Being Agile and open for a stronger business

A couple of weeks ago I presented at the Agile Business Conference 2009. Thanks to all those at the DSDM Consortium who made it such a great event. The theme of the conference was how Agile can help in adversity (e.g. an economic downturn), and I provided a case study — title above — of how the digital technology team at the Guardian had responded to various organisational changes and challenges. Looking back over the last few years I found I’d learned many lessons from working with my friends and colleagues here. This is the summary of those lessons that I offered to the delegates at ABC09…

Exploit your successes

Our huge rebuild and redesign of was a successful project. Once it was done we could have slumped back, exhausted. But instead we used it as a springboard to start additional exciting (and arguably controversial) work. Primarily I’m thinking of the Open Platform, led by Matt McAlister. As I wrote at the time, getting that off the ground was a huge testament to the work and faith of many people in the company, particularly given that it’s a very intangible thing at launch.

Still, the Open Platform is built on top of the work in that earlier project, and in particular in that people recognised technology success and were prepared to back more.

Sustainable business needs sustainable technology

Much of our technology, particularly on the web side, is developed in-house. On the one hand that can seem expensive, but on the other hand it does mean we have the ability to take in the direction we see fit. A particular example is the cost of scaling It does cost more money to serve more users, but it doesn’t cost as much as it might because we have control of the technology.

Broadly speaking since we own the technology we can steer it in line with business needs much more readily.

Right-levelled decision-making builds trust

Let’s make one thing clear first: “Right-level” is absolutely not an acceptable verb phrase, and I only used it because it fitted onto the slide better. Now, to the substance of this…

Any reasonably sizable projects are approved to go (or not go) by a group of directors and other senior staff, and they do this at a regular meeting on the basis of information provided by the technology team working with many people around the business. This information of course consists of timescales, costs and benefits, but also what other projects are in progress and waiting in the wings.

This may seem obvious, but the consequence is that in the event of heavy cost control (which is what happens when the economy takes a dive) that cost control is exactly in line with project expenditure, because it’s the same people who are making both kind of decisions. It should be said that this is supported by the Agile principle of delivering value, and delivering frequently, because any project can start demonstrating its value early.

Openness reduces costs and provides options

The Guardian has been open not only with the Open Platform, but also with our full content RSS feeds. Applications have been built on the latter simply because they are a known format and, with full content, have huge utility. By having open full content RSS feeds we have a means of others using our content, and if they (or we) choose that option there are no internal integration costs.

Transparency builds trust

We do a lot of internal reporting: what features we release, our current bug count, project costs, and so on. When times get tough people start asking what value you’re adding to the business, and where all that money that’s being spent on your team is actually going. Because of all our reporting it’s relatively easy to open up our books to the consultants with financial questions, and then we can have an intelligent debate about the value of that expenditure. But that’s fine, and something we tend to welcome, because it’s part of the culture that Agile fosters: within the team we debate every week the value of what we do — that’s what Agile planning is all about — and Agile retrospectives are all about seeking improvement.

And finally…

I recognise that saying all this may be a hostage to fortune: the credit crunch took hold only about a year ago, and we’re not out of the woods yet. But for now I can look back on some of the things that have gone well, and if we emerge from this economic downturn with only a few cuts and bruises then it will be in no small part due to honesty and openness creating trust, which in turn leads to healthier decision-making.