Agile Project Management Techniques for Global Software Delivery
Vasu Rangachary

Agile Project Management Techniques for Global Software Delivery
During my three decades of professional tenure, I have seen the IT landscape undergo tectonic shifts. From mainframes and minicomputers, we now have Social, Mobility, Analytics and Cloud (SMAC) adding a new dimension to business models around the world. The differences are not limited to core technology and reach; mainframe and minicomputer programs were data intensive, distributed PC apps are user interface intensive, Internet PC apps are user volume intensive, and today’s SMAC apps are integration intensive.

Today, integration is not only about technology but also about customer and partner firms integrating into the enterprise. Through Global Software Delivery (GSD), a new enterprise IT model is created that enables an organization to be more innovative, collaborative, real-time, and productive.

In the GSD context, the basic challenges that most clients and service providers face are related to time, cost, quality, and risks. These challenges present themselves in new avatars such as disruptive business models, SMAC opportunities, value-based pricing, distributed skills, and dynamic requirements.

Clients today come to IT service providers with specific SMAC enablement requirements as they want to take advantage of these disruptive technologies. The essence of SMAC solutions is to provide flexibility and personalization in this era of volatile customer trends and faster time-to-market requirements. Customers expect a working software over documentation and an exhaustive process.

Customers require service providers to deliver long-term success instead of focusing on just successful delivery. Commercials are linked to the output and value delivered rather than the input, or in other words, effort spent on delivery. Thus, a big challenge in GSD is not cost but value for the client.

GSD today is also characterized by distributed workforce rather than co-located teams. A continuous cycle of development, integration, and deployment is the ideal way for a distributed team to collaborate and innovate.

Due to shorter business cycles and dynamic business requirements, customers want early visibility of product features under development. Also, large investments in building a product and long cycle times for return on investment is a key concern among customers. Co-creation of applications that involve the customer or a closed loop feedback mechanism incorporated in delivery is the need of the hour.

A majority of these challenges can be overcome using agile practices in project management as they focus on delivering value where requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing, cross-functional teams. It promotes adaptive planning, evolutionary development, and a time-boxed iterative approach. Agile project planning must reflect a global cadence of collaboration right from the inception of a project on a storyboard to its final deployment and closure. In the current software delivery environment, agile project management methodology is the new ‘normal’ and the waterfall software development life cycle has become a luxury. An agile project manager can be seen as more of an orchestra music conductor than a building contractor.

There are five elements of agile methodologies that project management needs to imbibe. I refer to them as the “Agile Pentagram for Project Management” in Global Software Delivery (Figure below).

Lean thinking: To do more with less and realizing that more efficient ways to get the same work done is a key lean principle. Questioning the “why and what” of various tasks across a project is the first step towards trimming the “flab” in the process. While agile practices like just-enough-documentation, just-in-time elaboration of requirements and project retrospectives aid in lean management, agile should not be misunderstood as ad hoc management. The rules of the game are different in the world of agile project management methodology, but practitioners still need to play by the rules. Lean management using agile techniques helps address the cost and time-to-market challenges in GSD and is an ideal method to deliver SMAC opportunities.

Recognizing value: Recognizing value is about doing the right thing right. Agile principles of frequent demos and feedback, focusing on prioritization and concepts like the ‘minimum viable product’ helps the team to “do the right thing”. Engineering practices like having an automation strategy in place and planning for frequent integration are considered during the initial stages of the project. This enables the team in “doing it right”, while achieving repeatable, consistent, and faster results. For example, having an in-house automated development platform as part of the agile delivery model helped us deliver real-time data applications on critical business performance for a global client. The success of an agile project management engagement is contingent on how business value is defined and measured. If the project team understands how their product/solution impacts the end-user (not just the customer), half the battle is won. In essence, the focus on value in agile project management methodology elevates GSD from routine commodity contracts to outcome-based engagements.

Shift from micro-management to macro-management: Traditionally, project managers are used to telling their teams what to do. Based on my experience, most successful agile projects have shown that best results are achieved when the teams are empowered to take decisions. American businessman and renowned cartoonist, Walt Disney, once said, “Of all the things I’ve done, the most vital is coordinating the talents of those who work for us and pointing them towards a certain goal.” Agile project managers have to be more like facilitators than managers. In the agile context, project management is not only the purview of the project manager but also the team – it is a means of divide and conquer – between the product owner, the scrum master, and the team – a key differentiator in the agile project management ecosystem. However, leading a self-organizing team warrants a tight rope balancing act between team empowerment and exhibiting control. Achieving this helps teams to leverage global talent and deliver predictable results.

Foster an adaptive learning environment: Adaptive learning goes beyond traditional one-time kick-off training and implies transitioning to learning as a continuous process. Agile practices like swarming to develop requirements, pair programming, retrospectives, and cross-functional teams that break down the complexity into granular logical streams, all thrive in a congenial learning environment. This is especially true when teams are physically distributed and project managers have to nurture this environment. The right set of collaboration tools, communication skills, openness, and transparency are critical success factors in such an agile GSD context. Measurement and metrics: Project managers are always focused on schedule and effort deviations. Sometimes this singular focus leads to the main aspect of delivering value taking a back seat. It is essential to look at metrics in light of business value being delivered. Agile metrics such as velocity, feature burn-up, overall cycle time, and limits for work in progress help focus on just that. In the process, they help celebrate team achievements rather than focusing on individual heroics. In essence, astute monitoring of earned value against plan determines the effectiveness of delivery according to agile techniques.

In conclusion, holistic benefits of agile project management methodology can be realized when it is embedded deeply within an organization’s culture through a dedicated agile center of excellence that works across organizational groups including talent management, operations, infrastructure, and projects.

(Mr. Vasu Rangachary is senior vice president, Cognizant Technology Solutions, and heads the offshore advanced solutions practice. With around 27 years of experience in the software industry, he focuses on building specialized large program management and niche technology solutions in content management and design, business process integration, and digital security.)

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