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InfoQ Homepage Articles Scaling Agile in a Data-Driven Company

Scaling Agile in a Data-Driven Company

Key Takeaways

  • Agile transformation is not about software teams learning Scrum; agile transformation is about people working together to change culture, putting people at the center
  • Continuous agile coaching is important to change the mindset in an organization
  • Agile shapes the organization, not the reverse
  • Every organization must find its way to be Agile; there are no recipes that always work
  • Start small, think big; scale agile from small teams to the entire organization with Inspect & Adapt

The IT department of Cerved Group experimented with Scrum, Kanban, Lean, SAFe, and Nexus, to learn what works for them and fine-tune and continuously improve their way of working. In their transformation, they focused on the culture and mindset to cultivate high-performing teams, to improve the quality of products for customers, and to help managers transforming themselves in servant leaders.

Antonello Mantuano, head of software engineering at Cerved Group, spoke about scaling agile at Agile Business Day 2018, together with Pierpaolo Cimirro, product owner in Cerved, and Tiziano Interlandi, Scrum Master in Cerved. InfoQ is covering this conference with Q&As, summaries, and articles.

InfoQ interviewed Mantuano about scaling agile in a data-driven company.

InfoQ: What made you decide to adopt and scale agile at Cerved group?

Antonello Mantuano: Cerved is the largest information provider in Italy and one of the major credit rating agencies in Europe. We are a Data-Driven Company: our databases offer unique economic information  in Italy in terms of quality, completeness and historic depth.

We started a journey of agile transformation in the IT department of the Cerved Group in 2013. We had a slow and complex development process with closed business requirements, zero business value in the early stages of the projects, and low adaptability to change.

The customer's value of the project's features was often not clear and the risk of developing unnecessary functionality was high. The feedback on the correctness of every feature came too late, at the end of a project, often leading to sacrifice the test phases.

But the company asked us to be a faster and higher quality delivering IT department. The explosion of data in the world and in our context, the Big Data revolution, the Open Data initiatives, demanded a change of speed to become more adaptive. We understood that we needed to change the development process, putting people at the center, facilitating communication between IT teams, applying an iterative process to allow continuous feedback, so to be more adaptive. In a word: being more Agile.

Already from the first projects it was evident how the incremental approach, the continuous communication with the business, and the empowerment of the teams gave a significant value in the creation of quality products or solutions for Cerved’s customers with a much higher degree of satisfaction of the teams. The Sprint Review, for example, emerged as a very important ceremony because it allows teams and business’ stakeholders to talk about product quality, features and expectations; this allowed teams to gather continuous feedback on how to improve the product. Without Scrum, this feedback came at the end of the project or in rare moments, with high risks for the success of whole project and little satisfaction from the team.

The extension of the Agile from the first teams to the whole organization obviously put us in front of the problems of Agile Scaling; we have experimented methodologies like Scrum of scrums, SAFe, Nexus etc. learning on which contexts and in which projects each one has its own value. Today we use an approach inspired by SAFe in the Lean management of the Product/Project Portfolio, and Nexus in the part closest to IT delivery, but we continue to do retrospectives on ourselves in order to improve the way we work.

InfoQ: How did you start the agile transformation at Cerved?

Mantuano: We started with two proofs of concept (POC), one on Scrum and one on Kanban, choosing two projects with high company visibility and high complexity. We wanted to verify the value of Agile methodologies not on simple projects but on more complex domains, in order to measure the real benefit for us and for business in our context. For each POC we provided an initial agile training and continuous coaching during the project lead by an external agile coach who supported teams and stakeholders in the change of mindset. The POCs lasted several months and their success has allowed us to understand that we were on the right way.

The main drivers of success were:

  • The sponsorship of the IT Management
  • The value of the external coach
  • A strong application of Scrum
  • The passion and enthusiasm of all the people involved.

These aspects made agile take off in Cerved.

Earlier InfoQ interviewed Thyrsted Brandsgård about Agile at LEGO and asked how they adapted SAFe:

Thyrsted Brandsgård: Since we had started with Scrum, the obvious choice seemed to build the next layer on top of Scrum - the program layer. The portfolio management part at the highest level still ran as a cross-company yearly process following a regular financial planning cycle. (...)  On a "team of teams" level we (...) created a "plan fair" where teams could opt in on listening to other teams plans. (...) We found that teams are not super interested in every other team’s work, only the interdependencies between teams. (...) We pushed responsibility for the ROAM (Resolve, Own, Accept, Mitigate) risk management closer to the teams and asked them to come with mitigating suggestions on their own and empowered them to make their own actions, moving them up the responsibility ladder. This way, only the really tough risks have to be discussed in the management review.

InfoQ: How did you adapt and fine-tune SAFe to suit your needs?

Mantuano: We have experimented with SAFe in a very challenging project (10 different teams, 9 months duration, high complexity). The project was a success: “on time, on value, on budget”. But for the IT teams SAFe is too prescriptive, too heavy, often not completely Agile (too focused on the plan and on the process, instead of on individuals and on respond to change).

Instead, at the portfolio level, SAFe introduced an interesting Lean approach to budget management and on the creation of value for customers.

We have structured the company budget for new initiatives in different value streams, and for each value stream we use a Kanban approach to manage the ideas and projects entered in to the funnel; each idea/project is analyzed, estimated (costs, ROI, customer value), discarded or prioritized to bring them into implementation.

With SAFe we were able to have a more adaptive approach, also to the management of enterprise portfolio projects.

In an earlier InfoQ article Susan McIntosh defined the agile mindset:

An agile mindset is the set of attitudes supporting an agile working environment. These include respect, collaboration, improvement and learning cycles, pride in ownership, focus on delivering value, and the ability to adapt to change. This mindset is necessary to cultivate high-performing teams, who in turn deliver amazing value for their customers.

InfoQ What are the difficulties that you experienced and what did you do to overcome them?

Mantuano: Agile is, first of all, a mindset: practicing Agile is not being Agile. Changing and evolving the organization's mindset was not easy.

Understanding and assimilating the values and principles of the Agile  Manifesto requires exercise, practice, patience and a continuous work with people and on the company culture.

Aspects such as micro-management and the continuous push on the teams were part of our daily life, and only with continuous coaching and on-the-job training we managed to bring out the value and the trust of an empowered and autonomous team.

Also the interpretation of the roles of Product Owner and Scrum Master were very difficult at the beginning: the PO was often focused more on “How to do” instead of “What to do”, while the Scrum Master who came from Technical Leaders often did not focus on their role as facilitators/ Servant Leaders. It was important to understand the essence of the two roles in Scrum.

An Agile transformation is first of all a cultural transformation, then it also becomes a process change; the process is the child of culture. We learned Inspects and Adapt practices, which was very important in order to learn from our mistakes and improve ourselves. We act in a complex organization and the Cynefin Framework teaches us that the Probe-Sense-Respond approach is the only one that works.

From a technical point of view, Agile needs software releases more rapidly; this need pushed us towards the use of Extreme  Programming techniques (Continuous Integration, Pair Programming, TDD; etc..) and to start a DevOps transformation (No Agile without DevOps).

Also on the organizational issues, we have seen our organization continually changing towards an approach oriented more on Feature Teams rather than on Component Teams.

Finally, we were faced with the difficulty of putting people in contact with each other outside their team's enclosure; Scrum tends to isolate teams because they are more independent.

We needed to focus on inter-team collaboration and communication, culture growth and company knowledge.  Cerved's community of practice were born following this need. Especially the community of practice (CoP) dedicated to Agile has now more than 250 people coming from multiple company departments.

InfoQ: What have you learned on your transformation journey?

Mantuano: We have learned so much about ourselves and agile.

  • The importance of failure: the Learn From Failure (Try-Fail-Learn by Failure-Success) is the only learning path that allows continuous improvement.
  • The value of the Agile culture and its diffusion: it is the driver in order to obtain a change of mindset, to be able to start a process of continuous Kaizen.
  • The need to have teams with passionate well-inspired and willing people; they are the ones who really drive the transformations.
  • The close link between agile and organization: the agile mindset leads to questioning the organization and changing it in order to work ever better (Agile shapes organization and not the opposite).  
  • Organizations are not liquid-like, they do not adapt to any context; indeed they are often more solids-like. We believe that the organization of a company is more similar to DAS (an italian product similar to the plasticine) because they require more pressure to adapt themselves to the container and if the DAS is too old and there is too much pressure it is in danger of breaking; it is necessary to continuously soften it (with water) in order to carry out a transformation.

As an example on the link between agile and organization, we have changed various component teams and transformed them into feature teams; some Scrum Masters were better as domain experts and changed their role in PO; Dev and Ops now are more integrated; marketing's stakeholder or Digital experts are often integrated into Project Teams; software architects are continuously at the service of the teams and integrated into Projects Team, etc.

Learning from failure is important at every level, from project activities to team organizations. For example, some teams used Kanban because apparently it is simpler and less complex than Scrum. But Kanban requires more discipline and maturity of the team than Scrum; after few months of Kanban practices, several teams (autonomously) have chosen to abandon Kanban and use Scrum; Scrum is more prescriptive.

InfoQ: Based on what you learned, what is your main recommendation to organizations who want to increase their agility?

Mantuano: Every organization must find its way to be Agile: there are no recipes that always work.

There are some important aspects to focus on in an agile transformation:

  • focus on people and team value
  • don't be afraid to experiment, learn from failures and continuous improvement to be more Agile
  • start small think big, that is, giving the right time to the organization to change the mindset, but lead and inspire for continuous improvement
  • believe in agile coaching, first with external coaches, and then combined with internal coaching
  • have managers willing to transform into servant leaders, through individual and collective coaching or continuous training on Agile Leadership, or training on Management 3.0

About the Interviewee

Graduated in Computer Engineering at the University of Calabria, Antonello Mantuano immediately worked as a solution architect in several companies, also creating his own startup. He has been in Cerved since 2012 and since 2013 has been responsible for the engineering software area that deals with the design and development of Cerved software solutions, and has made a significant contribution to the Agile transition process. Agile organization, data, algorithms, and software architectures are his main interests.  

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