Agile Principles is Not for the Enterprise, or Is It?
October 6, 2016
In early 2014, Pointwest’s senior leadership team green lit an experimental project as a gamble. Dubbed Pointwest Labs, its mandate was to jumpstart software product development using Agile principles at a company that proudly traced its roots in enterprise application development and maintenance services for large global clients.
Although custom software applications often involved shipping new product releases for customers, Pointwest Labs was an entirely different breed as an idea accelerator. Internal startup teams now owned their product, from conceptualization to execution.
An early challenge was: Of the many potential ideas, which product idea deserves to be developed?
Pointwest Labs turned to the lean startup methodology, which is largely influenced by Agile principles, for guidance. Eric Ries, author of the book-turned-movement “The Lean Startup,” advocates a Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop for faster and less wasteful product development.
The Intersection of Minimum and Viable
The industry circles at Pointwest first considered viability, or finding a big enough problem worth solving. The goal was to quickly develop a Minimum Viable Product or MVP, which for Ries was ‘that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort’.
Teams from each vertical considered the problems their customers grappled with. Quick, actual, and often nerve-wracking customer interviews complemented numerous ideation and brainstorming sessions. Getting out and speaking face to face with potential clients was unusual for most developers, who were accustomed to coding from requirements specification documents. For Carlos, it was stimulating to view things from the customer’s perspective. Meanwhile, Ianne, then fresh from Java bootcamp, recalls it challenged her to speak up and get to the heart of the framed problem.
After running repeated experiments outside the building to validate customer insights, teams then presented their MVPs to a panel of senior Pointwest executives for vetting. Manager Rox shared the results of her team’s landing page sign-ups, on top of insights from qualitative interviews from both users and suppliers. Leonard, then a budding UI designer from another team, impressed the judges when he shared that his team bravely pitched their idea to senior-level healthcare executives using high-fidelity screens.
Generating a Business from the Model
Product teams that emerged victorious then moved to the second hurdle: finding a scalable and repeatable means to execute on the product idea.
In other words, they each needed to identify ‘a business model that works’. Iterations later, the winning business model canvases included a promising strategic partnership and one that had a well-thought-out approach for its industry’s highly fragmented market.
For business analyst Carlo who stepped up as team lead, it is a continuing journey to prove sustainable returns for their startup. He admitted feeling overwhelmed by the responsibilities of overseeing all aspects of product – strategy, design, development, and even marketing – but acknowledges he has matured a lot in the process. There were periodic check-ups akin to the entrepreneur-oriented reality show Shark Tank, which act as checkpoints on the budgets approved, and commensurate milestones expected, for product releases.
Startups in the Enterprise
It has been more than two years since the Pointwest Labs ‘experiment’ began.
One of the palpable benefits is management and developers’ increased understanding of Agile methodology for enterprise product development with rapid time-to-market. In particular, Agile fosters continual experimentation by shortening feedback cycles from clients to development teams, and back. User collaboration becomes extremely important so that teams ship the most valued features first, and fast, which is now a prerequisite for digital products.
The startup mindset of taking risks and courageously “learning forward”, or quickly learning what can be done better next time, are proving to be invaluable assets. It is also particularly useful as the company has shifted to a Bi-Modal approach of doing business as a strategic response to the breakneck speed of disruption.
Mark is a certified Scrum Master, who discovered his inner entrepreneur after assuming the mantle of product manager. He is the organization’s peg for transitioning from being a pragmatic engineer to an astute IT leader. When asked how he’s doing, he remarks that there’s so much to do, yet the ride is good. He has evolved from a technical mastery of Agile principles to a well-rounded appreciation, and real-life application of its benefits in an enterprise.
With modest gains being realized, Pointwest has upped the gamble to win bigger stakes at hand: implementing Agile practices, and even DevOps, to the rest of the company and for selected clients. A McKinsey study indicates that widespread acceptance and use of Agile principles across an enterprise could mean accelerated innovation by as much as 80 percent.
Pointwest Labs is already on its next iteration. It is now attempting to seed company-wide an ethos for continual experimentation, alongside a culture of increased empathy and tighter collaboration. It has evolved from being an experimental gamble, to being a vital element in the game. Change, indeed, is coming.
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