Sure and Safe? AgilePM and SAFe

AgilePM is a project management framework for agile projects launched to enable project managers to adopt a mature, scalable, corporate-strength agile approach within their organisations.  SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) is presented as an “interactive knowledge base for implementing agile practices at enterprise level”. 


For me, the critical next question for agile projects is about getting top management involvement for projects of high strategic importance; i.e. projects that have significant impact on the future of the organisation. In my experience, strategic decisions in agile projects are being made day-to-day with regard to technologies and customers, whilst unfortunately top managers stand outside the process.

Teams are “empowered”, allegedly (because often without budgetary power), but this does not mean that top managers should be absent. In my opinion, in a highly strategic project they should be available when the situation demands, which may even be in the middle of a ‘timebox’ (i.e. in principle, a ‘sprint‘ does not allow this.)

The philosophy expressed in the '41 things you need to know" is ‘centralized strategy’ with ‘local execution’. But, how does top management participate in ‘local execution’? Think of the way that a Jobs, Gates, Dyson, Bezos or Chanel participates in strategic projects. Give them room and space, but serve, hearten or embolden the team when needed. (Don’t stifle them, but give them oxygen.)

Scrum outlines a ‘Product Owner’ role and I expect SAFe to outline the ‘Product Manager’ role. However, these are often delegated way below the top management level of decision. Given the importance of decisions that will be made during the often turbulent life cycle of an agile project, governance for a ‘strategic’ project must be in the executive suite. How many ‘Product Managers' sit on the board of directors?

I can see the ingredients for top management presence through the ‘Visionary role’ and the guidelines for using the business case in APMG's AgilePM/DSDM,and in the detail of Robert Cooper’s ‘Stage Gates’ (gates with teeth), in design and product development such as Ulrich and Eppinger’s strategic engineering approach via the ‘contract book’, and in ‘design thinking’ in general, and in the IIBA's BABOK. I cannot see it explicitly in Lean for production, but in Eric Ries's Lean Start-Up, via the 'pivots' and 'actionable metrics'. I can also see it as part of stakeholder management in PMI's PMBOK and in APMG's PRINCE2’s exception reporting structure, and in the ‘Sponsor’ role acting as ‘executive champion’, present in all of the afore-mentioned approaches.

For me AgilePM is one way to wrap all of this stuff together and to integrate top management in critical decision making on agile projects of high strategic significance.  


If you look at the annual “Agile Tends & Benchmark Report” produced by SwissQ, a consultancy specialising in information technologies and testing practices, on page 4, you can find a maturity curve which shows Scrum approaching post-maturity and DSDM in the introduction phase of the life cycle.


Page 5 reveals that in the survey: “54% of all agile projects fail because of difficulties reconciling the business philosophy with agile values”.  “Scrum projects remain islands that are largely self-organized” and only “17.9% use ‘definition of ready’ opposed to 62.1% using ‘definition of done’”.


42.2% of statistics are invented of course.  Nevertheless, for me the significance is in the roles. Test consultants recommend an ‘embedded tester’, which is entrenched in DSDM.   Scrum insists repeatedly upon the independence of the team from management interference and the role of the Product Owner being to “serve the customer”.    (Yep: important to know what the words ‘serve’ and ‘customer’ should mean  ;-)


SAFe describes the role of Product Manager in a way which implies top-down management.   The Product Manager “communicates the vision” to the team and “maintains the product roadmap”.  In essence this role is “typically an active member of the extended Portfolio Management Team, where they participate in decision-making about the key economic drivers for future releases”.


In DSDM, the Business Visionary “defines the business vision”, promotes translation of the vision into working practice, monitors progress in line with the business vision, communicates and promotes the vision to all interested parties, etc.  This is potentially a much more pro-active and high-level role. 


For me, these are key points:  A ‘strategic’ project can give reason to ‘pivot’ the business vision.  A strategic agile project may requir frequent re-focusing of the vision during the project.  Vision clarification entails active dialogue, trust and understanding between the development team (technology) and the business (market).  “Defines the business vision” should allow participation and encourage ownership. 


All partners in this crafting and shaping of the business vision must learn to understand the language, not only of the technology (agile and whatever), but of the business. 

rss : Ian Stokes, Project Leader and Advisor

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