Introducing agile into a huge organization: where do we start?

Last month I attended an internal training session at work which aimed to introduce agile in our services unit. After 9 months in the company I have started to understand how it works and how difficult is to introduce changes in a huge organization. These companies are quite stable, like a merchant vessel, and time and effort is required to change their course of direction. So I was scheptical about what the guys providing the training would be able to suggest.

Start with the basics

And our coaches started with the basics. There are different layers of elements involved in Agile:

  • Mindset
  • Values
  • Principles
  • Practices
  • Tools & processes

The first in the list are the ones less visible and more powerful. On the contrary, the last one is the more visible but less powerful.

It is very typical to fall into the trap of the tools and practices but not having changed first the essence of your ways of thinking. This leads to false agility. So our trainers were focused in the mindset and values of agile.

Mindset and values

In order to create a change some steps are usually recognized as needed. Sharing and explaining the agile manifesto and its values is the starting point of our journey. Our team has now awareness of what can be done and is able to recognize opportunities to apply these principles.

It is true that the support of our management is needed. It si true that we have many processes and tools that are far from agile. It is true that when projects arrive to us many decisions have already been made. However every individual can do something to be more agile within its zone of influence.

Potential next steps

Now, according to P. Kotter, it would be time to create the sense of urgency and a guiding team that is able to communicate the vision and the benefits of the change. That is the phase to ‘prepare the change’ that should be followed by the change it self and that hopefully would end with a new culture (agile) in the organization. It will require time but we are already on the way.

There is an exciting journey ahead of us. What is your experience? Have you lived this kind of changes in big organizations? Were they successful? What were the keys of success and the main pain points?

Introducing agile into a huge organization: where do we start?

The importance of the study phase at the beginning of a project

Have you ever faced a situation where your project sponsor or other stakeholders expect that you start delivering results just after​ your first contact with the project?

Many people tend to start working in the execution phase when facing a problem instead of dedicating enough time to understand what they need to do. This may result in delivering the wrong solution or a not efficient one.

What should we do at the beginning of a project?

Let’s start dedicating enough time to understand the problem. When I was studying engineering I had a teacher who told me that I should dedicate half of the time he gave me to do a exam to understand the problem. The other half should be enough to describe and calculate the solution.

I followed this strategy not only in his exams but in other exams as well and I never regretted it.

Understanding the problem means not only reading what is said but also what is not said when our client explains his need.

Moreover we should not stop when we find the first potential solution to our problem. That is laziness. There are many tools to find creative solutions to a problem, once we find some of them a good approach is to compare them and identify the best one. And when we have the one we consider the best we should consider it from a different point of view and identify all the possible negative points it has. After that we can consider if it is still the best option for our problem.

Understanding your project

It is the same with projects. Dedicating enough time to the study phase of a project usually pays off.

It is important to identify and meet all stakeholders, to understand their expectations, how the outcome of the project would affect them, their priorities and their level of support and commitment with the project.

The scope of the project should be clearly identified (at least at a higher level). Sometimes we do not know at that stage all what will have to be done but we should know what will not be done in the project. Risks, budget and timing should be discussed as well with the project sponsor and main stakeholders.

And everything should be written down in a document that the team members and other stakeholders can consult at any time during the project.

What do you think? How many time do you tipically spend in this phase of your projects? What is the proportion in comparison with the whole duration of the project?




The importance of the study phase at the beginning of a project

2 strategies when you do not master the tools your team uses.

Sometimes you may be assigned as a project manager to a project that includes in its scope a technology that you know superficially or just do not know at all. What can you do? How can you be part of the project team, contribute positively and not be a blocker?

There is a parallel discussion that we could start about the deeply commented topic of the project manager and the level of technical knowledge she should have about the technologies used in the project. But this is something I want to let aside in this post and focus on the fact that ‘you have been assigned to the project’ for no matter what reason and you have to deal with it.

My basic strategy would be: in the short term focus on being a facilitator and trust the specialists. On the long run, if you are going to manage more projects of this kind in the future, improve your skills.

Focus yourself in being a facilitator.

You must understand what is your main role in the project and avoid doing something you are not prepared to do. Focus in helping the team work and in obtaining the best possible outcome of their efforts: remove obstacles, identify the causes of problems and help them finding the best solutions.

Improve your skills when the project situation allows it.

If you are going to face a similar situation in future projects or you are just like me, an insatiable seeker of knowledge that constantly looks for new tools for my toolbox, you can do a training on the techniques your team has been using in the project. The level of depth will depend on your interest and the kind of job you have to do.

What is your opinion? Do you face frequently this situation? How do you deal with it?

2 strategies when you do not master the tools your team uses.

Budget owners and budget managers

Are project managers accountable for potential overruns in the costs of their projects?

This is a typical question that appears frequently in conversations between PMs. In my opinion PMs must:

  • obtain estimations of the whole costs of the project
  • determine the budget for the project
  • obtain the funds from the sponsor
  • agree with the sponsor on how to control the costs of the project
  • ensure that there is a system to track all the costs of the project and that it is properly used
  • inform periodically all the relevant stakeholders about the actual costs (vs the planned ones)
  • manage change requests and obtain approvals (or not) if additional costs are required

In big organizations there are usually sponsors and executive sponsors.

Executive sponsors are the ones who own the budget.

They provide the funds and guide the project in order that it delivers results according to the strategy. However these kind of people are usually very busy and is not easy to get access to them. It is important to ensure that thay delegate some functions in the ‘simple’ sponsors.

Sponsors are less senior people but frequently more prepared to understand technical details and with enough availability to dedicate time to the project in a regular basis. It is important to identify one of them in your project and to obtain their commitment to support you as a PM.

Sponsors do not own the budget but they have authority to manage it.

They are the ones that can follow with the PM the day to day of the project, read the updated cost reports and even approve some limited additional costs. They make the life of the PM easier and are crucial for the project success.

What is your experience with sponsors? Have you identified these 2 roles in your projects? Do you have this kind of sponsors in your organization?


Budget owners and budget managers

Leaders, managers and project portfolio

Have you ever been working in a project and asked yourself if doing this project was the best way to use the resources of your organization?

Have you ever been working in a project and asked yourself if that project had been correctly assessed before it was assigned to you as a PM?

Organizations, even the biggest ones, have limited resources and different kinds of opportunities. The leaders must decide which opportunities are the ones that their organizations must pursue. Managers job is to deploy those projects in the most efficient and effective way. And PMs are managers.

Organization leaders decide ‘that a road must be built’. Project managers do it the best way possible.

But even if the project that has been defined by the leaders is the best way to catch up an opportunity a proper assessment on organization capacities and capabilities is required before the kick off:

  • Do we have the required resources (profiles) for the project?
  • Will they be available when needed?
  • Is the organization ready to receive the deliverables of the project?
  • Are the stakeholders ready to support the project?
  • Is the organization ready to sustain the results of the project after the delivery?

It is frequent that organizations run into a project because of different reasons: business opportunities, pressures of internal lobbies, to follow the trends,… but it worths to loose some time before the beginning of a project to answer this kind of questions than noticing that the organization is not ready once you have wasted a lot of time and resources.

What is your experience regarding this topic? Do you feel reflected by this kind of situations?

Leaders, managers and project portfolio

3 ways to manage difficult Project Sponsors

The role of the project sponsor is key in the success of a project. The sponsor must ensure the alignment of the project with the strategy of the organization, he must champion the project in front of other senior managers and provide ongoing direction as the project evolves. And his responsibility does not end when the project finishes; he must also ensure that the client makes effective use of the project deliverables to achieve the results planned in the business case.

So the role of the project sponsor is strategic; she must be an enabler to create the conditions for the project team to work successfully and let the project manager the day-to-day execution.

However, many times project sponsors do not have the skills, the experience or just the awareness of their duties regarding the project and how they can affect its final outcome. What can we do as project managers to:

  • detect this risk for the project
  • help the sponsor to fulfil his/her obligations

Find out sponsor’s expectations on the project

In a subtle way, a communications and risk assessment strategy con be prepared so that the PM can adapt his/her approach and communication methods to obtain the maximum support from the sponsor. An effective approach is to ask open questions to the sponsor in your first meeting with him, like: ‘What are your expectations for this project? What kind of risks would you consider? What is the level of priority of this project in your strategy? This kind of approach will allow you to learn more than by asking closed and very focused questions.

Early discovery of the sponsor capabilities and capacities

During the first meetings with the sponsor it is important also to assess his capabilities regarding this role and also his capacity to assume the workload that it involves. It is common that  sponsors are very busy executives who have a full time ordinary activity and the sponsorship of a project is something added to their usual job.

Moreover the interest in the project by the sponsor is critical an should not be taken for granted. Sometimes there are sponsors who are assigned to a project just because there must be a sponsor or because the project outcome is somehow related with their function. This situation will affect the project day-to-day and the involvement of the sponsor in the project.

The sooner the situation is detected the earlier the project manager can start preparing a plan to manage the risks. One possible option is helping the sponsor build his/her sponsorship competencies by framing possible solutions to the problems you escalate and explain the options.

The Project Sponsor as a facilitator

Finally, it is important to confirm that the sponsor understands that he should not interfere in the day-to-day  of the project. The project manager is responsible for this. The sponsor would better be a facilitator that helps the project manager and provides the necessary organizational support needed to make strategic decisions and create a successful outcome from the project.

What is your experience? Have you ever had to deal with a difficult sponsor? What was your strategy?


3 ways to manage difficult Project Sponsors

4 situations where the communication channel matters

Communications are the area where project managers spend most of their time. It is a complex and important area because interacting with people is complex and because it significanty affects the way others see the project, their perceptions.

Choosing the most appropriate communication channel in each situation is crucial to be successful in critical situations.

In general, we have synchronous communication tools, like phone, videoconference, personal meetings or just conversations in the corridors. And also asynchronous tools like email. Chat could be considered a mix between both; it is supposed to be synchronous but many people use it asynchronously.

Let’s analyze some situations now and get some insights about the prefered channels in each case:

  • There is a serious problem in the project. It must be solved urgently as it will affect seriously the delivery date or the quality or the costs of the project.
    • Direct conversation with the client or the project sponsor. Prefered channel: formal or informal personal meeting. If not posible, video conference (the posibility of seeing you increases the chances of success because it transmits also non verbal language) or phone call.
    • After the conversation write an email to confirm the agreements.
  • There is a misunderstanding with a remote collaborator related with specific details of a technical issue.
    • Email with the details followed immediately by a video conference or phone call to clarify.
  • A decision about an issue must be taken by a group of stakeholders. It is a very open point where different approaches could be valid.
    • Meeting with all the involved stakeholders, preferably in person. Alternatively a video or audio conference could be an acceptable option.
    • Follow up email with the minutes of the meeting and the summary of action points agreed upon.
  • One of the project stakeholders disagrees publicly with you and uses an email with many other recipients in the loop.
    • Call him, or better meet him in person, and try to solve the issue directly with him.
    • After the meeting go back to the email and share the conclusions with the rest.

What do you think about the approaches to these situations? Have you been involved in any of them or a similar one? How did you manage it? Did it work?

4 situations where the communication channel matters