What is good agile governance?

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Since good governance is about the processes for making and implementing decisions, then effective governance and accountability structures are vital particularly if organizations are to successfully use an agile approach to deliver business change through the investment of programmes and projects.

But before we explore what good agile governance is, let’s distinguish between "Agile" (a delivery framework for iterative and incremental product and service delivery) versus "agile" (a mindset and organizational culture framework). For the purposes of this article, the focus will be on the latter primarily the agile principles, behaviours and culture that deliver the most value to an organization by enabling the thinking to adapt to continual change and to apply good agile governance.

To enable good agile governance, senior management delegates responsibility for delivery to the next management layer. By doing so, they enable delivery teams to self-manage, to collectively decide the best approach to deliver the work within agreed tolerances and to continuously improve velocity. Delivery teams regularly reflect on how they can become more effective and adapt to maintain and increase the quality of their work based on rapid feedback loops with the product owner.

Setting boundaries or limits, particularly for time and cost, equally applies if a project uses an Agile product delivery framework or not. Where a tolerance is exceeded, a project using a process based project management methodology such as Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2® would seek appropriate authority to change a baseline; while a project using an Agile product delivery framework would de-scope what can be delivered based on delivery team velocity and prioritized requirements (but not the quality criteria for that product). That is, to be on time and achieving deadlines is a primary target based on what is more important to the customer. For example, the customer taking receipt of what they really need but changes are made to the level of quality within on time delivery or the customer gets everything asked but sometimes at extra cost, time or to a lesser extent.

So good governance particularly when using agile is more about the decision making process, not what the decision is about. This mindset change is imperative so that the delivery team agrees or disagrees but commits. The technique essentially empowers people to openly communicate their perspective. Healthy debate is accepted as long as people focus on resolving the ideas and issues. At the end of the meeting, however, everyone commits to the decisions made, regardless of whether they agree or disagree. In order to deliver the organization and delivery team work together to enable collaboration, partnership and cast personal differences aside. Senior management align around the pursuit of meaningful progress towards shared outcomes. This mindset contributes to better decisions, better relationships and better morale and commitment to deliver value early to the customer. Good agile governance is about goodwill, a good understanding of roles and relationships and processes.

The National Audit Office Governance for Agile delivery report 2012 mentions in using Agile, organizations recognize that multiple layers of governance does not necessarily improve the quality of technical solutions, improve delivery efficiency or reduce the overall risk profile. However, where an organization is delivering a programme containing multiple projects or runs its business as usual operations through many agile teams such as Bimodal IT adoption, some senior managers may need to have additional control processes. But this needs to be applied with a level of appropriateness otherwise the organization risks becoming unresponsive to change.

Guiding principles for agile governance

The 4 guiding principles to enable successful governance of Agile delivery are:

  1. Governance should mirror the Agile manifesto principles, particularly the art of simplicity - maximizing the work not done is essential

    Using agile, governance is applied with a lightness of touch and proactive. Meaning that delivery teams are empowered and self-organising. But this does not mean that an undisciplined and relaxed approach is adopted but rather accountability to succeed and fail fast remains with the team, particularly one that is cross functional. A cross functional (or cross skilled team) are distinguished by their ability to function at a high level for extended periods of time, in the most efficient and effective manner possible - achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense.

    This is in contrast to traditional governance approaches which check what the delivery team has done to improve the predictions and estimates in the plan to reduce the variation between the baseline and forecast. When using Agile, and where there is potential to exceed time or cost tolerances, the delivery team decides what to de-scope based on a prioritized product and iteration backlog in the delivery of the minimum viable product to the customer. Any product related risk is mitigated through the use of agile behaviours of transparency, collaboration and rich communication together with the practice of frequent feedback loops with the customer to inspect and adapt.

    The use of value sliders (or parameters) gives the delivery team context within which to make decisions in the event of a problem or conflict. Value sliders like project tolerances reflect how the success of the programme/project will be judged when it is formally closed and the minimum viable product handed over to the customer.

  2. Agile delivery teams decide on the empirical performance metrics they will use and self-monitor

    The use of empirical performance metrics, when using Agile, is all about improving the probability that delivery teams deliver a minimum viable product (defined as the maximum amount of validated learning with the least amount of effort).  Paramount to an agile way of working is the concept of ‘fail fast and learn quickly’. Teams quantify their performance and use the data to improve. Teams display progress status information visually, updating it frequently. This makes progress transparent to everyone including senior management. Senior management use visible performance information to oversee projects and reinforce the message that accountability to succeed or fail in terms of learnings remains with the delivery team.

  3. Collaboration is an essential change in mindset

    As drivers of strategy and direction, senior leadership champion the implementation of an agile culture for the whole organization. A transparent culture surfaces issues or blockers without fear of blame. Good agile governance and by extension successful organizations share knowledge, collaborate and remove barriers that foster organizational silos. Delivery teams are therefore given an environment, workspace and tools to collaborate, self-organize and deliver.

    Similar to agile ceremonies on the team level, context needs to be shared constantly throughout the organization so that goals, progress, and blockers (something that is preventing a team member, or team, from being able to deliver) is transparent to everyone. This fosters respect between the delivery team and the broader organization, and encourages interactions that are rooted in empathy and understanding.

    It then becomes a question of what tools can the organization and delivery team use to visualize performance so that everyone is constantly aware of its importance and prompted to do the right things. This is about giving all levels of the organizational the tools to be in control of their own performance. This means measurements become part of the organizational or team Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. It also ensures that measurements become part one of the aspects of visual management.

  4. Independent reviews of Agile delivery should focus on the teams’ behaviours and practices and not just processes and documentation.

    When using Agile, the mindset for the organization is to adapt the governance, assurance and approval processes, and to consider different indicators of success. The usual principles of assurance remain but assessment relies more on observation and engagement with the delivery team and stakeholders, rather than reporting and information reviews. Good communication and engagement is critical if effective agile delivery is to be assured. As such, reviewers are more effective in providing critical challenge if they have Agile delivery experience in order to observe the ways the delivery team work including the management approach adopted.

    In conclusion, the organization embraces the fact that things change and decisions need to be made more frequently at the right levels. agile governance should be simple and supportive. It should trust individuals and give decision-making authority to teams so they can focus on delivering. People who govern should regularly speak to the team to help support, steer and assure. To monitor progress use a light touch. This means checking delivery a little, but often. Regular reflection on how teams are doing and finding ways to improve is an important part of good agile governance. 

    agile governance is about defining the fastest route that brings the most value. By focusing on the things that matter, we apply an agile focus on governance and how to manage programme and project risks effectively. agile works best when processes are clearly defined and transparent to everyone. Good governance for programmes and projects, regardless if agile is applied, requires a defined structure, ways of working, processes and systems to operate succinctly. As a result, enabling programmes and projects the ability to scale up and down to adapt quickly to an organization’s changing needs and environment.
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