Agility, backflips and what not.

1 11 2006

I had a tremendously good conversation with an old colleague today. He’s heavily involved in this massive change the world style project.

He’s just the guy who I think could pull it off too. He’s a strong leader, possesses vision, is charismatic and people want to follow him. Plus he has a sense of humor and a genuine desire to improve the world.

I got to thinking about the project he’s working on. The scope of which is almost unimaginably huge. So huge, I think it’s quite revolutionary what he’s doing. I cant disclose much detail about the project at this point as I have no authority to do so. Perhaps later I may, we’ll all see.

Anyway, I was thinking that because of the size of the project, it’s a significant risk that the project will encounter what I call “big project stuckinarutism”.

Having worked on projects ranging from several thousand dollar mini sites right through to several million dollar content management system installations, I’ve learned something. (big big issues if I hadn’t hey?)

Projects are like a chocolate cake. Little ones can have have all sorts of toppings on them, because you only need a little bit of topping. They can be eaten quickly when no ones looking, and they are well and truly gone before anyone knows it was ever there.

BIG cakes however need plates, and big knives to cut them. Toppings are expensive, and you have to think very carefully before you pick your topping, or else you’ll waste a lot of money having to re top the cake. You can’t snake a piece of the cake without someone knowing, nor can you scoff the whole thing either.

So before you “option ‘Q'” your way out of this blog i’ll get to the point.

Big projects can suffer at the hands of their own mass. Change of direction is hard, planning is complex, specifications are complex AND hard, the list goes on.

How do you fix this? Well old school managers and strategists could possibly theorise this:
– Use a waterfall PM technique. That way you can have a nice rigorous predictable project path flow.
– Specify the project scope and requirements heavily prior to commencement, that way you minimise risk of heading off on the wrong path.
– Plan your phases in neat time boxes, with well defined parameters and milestones.

You get the drift. (A familiarity with commonly practiced project management techniques is assumed here)

Can large projects be agile? Will the concept work?

I think so, but the catch, as with any implementation of an agile project, is that it must must must have a strong leader who understands how the agile / iterative approach works, how to manage it, how to feed it, and how to control scope of a highly liquid operational behavior.

Big ask really. Do-able, but big.

What’s the trick? I’d suggest firstly figuring out if your users actually want a chocolate cake. Start there.

Then, see just how big that cake needs to be. Presuming you need a very very very big cake, see if you can meet the same need by making smaller cakes from the same batter.

Of the smaller batches of batter that you now have, see if they can be prioritised so that you can cook them in batches, because you can only fit so many cakes in there can’t you?

Of course you could iterate that last step to make smaller and smaller cakes.

As you get into making smaller and smaller you increase your ability to have more and more agility in your project.

Again, I have to reinforce this point, I’m generalising, and there are lots of if, buts and maybes surrounding these statements. But at least I can give you the gist of it.

Agility in projects, and teams, is a big topic. I’ll publish more over the fullness of time.

Your users may not want big chocolate cakes, they may want banana muffins. Ask and ye shall find out.

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