Also published in the February 2010 edition of the PMI Houston newsletter Project Landscape.
Agile adoptions often generate this question from senior management and without a good answer, the adoption of agile practices and values on an organizational level will never happen. What makes the answer hard is that many benefits of agile are less tangible than many senior managers are comfortable with. So just why should senior managements care about agility?
I would suggest agility provides senior management three things: Effectiveness, Information and Control. But to get these, senior management needs to play its role too. Let's take a look.
First, agility provides the promise that teams are working very effectively toward the organizations most important goals and priorities. The better focused these goals and priorities are the more effective the team will be. Senior management often does not push this information down far enough in the organization on the premise of "not needing to know" or in interest of "not causing a distraction from the current work". Both the premises are flawed. Agile teams need to understand and believe in the organizational goals and the part their work plays in reaching them. That we expect priorities to change is the exact reason agile teams need to be well informed. If the team understands the strategic goals as well as the more tactical priorities on reaching them, they are in a better position to contribute to and feel accountable for the organizations' success. They are also in a better position to recognize why priorities change so they can adapt with the confidence that the work they are doing is both the right work to do today and that it adds value. If senior managers keep their agile teams in sync with current business goals and priorities, they will be much more effective.
Second, agile practices provide improved information about the progress the organization is actually making toward its goals. Good, bad or ugly, this information is the brutal truth based of the reality of the organizations past performance. We can project how much work the team can accomplish in the next interval, because we know exactly what was accomplished in the last one, and those before that. Progress is no longer based on fantasized, often politically shaped estimates. Teams have to have the courage to tell the unvarnished truth, and senior management has to have the courage to hear it. Agile leadership must work to create an open, transparent, trusting, "safe" environment for everyone. Without this open and honest communication senior management is making decisions based on the wrong information, and that creates much of the waste that agile practices are trying to eliminate.
Third, agile practices give senior managers more control. That might seem odd, since agile practices work to shift significant control from management to the team. Senior managers are able, at iteration boundaries, to make better decisions based on clear and real knowledge of the actual facts. They better know if the project is producing the expected value. They better know if a project has gone astray and why. They can more easily recognize a project that is providing good value versus a project that is not and take the appropriate steps. Are the goals of the project not understood? Does the team need more information? Do we need different skills on the team? Have business priorities changed making this project less valuable than it once was? Whatever the case, senior management is now in a better position to control the destiny of the organizations' projects, and do so much earlier in the project life cycle eliminating further waste.
Agile practices can bring a better sense of order to today's often frantic business environments. The key to that is helping senior management recognize and perform its role in setting the path for the organization to always be focused on achieving the best possible result it can get right now in today's reality.