Going Agile: An approach to Change Management

Decision gates (DG) are useful ways to manage large projects in timely, recurring phases.

The trouble is, today almost all aspects of project decision-making are being impacted by technology. And technology, in particular software development, almost inevitably involves agile approaches. This has a significant impact on the change management dimension – since the agile approach implies that there is never an end-state.

But leaving people in a state of constant flux isn’t a desirable condition for humans to be in.

As we all know by now, agile approaches, originating in software development, are iterative and involve intensive collaboration with the customer (end-user) to produce “good enough” outputs at “minimum viable conditions (MVC)”. Agile works in scrums and has shorter “innovate-to-produce” cycles whereas waterfall approaches work in longer term more graded progressions, with one segment building on the previous.

There’s multiple innovations and technologies being developed in parallel as the entire program moves forward. Agile is not new in that sense – it’s just that today, it’s much more pervasive with more rapid and potentially disruptive changes at unexpected times.

Dynamics at stage gates when these two approaches clash can be rather unsettling for decision-makers anchored solely in the waterfall mindset.

Here are the top 5 decision dynamics to watch for in waterfall decision gates relating to agile – and what to do about them:

1. Not good enough. If that’s what you’re hearing in the gate discussion, remember agile processes aren’t supposed to be perfect. Be clear what minimum viable conditions have been defined and put focus on closing gaps to MVC as they relate to the gate criteria. And possibly, revisit gating criteria.

2. Insufficient integration. Early on in large project efforts, design and prototyping have to settle so that something can be built and implemented. Defining more frequent but light interface points between agile processes and large project development within the phase can lighten the load at DG time.

3. Wow – what a great product. When you fall in love with the product and the larger effort has still not moved to implementation, adopt an agile mindset. Has the end-user been co-opted or left out? A great product that no-one can use is likely not in the intended success set.

4. Back to the Starting Line. As things progress in large implementation efforts, there’s huge reluctance to admitting set-backs. But if that’s what you’re facing be sure to face it early in the gating process rather than later. Adopting multiple modular agile approaches for especially difficult problems can reduce the risk of set-backs at DG’s.

5. This needs to move faster. This isn’t new in waterfall approaches. There is a lot of pressure in large projects to have tangible indicators of progress – especially early on. But this is exactly what the early stages of discovery, testing and re-design do not need in waterfall approaches. The temptation to rush through early DG’s is increased with agile “good enough/MVC” mindsets. Temper your agile tendencies to move on especially in the early phases of major implementation efforts.

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