefits Realization Approach close to 20 years ago when I worked at DMR – around the time John Thorp (who also worked for DMR) wrote The Information Paradox. I used the approach on a couple of projects early on and it got me hooked on the idea that we need to focus on desired outcomes, rather than on outputs.

Most portfolio and project management practices focus on outputs – the deliverables. People jump straight to figuring out what they have to build without knowing why they should build it. If, instead, we start from the Value perspective, we can understand why we are doing something, which then helps us figure out what we should do, when we should do it, and who should be involved. Focusing on value also help us know for whom we are doing it, how we should do it, and where we should do it.

InfoQ: You talk about many of the measures organisations have used in the past are not effective or wrong – why is this and what should they be replaced with?

Jen: That is mostly in reference to how we measure progress for our initiatives or projects which was mostly focused on Outputs versus Outcomes. Outputs, though they are the most visible, don`t really tell what has been achieved and we don`t always know their true effects until much later.

If you look ahead to what results you want to achieve you can work backwards to determine the outputs you need to deliver that given the highest probability of delivering those results. You also need to identify indicators for those results that you can then measure – typically in the form of Benefits statements and their measurements.

InfoQ: You have linked your approach to the ideas behind agile software development – how do you extend from software development to broader organisational aspects?

Larry: That is the real challenge we set out to explore. Our chapter on next generation Agile within the last section of the book called Reshaping our Organizations examines the point in time where agile thinking has permeated the culture and practices of the entire organization.

Jen: Alistair Cockburn describes that state as “post agile,’’ as it is when we cease to need a label for how organizations think and work. You can read more of his comments on our work in the endorsement section of our book.

InfoQ: You present a model you call ICD© - please tell us more about it and how it can be used (a book sample will be provided)

Larry: Models are an interesting thing – as Jen put it to me, we can infer things that are not there and not infer things that are there. Most of the existing models for Agile follow a left-to-right and top-to-bottom pattern, placing the customer at the far left and outputs in the form of features or products (rather than outcomes or results) on the far right. It’s more than just a visual separation; it’s a disconnect in thinking about the relationship between the customer and the outcomes they are seeking, stemming from a lack of understanding of value and its relation to outcomes.

It also isolates delivery teams from the understanding needed to help create value within the larger context of the organization, because it isn’t clear how they should integrate with either the strategic work upstream, with the work of value creation, or with the operational work downstream from it. Instead of grasping the concept that delivery is a subset of a larger system, delivery teams see their work as something that can happen without context. They fail to see that their organization might require complex and comprehensive lines of communication, governance and reporting that bound and guide the work of the team.

So we decided to see if we could come up with something that encompassed Agile, Value, Portfolio, Programme, Project and Product Management. We feel that our ICD Model© is truly unique in that it covers all of those areas.

InfoQ: You talk about the need for governance when delivering value using agile approaches – isn’t that anti-agile?

Jen: Certainly not. This misconception is one of the things that makes people believe Agile is a chaotic, cowboy approach rather than a mature way to address work done by teams. Governance is how decision-making happens – whether you’re calling it governance or not. As a matter of fact, if you do Scrum as prescribed you have defined roles, processes, and artifacts – and those characteristic constitute governance.

Governance has been equated with control in traditional management. Done correctly, it is more to do with orchestration – getting teams and the organizations to which they belong to all be pulling in the same direction.

InfoQ: What are the characteristics of a useful governance framework which fits with your approach?

Larry: It depends on context; in some circumstances it can have a light touch while in complex circumstances it will need to be more robust. For example, in highly regulated industries you may need more formal governance in place.

Regardless of context, though, the emphasis should always be on simplicity. When we lose sight of the need for simplicity, governance becomes burdensome. Just as minimally viable products are the goal of agile development, we see minimally viable governance as the focus of any governance that is put in place – do only what you need to do and nothing more.

That was also an interesting insight for us as we put this together – if simplicity is a major goal for the products we create, then why is not also a major goal for the processes we use to do it or the governance we may need to put in place?

InfoQ: What changes will organisations and managers need to make to adopt these approaches and what benefits will they get from doing so?

Larry: The biggest one is to stop being Method Lemmings! Sorry, couldn’t resist that one. Mostly they need to start recognizing that every practice probably has good things, some not so good things, and some gaps.

Jen: Also each practice was often devised to solve a problem, for someone, in a specific circumstance. This means that unless all of us are the same, have the same problems, and face the same set of circumstances, it is likely a particular practice by itself isn’t enough. We need to combine them, adjust them, and in true Agile fashion inspect and adapt based on what we learn from their usage in our own contexts.

The biggest benefit will be that they will feel unchained – it isn’t about the practices, it’s about the results. The more we realize that, the better the results, and hence more value, that can created.

InfoQ: Larry, I saw from your recent AXELOS(@AXELOS_GBP) blog post on “PRINCE2 in an Agile World” that your model will be the basis for a series of upcoming white papers that you and Jen are writing for from AXELOS called “Next Generation Agile: Are you Ready?”. Can you tell us more about that?

Larry: I was fortunate to be the North American Mentor for PRINCE2 Agile and Jen was a reviewer. Our involvement got us thinking that if AXELOS was bringing agile concepts and practices into PRINCE2 then it begged the obvious question: what are the implications for their other products? So I reached out to Michael Acaster (who had brought me into the PRINCE2 Agile book project) and ran the idea by him. He was very supportive and enthusiastic and suggested we give them a proposal – which we did and they accepted.

Jen: The series will be comprised of six white papers that will be released over the next few months under the banner “Next Generation Agile: Are you Ready?” with the following sub-titles:

  1. The Implications of Agile Thinking on IT Service Management as described by ITIL®
  2. The Implications of Agile Thinking on Management of Value® (MoV®)
  3. The Implications of Agile Thinking on Programme and Portfolio Management
  4. The Implications of Agile Thinking on Programme, Portfolio and Project Offices (P3O)
  5. The Implications of Agile Thinking on Management of Risk (M_o_R®)
  6. The Implications of Agile Thinking on Project and Product Delivery ­­­­­

We’re hoping the first one will be out later this summer or early fall. We are very excited about the opportunity to work with a global leader like AXELOS, and even more excited that we will be using our ICD Model© as the cornerstone for the white papers to look at each of these product areas.

InfoQ: What’s up next?

Larry: We will be ramping up our website where we will be documenting all of the practices we mention in the book. We encourage everyone who buys our book for a late September launch. We encourage everyone who buys our book to keep checking back to the website for the latest. We also encourage those who have practices to share to reach out to us to see if we can include them in the site. The site will be a combination of free and paid subscriptions. For those who provide us with practices we can include on the site, they will get a free year of access to the paid side once we start charging for that. We will need to build a critical mass before we will add a fee-based service..

Jen: We also hope to do one or two more releases of the book in the next year – all future releases of the book will be free to anyone who buys a copy of the most recent version. We’ll also be creating learning content around the ideas in the book as we work with some of our training partners here in North America and globally. We’re also working with independent content creators in areas such as Agile Procurement for example. We very active in looking for both people and content that are complementary to what we are doing.

Larry: As I mentioned in my AXELOS blog post, it’s an exciting time to be in the industry; we’re seeing a fundamental shift in our models which, in turn, are precipitating even greater shifts in our thinking. We’re hoping to play a small part in leading that shift.

About the Book Authors

Larry Cooper is a Project Executive, Portfolio/Project Manager and strategic advisor in the public and private sectors in Canada and the USA and holds close to 25 industry certifications in Agile, Project Management, and ITIL. He has been published in books, magazines, and on industry leading websites, having achieved top ITIL download for his white paper “Implementing ITIL using the PMBOK in Four Repeatable  Steps” on Larry has been involved in the training industry since 2007 and has developed and delivered over 30 courses on Agile, ITIL, Project Management, and Value Management. He  has been an invited speaker at numerous conferences and symposia for the PMI, BAWorld, and the itSMF in Ottawa and Toronto, and at Boston University in the US. Most recently he presented global webinars with BrightTalk on topics ranging from DevOps, to ITSM, to the future of Agile in organizations.

Jen Stone, B.Sc., MCIS, is an independent consultant with a strong background in IT operations. She has seen that when organizations begin to adopt Agile and DevOps concepts, the resulting shifts in methodologies can often disrupt an Ops team’s ability to keep systems stable, secure and performant. Jen begins by helping teams modify their infrastructure, processes, communication paths and cadences to integrate with changes occurring in other parts of the organization, then expands that systems thinking to integrate teams across the entire organization.

Jen brings over 30 years’ experience mentoring and teaching adults, over 25 years speaking, presenting and writing, and over a decade developing and delivering courses to professionals in IT and business.

Besides co-authoring Agile Value Delivery: Beyond the Numbers, Larry was the AXELOS Mentor for the newly released PRINCE2 Agile. Larry and Jen are also  co-authoring a series of White Papers called “Next Generation Agile: Are you Ready” which explores the implications of adopting agile thinking and using Agile practices on the entire suite of AXELOS products including ITIL, MoP, M_o_R, MSP, and P30.

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