NAB dumps steering committees for Agile projects

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NAB dumps steering committees for Agile projects

Execs choose complexity over bureaucracy.

Australian CIOs advocating the Agile software development model have embraced a “behind the scenes” management role to facilitate faster, more flexible teams.

Rob Thomsett, currently a consultant to the National Australia Bank (NAB), said the bank had adopted Management 2.0 principles in an effort to reduce bureaucracy and improve speed to market.

Instead of the traditional, ‘waterfall’ model in which workloads passed sequentially through analysis, design, development and testing phases, NAB’s Agile projects existed in a state of “divergent complexity”, he said.

Projects no longer involved steering committees, he said, adding that C-level representatives of several of his major clients found those “a waste of time”.

“These [executives] want things to happen faster; they want to be successful, they want to trust people,” said the director of consultancy The Thomsett Company.

“Being first to market in the banking sector is a really important thing ... Some of the new products that these banks are working on will blow your socks off.”

Addressing the Agile Australia conference this week, Thomsett said executives hated the bureaucratic process that typically came with technology projects.

While banking technology lasted an average of four years in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, contemporary organisations were deploying new products in under three months, he said.

Thomsett said his clients believed that project management and development had become “bloated” with architects and processes, and projects were taking too long to deliver.

Business cases were poorly developed and managed, reports were inaccurate, and steering committees were simply “a waste of time”, he said.

“In NAB, it took six months to build a business case – 20 different groups looked at it; six different architects ticked it,” he said.

“All business cases should be filed in the science fiction section,” he said, quoting a client.

“Based on all the business cases I’ve seen, most Australian companies should be ruling the world.”

But the introduction of the Agile culture and management techniques was not a victimless transition, Thomsett warned, explaining that jobs were generated by complexity.

His observation was echoed by a panel of CIOs at the conference, including Suncorp’s Jeff Smith, who urged managers to “turn the decision making over” to employees.

“As managers, we add no value; we’re overhead,” Smith said. “Leaders’ roles are to be coaches and to create a great environment ... [with] great talent, great methods, great coaching.”

“You need to create an environment where every voice has equal power,” he said, warning that middle management typically stood in the way of those discussions.

REA Group CIO Daniel Oertli told the conference that Agile relied on letting go of “techniques that provided a veneer of comfort” within organisations.

Managers should become the “facilitator of all the best brains”, he said, “adding value from behind the scenes rather than in front of the troops”.

Certification: artifact, or motivation?

Thomsett said Agile development was “a creative, open and intensively collaborative process, not an engineered process”.

He said software engineering had become bogged down by bodies of knowledge, accreditation and professional groups: “artifacts of a fundamentally flawed paradigm”.

“Why do we need certification if it’s a commonsense approach?” he asked.

Earlier in the conference, Agile Manifesto co-author and strategist Alistair Cockburn spoke of his efforts to develop formal, international certification programs for developing markets.

Despite describing Agile as a “set of values”, not methodology, Dr Cockburn hoped to develop a training “roadmap” to encourage developers to learn.

“What do we teach the next 100,000 people coming from places like China and India?” he asked conference attendees.

Dr Cockburn’s International Consortium for Agile (ICAgile) promoted a “skills-based” approach, assessing and certifying students as ‘associates’, ‘professionals’ or ‘experts’.

Those skills included: software design and programming; project management; coaching and facilitation; business analysis; testing; and user experience design.

Certification, Dr Cockburn said, was a “minor part” of the ICAgile program, and merely served to reflect students’ experiences, rather than their abilities.

He noted that ICAgile would publicly post the learning objectives of its courses so employers could test students’ understanding and abilities in the hiring process.

“Our feeling is people are focusing on the wrong aspect of certification,” he told iTnews. “Certification [traditionally] implies that someone is good at something.

“[Certification] is just the motivation for people to do lifelong learning,” he asserted. “How good they are is a problem that we’re not trying to solve.”

Dr Cockburn acknowledged that if complacent, the Agile movement risked becoming corrupted and entrenched in processes – much like those it moved to replace.

“We see big banks who say, ‘absolutely, we’ll take it on’; the thing is, they’ll adjust the meaning of [Agile]. My view is you can’t stop that from happening,” he said.

He said ICAgile was unlikely to lose its focus in the short term “because we’re aggressively curious”, and even if it did, new and better movements and agencies would emerge.

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