Agile Coaching in British Telecom


Over the last two years BT Exact, British Telecom#39;s IT organization, has been going through a radical organizational transformation. A central plank of this transformation has been BT Exact adoption of an Agile approach for systems delivery. When BT began to look at how you transform an organization of approximately 14,000 people to become an Agile organization, the size and complexity of BT seemed to be an issue. One challenge faced was how to support this size of a transformation from a coaching perspective. That is, how do you leverage a relatively small finite coaching resource so that it can be effective? This article will chart ongoing journey to address the need for Agile coaches and how "jam" proved to be inspiration along the way!

The Challenge
In May 2004, Al-Noor Ramji was appointed as BT#39;s CIO and CEO of its IT organization, BT Exact. His mandate was to make BT Exact, a previously fragmented organization with bad reputation for late deliveries, cost overruns, and quality deficiencies, a significant partner in BT's transformation. Mr Ramji's decision was to make radical changes which would touch all parts of the organization, affecting a total of some 14,000 IT professionals - 8,000 BT employees and 6,000 contractors and off-shore people based in the UK, Asia, continental Europe, North America, and other countries. A 90-day delivery cycle was imposed, requiring every project to deliver clear benefits every 90 days, and new resource management policies were brought in, designed to provide a flexible, trained workforce that could respond quickly to meet the demands of the company and its customers.

The Issue
Unsurprisingly, these radical changes were quickly followed by a lot of questions. People were not used to that style of decisive leadership, nor to the idea that IT projects could produce results in just three months. The answers from the top amounted to "just do it." {sidebar id=1} Agile was not specifically one of the mandates, so the obvious way forward for many was to speed up existing processes to allow the waterfall development cycle to be completed in 90 days: 30 days for requirements definition and design, 30 days for development, and 30 days for testing. While this could provide some benefits, it quickly became obvious that this wasn' a sustainable answer.

A search was started for an approach that would deliver reliable results at the end of each 90-day development cycle and could be adapted to work in a large and distributed organization. Agile delivery looked to be the answer, but big questions remained that went to the heart of the method's fundamental tenets. For example, could the idealized "co-located, self-governing team of optimum size, with active customer involvement" so eloquently described in a number of the Agile reference books be translated into an industrial scale to address projects staffed by hundreds of people spread around the globe and often involving third parties?

Introducing Agile Delivery
The decision was that an Agile approach could work in a large organization but it was clear that people would need a quick and easy way of finding out about Agile delivery and how it was to be applied in BT. The BT Agile Cookbook, an online guide to Agile delivery as applied to BT, was developed to meet this need and the five core practices recognized to fit customer's requirements were outlined as:

  • Customer Involvement
  • User Stories
  • Iterative Development
  • Automated Testing
  • Continuous Integration

However, it was recognized that it would be some time before BT's teams felt comfortable in moving away from what, based on their prior experience, would be regarded as a "rule book."; Something else was needed to get Agile delivery under the skin of the organization: the "Jam Laws!"

The Law of Raspberry Jam
It was at this stage that it became clear that the quot;Law of Raspberry Jamquot; was taking effect. This law simply states:
"The wider you spread it, the thinner it gets."

The analogy here is that the wider you spread the core message, the thinner and less effective it becomes. BT's quot;jam,quot; a team of just two coaches experienced in Agile delivery, was very thinly spread, especially given the scale of BT Exact's workforce.

The Law of Strawberry Jam
This is where the second of the jam laws came into play. The quot;Law of Strawberry Jamquot; states that:
"As long as it has lumps,


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