Q&A with NK: Beginnings in Agile
This is the second post in a Q&A series with RefineM’s CEO and founder, NK Shrivastava. In this post, we’ve asked NK to share his experiences with Agile, and why he believes Agile is an important aspect of project management. If you’re interested in reading the first interview in this series, take a look at Q&A with NK: Beginnings in Project Management. We hope that you will be able to learn more about NK and how his career has helped shape him into an excellent Agile Coach and the CEO of his own company.
If you have any questions for NK, please feel free to write them in the comments.
Q: Agile is a concept that not many people are familiar with. NK, can you tell us what Agile is and what Agile’s relationship is to project management?
A: Agile is a method, or a set of methods, to deliver software iteratively. So, instead of doing all requirements up-front, planning, then doing development, testing, and finally everything gets put into production – Agile is doing it iteratively. With Agile, you do high-level planning first, and then you take pieces of the functionality and you deliver them every two to four weeks. All the pieces of functionality are prioritized based on the business value. Something which is of very high value to the business will be delivered earlier than something which is not as valued to the business. Whenever you create the requirements, called user stories, they are put in a backlog which is a list of requirements sorted based on their business value. Items with the highest business value go on the top of the list and the team works on the items on the top of the list first. The team will deliver on the items in two to four week iterations.
A big advantage when using Agile is that the customer is able to see the software early on in the project life cycle – they’re not waiting for everything at the end. Another advantage when using Agile is that the team and the business can make changes as they go. This helps reduce conflicts, as there are no hard feelings on the change requests since it is all part of the development. The biggest business advantage when using Agile is a reduced time to market. As soon as a business puts in a request that they want to get something done (whether it is a product or feature developed), they are able to get the end product much faster as compared to the waterfall method of project management. There are a lot of advantages when using Agile.
Q: How did you get started with Agile?
A: That’s a funny story! I got started with Agile when I was at my previous job at Farragut, sometime in 2001 or 2002. At that time I was working as a senior project manager, managing multiple projects. One day my boss came to me (he was the president of the company) and he said, “NK, here’s your next project. On this project we’re going to use Scrum.” I responded, saying, “Okay. What is Scrum?” He said, “Go talk to Lee – he’s been using Scrum for some time. It’s an iterative method to deliver software. I would like you meet with him, since he’s been doing Scrum for the last 6 months.” So, I went and talked with Lee. He gave me a high-level picture of how Scrum runs, which is one of the many ways to implement Agile. Then he gave me a book and told me to read it to understand more about Agile. Lee said, “Go ahead and start your project. If you have any problems, then I will be here to help you.”
That’s how my Agile journey started. It was a great experience. I was experimenting with Agile – learning, making mistakes, and correcting them. It was an excellent process, and my team really enjoyed the process. That’s how I got started with Agile. I did several other projects in Agile later on, and now in my career I’m an Agile Coach.
Q: What aspect of Agile do you like the most?
A: The aspect that I like most about Agile is achieving customer satisfaction and collaborating with the customer. I enjoy seeing how the customer gets delighted by using Agile.
Actually, RefineM just started an Agile project this week! We have two or three people from the customer-side involved in this software project. We’ve only had two meetings so far and I can already see how delighted the customer is. When we met with them yesterday at 4:00pm, they were really tired from working all day. We spent two hours in this meeting, and by the end of the meeting at 6:00pm, they were fully energized and excited about the project! We are just doing the product planning and listing all of the requirements right now, but they enjoy the flexibility of being able to move things around based on the value to the business. Since we are using Agile, we are not restricting them to list down all of the requirements and ask them for a sign-off and part ways until the end of the project. Instead, they are part of the process every day! With only two meetings so far, our client is already liking this process.
So, to answer the question, customer satisfaction through early, consistent delivery is my favorite aspect of Agile. That is the very first principle of the Twelve Principles of Agile.
Q: Some people have negative feelings towards Agile. Why do you think that is?
A: Some people do have negative feelings towards Agile, that’s true. Sometimes it is the senior leadership that is skeptical about Agile. The reason being is that they’ve been used to getting a deadline or commitment from the team. With waterfall projects, they will ask the team when the project will be completed. Normally, the team or project manager will look at the requirements and give senior leadership an estimate or deadline when the project will be completed. But historically, delivering on that exact date rarely happens with waterfall projects. Still, though, the senior management tends to like having a deadline in order to make plans based on that deadline.
Now if the team has switched to Agile and the senior leadership asks the team when the entire project will be completed, the team or project managers can’t give senior leadership a firm deadline. Agile does not have a fixed scope – rather, it is time boxed. So, the senior leadership or sponsors are not exactly sure what they are going to get out of their money with this project, since scope is flexible with Agile projects. This is where Agile leaders, Agile coaches, or Scrum masters need to be able to tell or influence the senior leaders to understand the benefits of Agile and what they will get out of it.
The other struggle with Agile is that managers don’t know how to empower the team and let go of “command and control.” With waterfall, project managers have been controlling, delegating, and managing the team. With Agile, many managers may think that there is nothing for them to do. Sometimes managers are lost with their new role or role shift with Agile, and have a difficult time letting go of “command and control.”
Both of these issues need big cultural changes, and that is an easy thing to address within an organization. These two areas are where a lot of organizations and teams struggle when implementing Agile.
Q: What would you say to both the senior leadership and managers to help them better understand Agile?
A: With senior leadership, I start by asking them what their business goal is with this project. Since every project is an investment, the outcome of the project is important to senior leadership. They are investing money, time, and resources to get something out of their investment. Maybe their overall goal with this project is tapping into a new market, launching a new product or service, or even enhancing an already existing product. Usually, senior leadership wants to take this product to the market ASAP so they can get a good portion of the market share or a lot of revenue. When it takes the team longer to get the product to market, that can be a problem. With Agile, we can shrink the time that it takes to get the product to market.
Let’s say, for example, that there are 50 requirements to put something into production, but all 50 are not critical for the business, maybe only 20 requirements are critical. In a waterfall environment, you will be putting all 50 requirements into production, all delivered at the end of the project. Sometimes, critical requirements are not even delivered at the end of the project when using waterfall. However, with Agile you can immediately start working on most critical requirements first and can move them into production sooner than later. What organization would not like to do this?
Once the topic of Agile is approached and discussed in an open environment where leadership is willing to listen, it often goes over well and they are able to implement Agile. However, some organizations are just not open to the idea of Agile; they want to continue doing waterfall. With these organizations, it will take some time before they are ready to adopt Agile. There could be other organizations that are ready to implement Agile, but they don’t know how to convince leadership. If leadership is willing to listen, this is how the conversation can go.
Best-case scenario, the Agile team will deliver on all 50 requirements, if not more. In a worst-case-scenario, if the team using Agile only delivers 40 of the 50 requirements, at least the most critical requirements were delivered at the end of the project. Even if you don’t have bells and whistles, you’re good. With Agile, you will have the product in production much earlier than if you were doing the project with waterfall.
I will say that it’s just an issue of sitting with senior leadership, talking with them, and laying it all out so they can see the benefits of Agile.
This is a great opportunity for managers to learn leadership skills and be a leader – not just a manger; to let go of command and control. For managers who feel like they’re losing control with Agile, this is a good time for them to transition from being a manager to being a leader. If a manager wants to move up in the company and move up in their career, this is the time to develop those leadership skills that are very important and critical for higher-level positions. Imagine a CEO without leadership skills – it doesn’t look very good, does it? Moving to an Agile environment is an excellent opportunity for managers to develop their leadership skills instead staying in their comfort zone of management.
Q: What would you tell someone in senior leadership who is considering to implement Agile in their organization, but might be having trouble understanding the benefits?
A: Look at your most significant business challenge and see how Agile can solve that challenge. Agile is about improving business results, not just software or IT programming. Agile can solve complex business problems. Once you can figure out how Agile can solve a business challenge, it will help you convince the organization to adopt Agile.
Q: If you could leave our readers with one tip to succeed in Agile, what would it be?
A: Whenever you think about Agile or whenever you work in an Agile team, always think about the “why.” Ask yourself these questions, “Why are we doing what we are doing? How will our work benefit our customers and stakeholders?” This is the key thing – and that’s the number one Agile principle – to satisfy the customer. That’s the one thing that everybody who is part of Agile – be it a project manager, Scrum master, senior leadership, anybody on the team – they need to think about; how their everyday work will benefit the customer. If you remember this one thing, it will help you go a long way in understanding the benefits of Agile.
Thank you for joining us on our second Q&A with NK. Stay tuned for our next Q&A!
How did you get started in your Agile career? Are you thinking about implementing Agile in your organization, but aren’t quite sure how to take the leap? Do you have any questions for NK? Let us know in the comments!