Using Agile Development To Build A Partnership Between IT and Business


The most significant hurdle in adopting agile development is often gaining the acceptance of the business leadership. Business leaders either believe that agile requires too much time, or they are generally apathetic towards the effort. But while business leaders may be difficult to get on board at the beginning, they can be the strongest supporters of the agile process once they see and understand it. Getting them to try it is the hardest part. This article addresses the typical barriers to involving the business side of the house in an agile development approach, and outlines the key steps that Digital Focus has found to be successful in overcoming these barriers.

On a recent Digital Focus client engagement, the IT group was struggling with an enormous backlog of development work, including bug fixes, enhancements, and new features. While the backlog items had already been prioritized by the business owners, neither the budget nor the IT team's capacity were sufficient to address even the quot;criticalquot; items. Furthermore, the problem had been left completely for IT to solve - no representative from the business side was actively discussing the issues, working behind the scenes to help, or pushing for more money to support new development.
This is not uncommon. In every organization the business, wish list far exceeds the actual capacity of the development organization. Creating an environment where the business and IT staff jointly own the problem and work effectively to prioritize their efforts is the only way for the organization to effectively employ IT resources to maximize value. Agile practices provide a framework {sidebar id=1} to establish and build the trusting relationship required for a partnership to blossom.

Barriers to Business Support
Building a strong IT/business partnership can be difficult. When introducing agile to an organization, it is often the business staff that is most resistant. Over the years, we have trained our business partners to think and behave in a manner that is inconsistent with agile development. For the last 20 years we have explained that development:

  • Is too complicated for a novice to understand (therefore, the business users#39; role is only to define what they want and IT will decide how those needs are met);
  • Must be completely defined up front since any change will be costly and difficult (therefore, the business users must anticipate every potential use of the application because they only get one shot); and
  • Always takes longer than expected and delivers a reduced scope (therefore the business users should ask for more than they needs and sooner than they really need it).

Each of these behaviors are logical responses to a development process that demands getting it right up front, defers risk to the end, and provides little visibility into the process. Given that this has been the predominant approach to software development for the last 20 years; it is no surprise that these behaviors form the basis of a typical IT/Business relationship.

Another key barrier to overcome is the misconception surrounding agile development's quot;variable scopequot;approach. Business owners interpret that as not requiring IT to commit to providing necessary functionality or to meet a required date. Finally, the issue of lack of trust between business and IT must be broached, given that trust is a crucial underpinning of the agile approach.

The agile evangelist in such a business must overcome and ultimately change these behaviors. He must convince the business staff that it is both their responsibility and in their best interest to change the development process.

Gaining Business Buy-in to Agile Development
Fortunately, agile approaches provide the means to rapidly establish the IT/business partnership. The key is to focus on the ways to build trust from the start. At Digital Focus, we have found four key steps that help bridge the IT-Business divide:

  1. Define the vision.
  2. Let business own the release plan.
  3. Consistently deliver - particularly in early iterations.
  4. Respect the time of the business owner.

Define the vision
The first step in building trust is to ensure that both the IT and business staff have a common vision of what the application will be like when it is complete. The business counterparts on a project need to have confidence that the IT folks understand their goals, objectives, and timeframes. We have found that

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