Often I hear people in delivery teams say “We’re doing well at agile, but we’re being held back because the rest of the business needs to be agile, too.” In many ways I don’t like this—it’s very close to ceding responsibility and pointing the finger of change at others. But there is often some truth in it. They are saying: we are doing all the delivery actions but our stakeholders can’t respond effectively to what we’re outputting. And “what we’re outputting” may be features, or ideas for shifts in focus, or requests for help.
The challenge here is to structure the work effectively. We have to ask the people I’ll call the customers: Can you extract partial value from partial delivery? If the answer is Yes then we have structured things well.
Agile delivery is not just about responding to change—it’s about delivering value incrementally, small step by small step. (And that provides the opportunities for responding to change.) The accumulating deliverables are what come out of the team. If the customers can continually get value from continual deliverables then the work (the project, the programme, or the stream of activity) is set up well for agile.
But if large indivisible lumps have to be completed before the customers can get value then there is a disconnect between the agile delivery team and the customers. A typical situation here is a project divided into infrequent milestones, each of which has a predefined set of features, and in which no milestone is deemed “passed” unless all its features have been delivered.
To get partial value from partial delivery there are responsibilities on both sides. The delivery team has to deliver frequently, and the customers have to agree that those deliverables have value. In particular the customers have to agree that partial deliverables have partial value. If the customers do not agree that then it’s not necessarily their fault. Perhaps the work needs to be structured differently. Maybe the wrong deliverables are being sought, or they are being offered in an inappropriate order, or perhaps there is too much emphasis on “solution” rather than “outcome”.
This idea of “partial value from partial delivery” is closely related to the concept of “walkawayability”. Where walkawayability is the measure of agile-ness, “partial value from partial delivery” says more about how to achieve that. “Partial value” makes demands on the customers; “partial delivery” makes demands on the delivery team. If either party can meet their responsibilities then the spotlight falls on the other. And if both parties can achieve this then there is a greater probability of a more effective relationship and a more positive outcome.