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Focusing on Business Outcomes at Barclays: Overcoming the "Urgency Paradox"

| by Manuel Pais Follow 9 Followers on Jul 26, 2018. Estimated reading time: 3 minutes |

Jonathan Smart, head of working ways at Barclays, and Morag McCall, project management officer (PMO) at Barclays, spoke last month at the DevOps Enterprise Summit in London about re-thinking the entire flow of work, from initial idea triage until releasing to production. This means introducing agility into how the application and services portfolio is managed, as well as changing the role of the PMO and finance departments.

Smart had spoken in previous years about how Agile and DevOps were successfully introduced at Barclays. Those transformations were focused on engineering but with the aim of helping reduce lead time to deliver new outcomes for the business. By now looking at the end-to-end flow of activities - starting from an initial business idea and ending with a new feature or story in production - it became clear there were much larger improvements to flow to be made on the activities before the engineering work actually started.

For some business ideas, the value stream could start with monthly ideas triage, then quarterly steering, and annual approval before the idea could even land a spot in the development backlog. Smart called this mismatch (between an up to 18 months long portfolio management process and the Agile engineering process the "urgency paradox").

The revamped portfolio management process now starts with strategic objectives. This is the furthest, multi-year horizon business vision for the organization (the CEO's top-5 objectives), or large programs like Brexit. These objectives are broken down into portfolio objectives with a three years view. A portfolio objective is a grouping of one or more portfolio epics. These yearly portfolio epics are divided into three months or shorter business outcomes (the everyday working unit) that are being constantly validated - with a limit of four business outcomes in progress simultaneously.

Finally, features are delivered monthly and measured towards the progress of the corresponding business outcome (seen as experiments). According to Smart, it is now possible for an engineer at Barclays to trace the story they are working on any given day (multiple stories make up a monthly feature) all the way up to the CEO's top-5 objectives.


Credit: Jonathan Smart and Morag McCall, Barclays

Crucially, these vertical initiatives map to horizontal (long lived) products and services. A single business outcome might require changes to multiple (long-lived) services and products. For example, a business outcome that needs changes to both the Fraud and Equity Trading services, which in turn might require changes to multiple products on each service. Nevertheless, the intent is to continuously reduce the number of dependencies, said Smart.

This new portfolio management approach does not mean the PMO role is outdated, much to the contrary. But portfolio management teams need to evolve towards a more agile approach to work planning and (self-)optimizing - possibly with the help from an Agile coach, and limiting work in progress to maximize the flow of business outcomes ("stop starting, start finishing").

Physical work boards can help visualize the work across the team, electronic boards should only be introduced later. Moving from a project mindset to (long-lived) product orientation (and corresponding long-lived product teams) is also critical. The end goal for portfolio management is to enable business value via an advisory role: consulting and supporting the rest of the organization, namely helping with dependency and release management (getting the work to flow, rather than planning work to be done).

According to Smart, finance also needs to change to enable a lean portfolio management with quarterly, rolling business outcomes. Funding value streams rather than projects, considering lightweight business cases, and making the procurement process more agile are some of the requirements.

Smart and McCall ended their talk with a set of recommendations to start improving portfolio management in large organizations:

  • identify long-lived value streams and products
  • identify quarterly business outcomes
  • visualize and limit portfolio work in progress (WIP)
  • focus on reducing lead time
  • build agility by becoming an enabler

A video of the talk is available online from IT Revolution, the DevOps Enterprise Summit organizers.

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