More agile ICT is an executive leadership issue

Dr Steve Hodgkinson, Research Director, IT, Asia-Pacific, Ovum

It is time for senior executives to understand and embrace more agile approaches to sourcing and managing ICT. The way executives frame requirements and their expectations for ICT projects are significant factors affecting project performance. Blinkered, inward-looking, technology-centric requirements and traditional waterfall approaches often focus on the means at the expense of the ends.

They seem proven and safe, but can lock agencies into long, costly projects, which too often fail. More agile approaches, in contrast, are mindful of the outcomes but flexible about the approach. They reduce risk by encouraging creative problem-solving and leveraging pre-existing capabilities – such as cloud services – to practical effect. This can seem adventurous for some executives, but can also deliver better outcomes by enabling more pragmatic and cost-effective trade-offs between business needs and solution possibilities.

Leadership is required to see agile approaches as prudent and effective, and to authorize staff to concentrate on ends and be more flexible about means.

ICT departments act in response to executive expectations

“More agile ICT” is fundamentally an executive leadership issue. ICT departments act in response to the way senior executives frame their expectations regarding business requirements and project risk. Expectations, however, have become progressively conservative and risk averse during the past decade, as executives have sought to contain risks by imposing increasing layers of governance and prescriptive process.

The results have too often been disappointing – with projects either failing altogether or delivering underwhelming outcomes. Perhaps if requirements and expectations were framed differently, the results might be different. Engaging senior executives in discussion about more agile approaches to ICT is one of the key ICT strategy challenges for 2013.

More agile ICT requires a change in executive mindset

The term agile has been around for a while, and is normally used in the context of more agile systems development practices. Agile is usually positioned at the opposite end of a continuum from traditional waterfall systems development methodologies, which involve rigid progression through successive linear phases of requirements definition, specification, building, integration, and testing. Agile practices, in contrast, are characterized by iteration and feedback loops, to progressively refine a solution in response to an evolving understanding of both business requirements and ICT functionality.

Agile, however, is as much an approach to driving organizational innovation and change as it is a systems development practice. A project implemented using a more agile approach is broken up into short phases, with business value delivered early. The focus is on iteration and organizational learning, on empowering teams to seek the simplest workable solution, and on leveraging productive platforms and tools to minimize unnecessary investment and “reinvention of the wheel.”

The latest generation of technologies based on cloud services and their online and smartphone app ecosystems are important catalysts of more agile approaches to ICT projects. These technologies naturally lend themselves to shorter and less costly implementation cycles, iterative evolution, resource sharing and practical, good-enough solutions, when compared to more traditional, customized systems that are “hardwired” to prescriptive specifications and dedicated ICT environments.

Flexible thinking is necessary to refocus activity on the ends rather than the means

The agile approach addresses one of the root causes of the poor performance of ICT projects – the over-engineering of business requirements and project processes. The problem is that we have become accustomed to the idea that dedicated, specialized, and customized is better and less risky than shared, standardized, and configured.

Executives have grown used to framing requests for ICT using “internal-out” requirements logic, along the lines of:

I’d like to acquire an ICT solution to support today’s internally focused understanding of business requirements. Because ICT projects are scary and risky, I want the project specified in great detail and managed in a structured and disciplined manner – even if it takes longer and costs more. Don’t cut corners!

Responding to this request leads to thick documents, customized solutions, rigid schedules, long timeframes, and a focus on “safe” process rather than decisive outcomes. In many cases, the process is “successful” but the outcomes are disappointing, inflexible, costly, and/or delivered too late. Unfortunately, many such systems are expensive white elephants being left behind by rapidly changing business needs.

A more agile approach involves framing requests for ICT using “external-in” requirements logic. This logic leads to a different type of request:

I’d like to acquire access to ICT capabilities that will support my evolving business requirements. The most important thing is that results are delivered early, that we take advantage of the economies of scale provided by existing shared capabilities, and that we maximize our leverage of pre-existing external solutions to accelerate business innovation and reduce costs and risks.

An external-in logic regards pre-existing shared platforms and solutions – such as those exemplified by mature, market-leading cloud services – as assets to be leveraged, because they accelerate innovation and reduce costs. This, however, requires a flexible approach to business requirements, which need to be viewed as negotiable in the context of a focus on outcomes and pragmatic benefit/risk trade-off discussions that are informed by solution iteration. It also requires acceptance of the fact that a disciplined, agile project approach can be more cost-effective and less risky than traditional, waterfall-style project approaches.

The bottom line is that an agile approach enables the focus to remain on outcomes rather than on process and technology – on the innovations that executives are responsible for delivering to their stakeholders, not the means of delivery.

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