How to Shift to a Business Agile Mindset

Project managers can use these six principles to deliver better business outcomes.

Program and portfolio management leaders are under constant pressure to transform their project management office (PMO) into an entity that can respond faster to business requirements and deliver more value. To achieve this transformation, Gartner advocates adopting a business agile mindset.

Embrace change and uncertainty instead of trying to fit all projects to a rigid production line approach

“We need to be clear that a business agile mindset has nothing to do with software development or scrum methodologies,” says Michelle M. Coelho, research director at Gartner. “In fact, it has nothing to do with technology. It’s a mental shift in how we approach projects built around the following six principles.”

Principle No. 1: Focus on delivering a continuous flow of value

The first concept to grasp is that everyone associated with a project or program in any capacity should focus on its return on investment to the organization. “Return” in this context doesn’t need to be strictly financial; the organization simply has to see an outcome that it considers valuable.

Everyone associated with a project or program should focus on its return on investment

It’s vital to ensure that:

  1.   There is broad agreement from the beginning of each project about the desired outcome and how it will be measured.
  2.   The metrics for every project are unique. In addition, the metrics must be developed collaboratively and have the full commitment of all stakeholders.
  3.   The PMO is responsible for communicating results continuously throughout a project’s life cycle to show the flow of value and avoid unnecessary surprises upon completion.

Principle No. 2: Engage “customers” in frequent interactions and shared ownership

In the context of an internal project, the customer is the set of individuals who will use the software or adopt the change process. Here is a typical example of how an internal project is delivered without engaging the customer, resulting in a poor outcome.

The customer is the set of individuals who will use the software or adopt the change process

A company implemented a new CRM system. Although the project was executed flawlessly, the business outcome was a failure because the new system was abandoned within two years.

This is because the “customer” — the sales force — was not engaged with the solution. The project delivery team assumed that the CRM system would be a success as long as the sales force were trained properly and their individual metrics were adjusted to force them to use it. The stark reality, however, was that the sales force were not consulted, and found the new system a time-consuming imposition without any tangible value for their role. Therefore because the sales force was financially more important to the business than the output of the new CRM system, the system was scrapped.

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Principle No. 3: Expect uncertainty and manage it through iterations, anticipation and adaptation

Human nature craves certainty, but this urge can lead to a common misconception that the “right” way to deliver projects can be codified and repeated consistently, like widgets rolling off a production line.

This belief, while comforting, does not fit an uncertain and changeable reality. Managing through iterations is one way to ease the cognitive load that real-world uncertainty imposes. An iteration is defined as a unit of valuable work, as articulated in the first principle, which can be delivered as planned.

In an IT project delivery team, two-to-four week iterations usually work well

In an IT project delivery team, two-to-four week iterations usually work well. Once an iteration starts, it will proceed to its end without introducing major changes – giving everyone involved a period of certainty.

Anticipation is harder to quantify, but is the product of intuition born of project management experience. This intuition is stifled in projects that have been reduced to a formulaic series of tasks carried out by individuals and tracked by project management.

Adaptation means taking advantage of changed circumstances. The overly rigid and bureaucratic environment in which most projects are managed often leads to failure to take advantage of changes in circumstances that would allow for better outcomes.

Principle No. 4: Recognize that individuals are the ultimate source of value

Projects often set themselves up to fail by inspiring resistance among the individuals who are crucial to success, as in the example of the CRM system given above. We can see the seeds of “change resistance” in the following three-step process implementation plan, which typifies how organizations often make changes:

  1.      Tell people what they need to do.
  2.      Train them in how to do it.
  3.      Enforce compliance through measurement and penalties.

This produces an adversarial “them and us” mentality and a focus on what isn’t working. It’s important to ensure every project arises from a mindset of “doing with” rather than “doing to.”

Principle No. 5: Share responsibility for team effectiveness and results

Projects are too often fractured into a series of seemingly disconnected tasks carried out by people with no view of how their work contributes to the broader goal. It’s important for project team members to be aware of and involved with each other’s areas and build a shared sense of ownership. This kind of mutual engagement is the cornerstone of the collective anticipation of changes and problems, as identified in the third principle.

Projects are too often fractured into a series of seemingly disconnected tasks

Principle No. 6: Use situation-specific strategies, processes and practices

It’s useful to think of this final principle as the “change or die” imperative. It means equipping the PMO with the mindset and tools to embrace change and uncertainty instead of trying to fit all projects to a rigid production line approach, no matter how unsuitable the standardized and inflexible processes may be.

Having an agile mindset means the PMO is able to bring to bear the lessons of previous successes and failures, quickly assess the unique challenges of new projects or recognise changed circumstances, and evolve their processes and tools accordingly.

Gartner clients can read more in "The 6-Principle Framework for Mastering a Business Agile Mindset" by MIchelle Coelho.

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