At a recent TechDebate in Chicago, we discussed implementing agile and apply agile to traditionally non-agile scenarios. We had a lively exchange, and fortunately, I had the chance to discuss the topic further with one of the panelists, Thanisha Paniak, Agile Program Leader at Capital One.
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How did you get started in agile?
THANISHA: I’m fortunate that I’ve had some outstanding experiences over the course of my nearly 20-year project and program management career. While I’ve had the opportunity to work for some great organizations, my time at Capital One and Cars.com had significant impacts on my agile and overall project and program management perspectives.
My first stint at Capital One was my initial exposure to various agile frameworks, mostly Scrum at the time. The company invested a tremendous amount of money and resources in agile education, training, and development, which drove the success of the agile initiative overall. Through this experience, I learned a lot of the basics of agile and worked with my colleagues and some outstanding agile coaches, ultimately becoming an agile evangelist.
My experience at Cars.com challenged me further as I was blessed with the opportunity to lead the agile transformation for the entire organization. Capital One became a faster-moving organization, but comparatively the cadence at Cars.com was incredibly fast. The contrast in styles and needs between these two organizations allowed me to implement different agile practices on a range of scenarios and requirements.
Agile transformation must be challenging for a very large company like Capital One. What has driven its agile success?
THANISHA: I would say that Capital One is an outlier in corporate America in that it was a strategic goal for the organization to be agile, so they invested heavily in the development of agile and their employees–not many companies can afford to do this. However, it has been this ongoing sponsorship, education, training, and vast opportunitie
s that have delivered success. When you are exposed to that much learning, encouragement, and motivation, there is very little room for failure. Especially in the early days of agile at Capital One, we were very fortunate to have a culture of learning together within a safe and supportive environment. These elements led us to a very successful agile implementation.
Are there scenarios where agile simply will not work?
THANISHA: Agile implementation failures are often rooted in a lack of complete understanding at high levels of an organization of what agile is and what it can do. In one of my former positions, I experienced a situation in which one leader of the company liked the concept of agile and thought the framework could help the organization move faster. The leader did not have complete buy-in from their executive team as a whole but decided to appoint one agile coach to lead the transformation for the entire, extensive program. One person cannot change the way a large program works, especially without support from other parts of the organization who play several different roles in the program.
You have had some interesting experiences bringing agile to non-agile projects. Could you talk a bit about a couple of these scenarios?
THANISHA: Currently, I’m an Agile Program Leader at Capital One assisting executing a large data center migration program. Datacenter migration includes many project elements that need to be handled sequentially and at first glance, does not lend itself to agile. However, we’re having a lot of success with an agile approach amid these sequential tasks. For example, in a project like this, there is frequently waiting for one step to be completed before you can move to the nextstep. Rather than hampering team productivity by allowing work to grind to a halt, our agile approach allows the team to work on another area of the project while they are waiting.
Another interesting example of applying agile to a typically non-agile situation was at Cars.com. While agile has a strong foothold in product development and technology functions, a Cars.com’s initiative was to allow the marketing teams to better manage the increased marketing campaigns and product release cadence and apply new structure to their marketing experiments. We rolled out an agile marketing pilot program, and it was highly successful.
While marketing does not have a develop, release, and feedback loop as is typical among product and technology teams, the marketing department needed to align themselves with the product teams better, as well as more effectively construct their marketing experiments.
What advice would you offer a business leader or organization considering an agile implementation?
THANISHA: The first thing is to ask why agile? Any organization or team considering an agile initiative must challenge themselves to clearly define the problem they are seeking to solve. Agile is a means to an end, not the end. Many people want to go agile because they believe it will increase speed to market. Rapid market release is one benefit of agile, but the entire process is also essential. There are many benefits to agile.
It’s important to ensure the agile champion is a true change agent and is invested in the entire journey not only the beginning, nurturing and growing the practice is just as important.
It’s essential to use an agile assessment to promote transparency in the organization seeking change, so areas of improvement can be recognized. This process requires honesty and humility, as the results can be troubling. But it’s important to highlight these areas to be able to improve or change the way they work.
Start small with agile pilot teams and invite others to join in. This was what we did for the marketing teams at Cars.com, and it was successful.
Train the right people at the right time. People are by far the most important measure of success. As Richard Branson says, “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.”
What are some elements that help to deliver agile implementation success?
THANISHA: Agile education, training, and exposure are at the top of my list. Also, frequent communication with stakeholders, increased planning cycles, visibility, and transparency are critical.
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