Agile Program management is an approach through which multiple projects are managed simultaneously, in an effort to help organizations achieve strategic priorities. These aims could include increasing revenues, improving customer satisfaction, reducing customer churn, accelerating the speed of product development, enhancing brand awareness, improving employee engagement, and the list goes on.
However, there are scenarios where conventional program management is not fundamentally equipped to handle the complexity, velocity, and change that characterizes the current business landscape. That is where agile program management can make a pivotal difference between succeeding and struggling.
Agile Program Management Principles
In essence, there are three guiding principles of agile program management: focusing on customer value, fostering constant change, and establishing effective collaboration. Each of these principles is briefly discussed below.
- Focusing on Customer Value
In agile program management, the focus is on delivering what customers need in a responsive and reliable manner. This requires a comprehensive understanding of the business problem to be solved or goal to be achieved. It also means equipping and empowering teams to deliver value, and using the right metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure and monitor progress.
- Fostering Constant Change
For agile teams, change is not something to be avoided. Rather, it is something to be generated and exploited. To do this, organizations must adopt an iterative approach that enables teams to rapidly adapt and adjust, as they continuously integrate customer feedback. Another way to look at this, is that uncertainty is embraced rather than feared.
- Establishing Effective Collaboration
As noted above, teams must have the up-to-date information and plans they need to make ongoing adjustments. Without effective collaboration between all internal and external stakeholders, these changes would be driven by guesses instead of data — and invariably lead to double work, unhappy customers, and exhausted team members.
Agile Program Management Governance
Successful agile program management is rooted in effective governance. This is often carried out by the PMO, and involves:
- Developing standards, structures and procedures to control operations.
- Selecting metrics and KPIs to monitor and manage performance.
- Ensuring that each program remains in alignment with organizational priorities.
- Allocating resources (people, technology, equipment, etc.) to optimize performance.
- Conducting financial management to ensure program feasibility and profitability.
- Rolling out best practices across the program portfolio (more on this below).
Agile Program Management Best Practices
There is no generic “one-size-fits-all” approach to agile program management. In some organizations, it involves managing several agile projects (also known as “the scrum of scrums”). In other organizations, it is characterized by implementing agile activities (e.g. daily stand-up meetings) into a more conventional program management paradigm.
However, regardless of the scope, there are some core best practices that all organizations and teams should adopt. These include:
- Implement a standardized, predictable, and repeatable system that delivers value to customers. The system should be as simple and streamlined as possible.
- Adopt an adaptive development approach, which drives ongoing results that can be clearly measured and analyzed.
- Understand the vital importance of empowered, equipped and engaged teams. Neglecting this leads to exhausted team members that regularly miss deadlines, produce low quality work, clog or circumvent feedback loops, and roam the halls like zombies (if this phenomenon is already happening in your organization, then this is what to do about it).
- Use sophisticated, but easy-to-use program management software that drives vs. obstructs performance. This technology should integrate with existing tools in the environment, be highly flexible and configurable, minimize the likelihood of double work, and foster internal and external collaboration.
Agile Program Management Roles and Responsibilities
Agile teams are composed of various and diverse professionals – from big picture strategists to niche-focused specialists. Generally, there are five key roles that take center stage, especially in IT organizations: program managers, product managers, system architects, release train engineers, and business owners.
- Program managers guide and coordinate teams that are attached to various projects in the portfolio. Typical activities include supporting release planning, facilitating “scrum of scrums,” updating roadmaps, track program dependencies and risks, conduct portfolio maturity assessments, and assisting in contract management with external contractors and vendors. Many agile program managers hold one or more certifications, such as Certified Scrum Master (Scrum Alliance), Agile Project Management (IC Agile), and Agile Certified Practitioner (Project Management Institute).
- Product managers ensure that the product roadmap is accurate, up-to-date, and aligned — which is a critical and challenging task, since the roadmap is constantly changing due to internal and external factors. Product managers also work closely with program managers to determine what to build, when to build, and how to build, in order to optimize organizational resources and meet customer needs.
- System architects (also referred to as system engineers) are tasked with developing, presenting, optimizing, and aligning the technical aspects of a program, and ensuring that they align with the overall vision.
- Release train engineers facilitate agile release train (ART) processes such as program implement planning, innovation and planning iterations, and inspect and adapt events. In some organizations that take a structured approach to scaling agile, the release train engineer may also be the program manager.
- Business owners focus on ensuring that agile release trains deliver expected value, by aligning priorities with essential business drivers and objectives. Business owners are also typically tasked with communicating and presenting adjustments and pivots.
The Bottom Line
Agile program management is a mindset instead of a methodology. As a result, what works in one enterprise, marketplace or sector may not necessarily work in another. However, what matters most is that efforts and investments optimize resources and infrastructure, deliver meaningful and measurable customer value, and profitably achieve organizational goals.