Adopting the principles encompassed by the Agile business philosophy has helped Your Homes Newcastle improve productivity, create a more positive culture and speed up delivery times, explains Geof Ellingham, the organisation’s former head of IT and now director of the Agile Business Consortium.
By way of background, Your Homes Newcastle is responsible for managing homes on behalf of Newcastle City Council. Established in 2004, YHN manages over 27,000 homes in line with the government’s Decent Homes standard, and provides a range of support services for the council.
Our challenge was that the large number of concurrent projects in the IT division of YHN made it difficult to establish priorities, and management involvement was significant. As the then head of IT at YHN, it was clear that we couldn’t carry on doing things in the way we had always done. Digital transformation was moving ever faster, and it seemed we had to do everything faster just to keep up.
In our joint work with the council on digital transformation, the team had come to believe that Agile techniques, and in particular the AgilePM project management framework, might offer us a more efficient and robust way forward.
What is Agile?
Developed by the not-for-profit Agile Business Consortium, AgilePM combines the rigour of a project management framework with the flexibility and empowerment of the Agile philosophy. It breaks projects down into smaller components and provides a structure to prioritise those elements of most value to an organisation, helping deliver earlier benefits and reducing time-to-market. Since it was introduced in late 2010, more than 55,000 people around the world have been trained and certified in its approach.
AgilePM’s eight principles are:
- Focus on the business need
- Deliver on time
- Never compromise quality
- Build incrementally from firm foundations
- Develop iteratively
- Communicate continuously and clearly
- Demonstrate control
Implementing an Agile approach
We knew that having support from our senior executives and stakeholders would be important if we were to ‘go Agile’ successfully. It helped that central government was mandating the Agile approach for all of its digital work.
In April 2015, I took on a discrete project for NCC and agreed with them that we would implement Agile delivery. The challenge was to convert the council from cash-based council tax payments to a fully digital payments system. The original goal was to achieve this within nine months, but the transformation was completed within six; Agile had made a real difference.
At first, our knowledge of Agile was limited to some basic techniques but when we became aware of AgilePM we put around a dozen people through the Foundation qualification course. We also ran Agile awareness sessions for our senior executives and management teams. These were the first steps towards embedding Agile thinking throughout the organisation.
We realised that to benefit fully from Agile, we would need to engage in a cultural transformation, rather than simply ‘doing Agile’. During the remainder of 2015, we restructured the IT organisation in a much flatter way, so that self-organised teams could genuinely be empowered to effect delivery. By the start of the next financial year, 100 per cent of IT projects were being delivered using AgilePM.
One of the ways we were able to demonstrate the value of Agile to business leaders and non-project management colleagues was by showing them how tools from AgilePM, such as MoSCoW prioritisation (which breaks projects down into Musts, Shoulds, Coulds and Won’ts to achieve an agreed project that can be delivered within the required time constraint), could offer value in a broader context. Taking this approach was critical to our success in embedding the principles, because teams could experience for themselves that Agile worked, rather than simply being told it would.
By August 2016, the IT division of YHN was truly Agile, with an expectation that improvements would continue to evolve. We reviewed what had been achieved, what was working well, and what could be improved. As a result, we stripped back the process for small, fast-turnaround changes, reserving the AgilePM whole lifecycle approach for those projects lasting for longer than four weeks.
It’s expected that the organisational structure and processes at YHN will continue to evolve to meet the needs of a fast-paced environment where change is now the norm and new challenges need to be met. This is the nature of Agile.
How Agile helped YHN
Agile helped us to achieve far more productivity than normal from our available resources. By setting priorities based on genuine value aligned to business goals, we found that certain tasks could be delayed or simply not done. This freed up our capacity to do other things.
In addition, the IT department enjoyed a more positive culture and worked faster. In the new organisational structure, the IT team were working hand-in-hand with their business colleagues in new directorate groups. This broke down the ‘us and them’ culture where separate organisational functions had been quick to blame others when goals were not reached.
The Agile Business Consortium
Founded in 1995, the Agile Business Consortium is a not-for-profit membership organisation that aims to provide global leadership in promoting, supporting and enabling the adoption of Agile at all levels. YHN is now an organisational member of the consortium, sharing experience and knowledge with other members, as well as being involved in the evolution of AgilePM and other Agile frameworks and techniques.
Geof Ellingham is a director of the Agile Business Consortium and former head of IT at Your Homes Newcastle.