Christine Harrison, Principal Consultant at PM-Partners group
The third session in our Transformation Round Table focused on the topic of business agility and the Agile PMO, relatively new concepts and ones that usually elicit either a sharp intake of breath or a look of consternation when mentioned.
Similarly associated (and confused) is agile with a small ‘a’ and Agile with a large ‘a’, depending on how you’ve decided to apply it in your organisation.
It’s precisely these points and more that we sought to demystify during the round table which included attendees from education, utilities, financial services, not-for-profit, among others. Judging from feedback around the table, the concept of business agility, the topic of agile and Agile, the role and opportunity for the Agile PMO, and importantly, governance, measurement and planning, are very much on the agenda at most organisations. There’s a varying level of understanding and adoption and a great deal of interest.
Firstly, the group discussed ‘why be agile, and what role is there for Agile in the PMO?’.
We live and work in such ambiguous times and environments that we now operate in a world that demands we be more agile. And therein lies a great benefit that comes from the ‘do-ability’ of agile. We have many of the skills needed to handle constant change and ambiguity, but when faced with continual complexity at unprecedented pace, our survival instincts kick in. Consequently, it helps to understand that the problem is not the problem, it’s our relationship to the problem that causes the challenge.
We recently undertook a survey of senior executives and practitioners around the subject of transformation and agile maturity. 50% of respondents stated that Agile PMO delivery is poor and describe their agile PMO practices as initially reactive / not consistent. Yet the majority are targeting a higher level of maturity over the next 12-24 months.
One of the first and most salient points raised was that you can’t govern Agile if you don’t understand Agile. So, if you’re going to work within a PMO, you have to know governance, which means you need to know about agile because it’s creeping in, whether by stealth or on purpose. And if we have learnt anything this year, it’s that governance still matters.
You still need discipline, you still need measurement and you still need to present reports to people for whom Agile likely isn’t their ‘first’, preferred or standard language so core disciplines still trump all in order to translate project speak to executive speak.
Similarly, while most people’s Agile experience starts with sticky notes and Kanban boards, digitising the journey from the start stands up to internal and external governance and audit (there are great tools out there) but you also need to monitor their digital proliferation. One executive at the table lauded the auditability of digitisation yet lamented the challenge in managing it because the technology grew organically in numerous different places and in different configurations. You can’t set and forget, you really do have to manage the tools along the way.
There was some comfort to be gained in agreeing that agile can be a very personal journey: not everyone starts from the same place, learns it at same pace, or has the same readiness to adapt. You need to cultivate comfort in uncertainty. It was recognised that those who often oppose agile and reject its role in the PMO often don’t understand it entirely.
Remember that not everything lends itself to agile, so don’t fall into what we often see as ‘agile panic’. Let’s get real: fail fast does not apply during critical medical testing or surgery or sending people to the moon. This is where planned, considered, moderate and tested approaches work, so there are still roles for a more traditional approach.
It’s not all black and white – it’s not this or that, actually a blended, or hybrid PMO approach may well be a suitable approach. In fact, 44% of our Transformation Survey report respondents said that agile and traditional must co-exist to be successful. Environmental context is everything, because what works at one organisation will not work at another, and you can’t just follow ‘the book’, you must adapt the approach to fit your organisation.
This also applies to measurement – an effective Agile PMO has a translator-style role. Every team measures differently after all, so the whole business using one and the same metric is not going to be the most appropriate yardstick. Instead, it’s better to have an open discussion and decide how things need to be measured. Our recommendation with measurement is to get in early while the business case is being drawn up and have the conversation about benefits. Often, you need to know how to measure project success with a foot in both camps. It was agreed that harnessing the right information was the hardest part – the mode may change but benefits are still measured in the same way, e.g. revenue increase by xx%.
Creating an effective Agile PMO goes beyond the PMO because it impacts and includes everyone, from top to bottom and cross-function. Of course, the Project Team will be more advanced in its understanding and ability to deliver, but all supporting functions – finance, operations, legal and HR – need a basic understanding of what agility means in order to avoid them becoming biggest stoppers to success.
The ideal state for implementing agility is a top down led approach, but the group agreed this is rare, and tends to grow organically from within the organisation. The challenge with the latter is that the programme can hit a ceiling in this direction, and it’s here that momentum can be lost.
The overarching takeaway was that when introducing or running an Agile PMO, it’s important not to forget common sense principles, especially when operating at scale.
Thank you to the group who attended this session and shared their experiences freely, it helps in growing awareness of, and resolving the challenges we all face in delivering the right outcomes, and more importantly, value, back to our organisations.