CI/CD / Culture / Development

How the Project Management Office Can Enable Agile Software Development

5 Jun 2017 1:00am, by

There are many benefits of agile software development, including the ability to accelerate growth, foster developer autonomy, and respond to changing customer needs faster, all while creating a company culture that embraces innovation. But, while we’re still bickering over what is precisely agile and what precisely isn’t, some feel left behind. From middle management to whole project management offices, there are many struggling to find their place in an agile transformation.

But there is an argument for the role the project management office (PMO) can play in a company gone agile, according to scrum master Dean Latchana, who gave a talk on this subject to a skeptical audience recently at the AgiNext Conference in London.

The PMO lead can act like a CEO who encourages experimentation and verifies before moving forward.

Traditionally, the PMO in any large organization is the entity that sets the standards for that business’ projects, with the goal of saving money and improving overall efficiency. Initially, the PMO may seem like the office that would slow agile software development with time-slowing requirements. But the office can also do the opposite,

A few people have mentioned that maybe it’s an oxymoron,” he said of the agile PMO, but, “rather than the PMO [seeming] like a lowly dinosaur, that business function can really reorganize itself to be at the center of the organization.”

In fact, not only does Latchana not see the project manager’s role as obsolete but rather he argues this department associated with long Waterfall charts could actually lead the agile revolution. And he offered the different organizational approaches that can help that happen.

How the Project Management Office Can Approach Agile

Latchana began his talk with two statements:

  • Organizations are dying. Some know it. Some are naive to it.
  • The PMO can support your organization’s revolution to survive and thrive.

The organizations he lists in this sort of existential crisis include media, banking, finance, personal transport (like taxis), professional services (like legal and real estate), retail, and even B2B markets. 

“I believe the PMO has the ability to help their colleagues recognize uncertainty and work towards it, and use it as a way to build new business models,” he said.

Latchana sees the project management office as well-suited to “sense and respond” to these external threats if they can move to a more agile and lean mindset, and to “pivot for market or even internal response.”

An “Agile mindset goes beyond tools, practices and methodologies,” he asserted, contending that the PMO can help “reexamine our business models for delivering value to our customers or stakeholders and examine operations” by employing one or more of these different project management approaches:

#1: Push Authority to Information

This is a simple approach that doesn’t fully embrace agile’s flat organizational structure but starts to pick away at it. Following a “trust then verify” approach, he suggests that the PMO helps push authority and decision making down one level, which can then take a cycle down from six to four weeks.

#2: Palchinsky’s Principles

This approach borrows from Peter Palchinksy’s three industrial design principles:

  1. Variation: Look for and try new ideas.
  2. Survivability: Experiment on a scale that you could survive that failure.
  3. Selection: Seek feedback and learn from your mistakes.

“If you have a culture where you can actually be more experimental, you can actually test those functions,” Latchana said.

#3: Innovation Portfolio Management

As illustrated below, the innovation portfolio management approach starts with a lot of ideas that you explore in a fast-paced agile and lean way. Then you choose perhaps one in ten to exploit and experiment with. Then sustain your business with the best practices and products that drive profit, which then, if they don’t, you can retire them out of commission. He argues that the project management office is best equipped to lead these whittle-down processes.

#4: Little’s Law

Little’s Law provides the following equation:

Cycle Time = Queue Size divided by Completion Rate

Basically, as Latchana explained, “The smaller we can get the queue size down, and the higher we can get our efficiency done, the faster we are.” He supports Little’s Law with a side of Palchinksy’s Principles. The PMO is supposed to draw out all the bottlenecks and backlogs that are slowing things down, and help lead the way in integrating services and production lines.

The image below illustrates how one company created an enormous web that illustrates its backlog, with wedged section representing a team and each concentric circle representing a quarter farther away.

Agile PM Approach #5: Governance Principles

Working with U.K. government, Latchana discovered the following governance principles for service delivery:

  1. Don’t slow down delivery.
  2. Decisions, when they’re needed, must be delivered at the right level.
  3. Do it with the right people.
  4. Go see for yourself.
  5. Only do it if it adds value.

Similar to the “Push Authority to Information” approach described above, there is some trust-and-verify happening here as well. Latchana said that a good leader recognizes that even though you “know you’re right,” you are willing for other people in the organization have the room to fail and learn from it. He continued that the PMO lead acts like a mini-CEO that encourages experimentation and verifies before moving forward, ideally following these guidelines:

  • Follows hypothesis-driven development.
  • Develops models for handling uncertainty.
  • Meets developers where they are (don’t let a PMO be a very separate office).
  • Learns from and nurtures survival anxiety and learning anxiety.
  • Is careful to avoid bimodalism.

Any of these five approaches can work in combination with an agile and lean mindset and even in combination with each other, and everything is a sort of hypothesis-driven transformation which can follow a template similar to this:

We believe that

[Supporting this change]

[For these people]

Will achieve [this outcome]

We will know we are successful when we see

[This signal within our organization/market]

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