Assurance of agile projects conference

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Posted by APM on 2nd Dec 2013

There was a packed house on 27th November 2013 and after seven interesting presentations, and a workshop session I think it could be said that over 80 attendees came out of the conference with a better appreciation of issues and approaches to the assurance of Agile projects.

Here is a high level overview of the discussions of the day:

There is a general consensus that, given a swiftly changing and complex environment with levels of uncertainty, taking an agile approach can provide the flexibility needed to respond appropriately and deliver results.

Approaches to Agile project delivery may differ, but they are generally based around the five characteristics:

  • citizens and business are at the heart of delivery;
  • a service or business change is delivered quickly and continuously improved;
  • a full service is built from small independently usable releases;
  • the team is responsible for making decisions rapidly; and
  • the team continually redirects resources to maximise the value it delivers.

As such is Agile more of a philosophy than a process?  If so how do you give a philosophy assurance? Can you audit a way of being?

By the end of the conference it was becoming clear that Agile can be audited and an appropriate level of assurance achieved, however two key messages came out from the majority of presentations.

These were:
 
“Agile is not a sliver bullet!” All speakers raised the issue of context – and how there needed to be the right environment for an agile approach to succeed. This was both in terms of the challenge/task in hand and the level of cultural evolution within the organisation. 

Agile can work alongside waterfall –each has its place. Agile has particular advantages when it comes to dealing with uncertainty and risk. The incremental approach allows for understanding to develop and for teams to respond effectively to change as uncertainty diminishes. It can also provide the opportunity to stop a project, or area of work if it is not working – rather than long drawn out process. However the emphasis must be on progress not perfection - 80% is enough.

 “It’s a 100% about the people” A strong message was that Agile is about culture and delivering change. Teams shouldn’t  underestimate the effort in implementing agile approaches – the techniques themselves are easy – it’s the transformation that is difficult - and that’s all about people and culture. A challenge is to shape the right culture so that you can learn as you go along and not be afraid to fail and it’s about being collaborative.

There were some good lessons learnt and speakers advised of the advantages of brining in expert support, or piloting an Agile approach. Other organisations use Agile champions to keep focus and drive going. These activities bring with them their own form of assurance.

Can you audit Agile? The answer is yes – but you will need to be pragmatic! We heard how some projects using agile (such as the modernisation of the coastguard service) kept decision logs – such documents can be audited.  Other agile project built in automatic testing – which although it is time consuming initially, will pay dividends as the projects progress.

A key message was to involve governance early and the need to involve auditors throughout the project. Particularly during the decision-making process and actively communicate continuously with them.

Progress against outcomes can be measured and on long complex projects Agile itself can provide on-going assurance of progress.

Another way to gain assurance about Agile is to audit how well the philosophy is being implemented (on the grounds that if this is working then the outputs/outcomes should follow). And that you could audit the approaches the teams are taking against the principles of Agile, consider the characteristics outlined above.
Above all remember that whatever approach you take to Agile, the way in which you audit it should mirror the Agile philosophy - only do it if it brings value and does not introduce delays!

Alison Hood, National Audit Office

The presentations are below:

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