Project Management

Outcomes Focused-Agility: Experience Report

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In my recent post What? You don't know why you are doing your project?  I indicated that I would do a follow-up post on examples of where I have used the Outcomes approach successfully. As you recall, the post was subtitled "Outcomes Focused Agility - Story Mapping our Strategic Intent".

In this post, I'll provide two examples of where I have applied it successfully as well as provide an example of where I am currently using it with good success so far.

Procure and Implement a Learning Management System (LMS)

My role: had overall portfolio responsibility for guiding both the technical  and  business teams.

The Context

Several years ago I was hired by the Learning and Development group of a local government agency to help them procure and implement an LMS. They used to have all of their employees in one building. The situation was that employees were now in different cities, in different countries, and on different continents.

Most PMs would view this as an IT project and would proceed to begin developing the procurement documents, and then following the procurement, getting it installed and configured for use. And if they did that within the expected 18 month timeline and $2.5M budget we had, they would have considered the project a success. However, by the measures of value that really needed to be satisfied, they would have failed.

When you take an outcomes-focused approach, you start by asking why are they feeling they need to do this particular project? Ask why (along with what and how) enough times and you uncover all manner of actual need, many of which are left hidden using most project approaches. Over a period of the first 2-3 months of the engagement I helped them discover/recognize the following :

  • They had no experience, tools or process for developing on-line course content
  • They had no content management system
  • They had not considered what new services as a Learning and Development group they would need to offer their internal clients once the new way of delivering learning content was in place
  • They had not considered the governance of learning within their organization and what that meant to how they approached employee development

The Portfolio

There were many other things we uncovered by asking why, but the above gives you a good idea of the real problems we had to tackle, which far exceeded just procuring and implementing an LMS. Using outcomes-focused agility, we were able to define the real work we had to do to make the implementation of the LMS a success for them:

  • We identified 4 additional value-streams that had to be addressed on top of the one to enable learning delivery management (the role of an LMS fits in that value-stream)
  • We uncovered that five different software products were needed and not just the LMS
  • We realized we had to design new processes for governance, learning content design and development, learning content management, learning management delivery (where the LMS was actually used), and talent management

We used a Services Canvas I designed based off of the Business Model Canvas to help them figure what services they offered to the rest of the organization and how they would be measured.

Once we had the initial versions of the outcomes map and the Service canvas, wee would  place the latest iterations of each on our wall and leave stickies and pens on a table beneath them. Most every day stakeholders and team members would walk by and spend a few minutes looking at the canvas and map and use the stickies to leave questions, comments, and ideas. This enabled serendipity across the team and stakeholders - while one person was adding stickies someone else would invariably walk by and they would then have a conversation about the map and canvas and the content of the stickies.

Every few days we would collect everything and update the map and canvas and then hold additional brainstorming sessions with everyone. Both the serendipitous and brainstorming events enabled us to create a shared understanding of the why, what, how, who, when and where of our portfolio and it's various programs and initiatives with all of the required players as all of them contributed at different times and to different degrees to their creation. No one felt left out.

We used Scrum on each of the initiatives including the procurement process, for doing business process design and development, and for systems integration. We also introduced the idea of using an agile approach to learning content development for the new content that would need be created for the new LMS to deliver. Without suitable content there was no need for an LMS!

Having taken an outcomes-focused approach we also created the basis for value-based decisions across the entire portfolio for each of the products that would be created to satisfy each outcome. While Scrum assumes that someone else has already decided which products should be developed, outcomes-focused agility helps us determine which products have to be developed ( in this case learning content, business processes, an RFP, systems integration, etc.). It also helped us to establish the basis for value prioritization within each initiative and product so product owners knew the higher-level strategic goals that were to be satisfied.

Remember products themselves are just outputs. They are not outcomes, nor do they measure the benefits of what you have done, and hence they also do not help you understand why you are creating them. They do contribute to outcomes, but they are not themselves actual outcomes.

The Results

Here is a summary of some of the project metrics (sufficient time has passed that I can share these):

  • Planned:
    • $1M to procure an LMS
    • Projected total 10 year license cost $9.8M
    • 200+page RFP document was expected based on what a similar agency had done to  recently procure an LMS
    • Do this in one project
  • Actual:
    • $25K to procure the LMS which was only 2.5% of actual budget that was to be used for procurement
    • Projected 10 year license costs were $75k
    • An 8 page RFP document that explained the RFP process was used to drive procurement along with other tools we developed for the exercise - no vendor was allowed to submit paper-bound responses - only electronic response were permitted
    • RFP and vendor evaluations including board-room demos only took 5 days to select the winner
    • There were 7 initiatives that had to be completed as part of a portfolio within a total of 5 separate value streams
    • The portfolio was completed within the 18-month original window and the $2.5M budget

The Learning and development group also restructured based on the new services they were now offering and the processes that supported them. The new processes and the restructuring ideas came from the people who were most affected by it - there was no need for organizational change management as it was change by engagement and with the design being done by the entire team.

We managed to achieve far more real value delivery in  the 18 months than was expected and for the same money, hence, we were able to deliver what they actually needed, rather than what they had originally intended of simply procuring and implementing an LMS.

Build  and Implement a Professional Licensure Management System

My role: had overall portfolio responsibility for guiding both the technical  and  business teams.

The Context

A national professional association wanted to build a professional licensure management system. Again, this sounds like an IT project to most - after all we would be building a software product but in reality it was more complex actual scenario:

  • There were 12 regulatory bodies, the national association, and an examining agency all of whom had to be factored in to whatever was created
  • The national association only had a few employees up until taking on this initiative
  • They had no real internal infrastructure or hosting capabilities

The Portfolio

Using outcomes-focused agility helped us to identify:

  • Ten separate value streams
  • The need to add new physical facilities, procure network infrastructure, new hosting services, etc.
  • The need to stand-up an entire new organization to support and operate the eventual systems and infrastructure
  • The need for  pathfinder projects to standardize the licensure process across the various licensure bodies, to gain experience with the support model that would be needed,  and to investigate required self-assessment capabilities for those seeking licensure
  • Instead of just one software development project, we identified 27 separate initiatives across 10 separate value streams - in essence  a portfolio with 10 separate programs

This was way more than simply building a software product.  

The Results

A coordinated delivery was established across multiple years covering facilities, infrastructure, hiring, product development, as well as an organizational restructuring that would enable them to stand-up and support a national professional licensure management system.

Mature People, Process and Technology Capabilities

My role: portfolio leadership and agility mentoring

The Context

The last one I'll report on is one that I am currently engaged in to mature people, process, and technology capabilities. The particular team in this case is a technical team that connects business line capabilities to one another. They have been in existence for 4 years and started out as part of a larger project. They split off into a separate team to carry on the operational side  for their original development efforts as well as to do similar development work for other business lines.

With the prospect of doing work for many business lines instead of just the original two, we felt that we needed to put more formality into what the team does and how it does it. We have identified four value streams to answer the four main outcomes questions as listed below:

  • How do we govern it?
  • How do we build it?
  • How do we operate it?
  • How do we sustain it?

The team sits inside of a very large IT organization, inside of a very large government department, so the work they do has a high degree of sophistication as well as being of significant consequence to the business.

The team currently owns the entire development and operational support of what they build including at the platform level so we have to address topics such as:

  • Business and technical governance
  • Architecture
  • On-boarding of new portfolios
  • All facets of DevOps
  • Systems management
  • Business activity management
  • Re-platforming
  • Migrations of existing products to newer platform technologies

As there are multiple very sophisticated technologies in play, it is not just enough to know what you must do, but you also need to figure out which technology is the right one to use in each circumstance. As a result, in order to determine what we must do (the initiatives) to satisfy a given outcome, we have had to create and execute initiatives whose goal it is to help us sort out our strategy for the actual initiatives to support the identified outcomes.

The Portfolio

By asking the four key questions above we have so far identified 40 initiatives that we need to undertake. The ones that are developing strategies for their focus areas will lead to the addition of more initiatives once they are completed.

This is another of the hidden benefits of outcomes-focused agility as noted above - we can use strategy-development initiatives to both identify and define the initiatives we need to undertake to  achieve a given set of outcomes on the map, even after we have already started on the portfolio - now that is the ultimate in outcomes-focused agility! We have also had to tweak some of outcomes statements as based on what we have learned in some of initiatives we have delivered on so far.

When faced with such a high degree of uncertainty and ambiguity as this one presents for the team, outcomes-focused agility is proving invaluable in enabling us to do the things we need to do, rather than what we may have intended to do at the outset, across a very complex landscape.

The Results - so far

The fact that the goal of our work is to mature people, process and technology is not lost on us - maturing our people means constant inspection and adaptation to what we learn along the way. We are also able to adapt to new circumstances as they have emerged as we continue to do other work for the business lines.

We are also advantaged by constantly iterating our overall strategy, based both on the strategy initiatives we have identified, as well as the ones that are implementing those strategies, that in some cases, we have yet to define.

Another aspect of outcomes-focused agility is that it enables the portfolio team to more quickly assess the consequences of delays and changes in organizational priorities. Due to some external factors for example, we have had to revamp our outcomes delivery timelines within the portfolio.

In one example, we were able to assess the consequences of deferring some initiatives to a later FY on the basis of getting less money this FY. We were able to do this assessment in less than 30 minutes! All we were given was the dollar amount that had to be deferred.

Our map enabled us to make a value-centric decision as we already knew the relationships between initiatives, products, and outcomes (or results), and hence we could quickly determine which initiatives, products, and outcomes could be deferred while having the least detrimental impact on our overall strategic intent both in the short and long term.

Without these maps and their details, this would have taken days if not weeks for something this large, and even worse could have led us to defer the wrong things.

I have always ensured wherever possible that each of the  initiatives within an outcomes map  can be done within 3 months or less and that we use Scrum throughout. This incremental approach allows us to tackle complex situations in manageable pieces. It also allows us to re-vector our remaining work based on what we learn along the way.

We are very definitely seeing the value of allowing emergence to guide us by tackling things in small enough chunks, that even if something turns out to not be what we expected, our investment in each one is not that great, so our risk exposure is significantly reduced.

The Role of Emergence in Outcomes-Focused Agility

Emergence, as I discussed in Chapter 7 of Agile Value Delivery: Beyond the Numbers, is more than just about our architectures and design as described in the principles of The Manifesto for Agile Software Development.

It also applies to our understanding of the holistic messes we are solving that often contain many different problems as the examples above clearly demonstrated. In all of the above examples, it was never a single problem to be solved, nor a single project to be executed. I would suggest that this describes 99% of what we encounter in the real world, versus what is often attempted through single monolithic projects.  

Outcomes-focused agility directly supports this form of emergence, and also provides the context in which to story-map your strategic intent - even when you have yet to fully describe your strategic intent, as was demonstrated in the last example.

Understanding emergence, and how to leverage the opportunities it uncovers, helps us to be comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. Outcomes-focused agility helps deal with emergence in a rational manner which then allows us to use and adapt multiple frameworks, practices, methods and techniques to achieve value-delivery.

We use what is most appropriate to the context of each single problem we are solving, rather than trying a one-size fits-all approach, or even believing that we are solving a single problem, as we rarely are.

One of the areas of outcomes-focused agility I have not yet attempted is to take the same focus towards the team itself - what outcomes matter to them? I hope to do some experiments with that over the coming months within my current portfolio.

Benefits Realization

Rather than address benefits realization under each of the above examples, I though I'd deal with it as a separate topic. For those of us familiar with outcomes-driven approaches, we know that the measure we use to determine the presence of our expected outcomes is to identify the benefits we would need to see in order to determine that the outcome was present. This is as I described it in Chapter 2 of Agile Value Delivery: Beyond the Numbers.

Outcomes cannot be directly observed. They are only observable through measurable benefits. Much has recently been written about benefits realization,  which is enjoying a noticeable resurgence of interest. However, without the context of outcomes-focused agility, we may end up focusing on the wrong things, and we still don't have a framework that facilitates our emergent and shared understanding in the face of ever-increasing uncertainty and ambiguity. Benefits realization by itself not enough.

Conclusion

Outcomes-focused Agility enables portfolio, program, and project teams to gain insights into both the magnitude,and the specifics, of what has to be done. It also provides executive levels with a high degree of confidence that we have thought things through enough at the front-end, without locking into solutions too soon, so that we can more fully create a shared-understanding of why we are doing things, and use that shared understanding to drive decision-making throughout and at all levels.

An incremental delivery approach through value-streams, and their associated programs within a portfolio framework, also significantly reduces financial, schedule, and delivery risks.

So we really don't have to plan or describe everything up-front. Recognizing this simple reality enables us to help the business and its customers/clients end up where they need to be, which may not be where they originally intended to be. And after all, isn't that what we all hope for?

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Posted on: December 18, 2016 12:41 PM | Permalink

Comments (8)

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Chanukya Rajagopala Director - IT Strategy - R & D| iPOC Private Ltd United Kingdom
Brillant article. Great to see such articles, that have a 360d coverage of the subject.

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Lawrence Cooper Creator, Lean-Agile Strategy| AdaptiveOrg Inc. Kanata, Ontario, Canada
Chanu - thank you for your kind comments.

Did you get a chance to read the companion article as well? If not it can be found here https://www.projectmanagement.com/blog-post/23098/What--You-dont-know-why-you-are-doing-your-project-


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Drew Craig Coach, Practitioner, Consultant, Humanist| North Highland Philadelphia, Pa, USA
Thank you Lawrence. Wow, the results section ... so important to assist the business in vetting out what is actually needed. I like the inclusion of Benefits Realization. Something I have been interested in and reading about lately.

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Lawrence Cooper Creator, Lean-Agile Strategy| AdaptiveOrg Inc. Kanata, Ontario, Canada
Andrew - thank you for your kind comments!

If you want to know more about benefits realization check out the free download of the seminal book on the topic by John Thorpe http://www.fujitsu.com/ca/en/Images/Information_Paradox_Complete_2007.pdf.

I had the good fortune of being at DMR/Amdahl in 1997-98 when the book was first published (and before they were bought by Fujitsu). This is where I got my first exposure to the concepts.

I find that much of what is written on benefits realization these days are mostly opinion-pieces rather than based in fact and understanding from actual usage of the techniques. They tend to speak in generalities and never get into how you actually do it and also tend to include disconnected ideas that aren't really part of the approach.

Understanding the time period when this came out, it is not hard to understand that it tended towards a more traditional approach of being driven by business cases instead of from the strategic viewpoint. The latest version alludes to towards a more agile approach at the back end with a reference to being driven from strategy.

As I have been applying agility thinking for the past 25 years or so, and was exposed to outcomes-driven approaches through DMR, I started to combine the the two about 8 years ago into outcomes-focused agility that is driven from a strategic perspective. I am currently putting the finishing touches on an educational program called Outcomes-Focused Agility: Story Mapping for Strategic Intent that marries iterative strategic delivery with benefits realization and Scrum-based execution of identified initiatives.




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Lawrence Cooper Creator, Lean-Agile Strategy| AdaptiveOrg Inc. Kanata, Ontario, Canada
Andrew - I also mean to mention that the Thorpe went on to work with ISACCA and it became positioned as Val-IT which is now rolled into the latest version of COBIT - which to me was sad it meant he got away from the business premise of it and focused too much on the IT angle. It's not about IT.

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Ravi Nandru Agile Coach| Accenture Westborough, Ma, USA
great article

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Alaa Hussein Program Manager| MEMECS Baghdad, Iraq
Thanks Lawrence, great article!

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Mansoor Mustafa Senior PM| Government Department Rawalpindi Punjab, Pakistan
Great information

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