Where do agile development and program management meet?

Agile methodologies have been touted as something of a panacea for companies' software development woes, promising quicker delivery cycles, higher-quality software and better all-around return on investment. Like any tech trend, however, agile has the tendency to make big promises, but come up short on its actual return. Inevitably, this leads to a backlash, and core stakeholders begin questioning the value of agile altogether.

The problem isn't with the core tenets of agile development methodology – those are as sound as ever. Rather, the issue is how agile is implemented and the steps companies are taking to support this approach and make it thrive. One key area companies may be overlooking is how agile development fits into program management.

When program management is key

"Program management's underlying mindset is remarkably similar to agile."

As we've discussed before, a sound program management strategy is essential to any kind of sweeping business initiative, whether it is centered around IT or not. When your business goals involve completing several distinct projects, with coordination across multiple departments, that's a sure sign that you need a comprehensive program management strategy. If your initially modest software project has drastically grown in scope and requires input from members of your legal or marketing departments, program management can help you get a handle on everything and coordinate responsibilities across disparate teams.

When a project has become too big and sprawling for IT alone to manage, that's where program management steps in.

Integrating agile with program management

Program management's underlying mindset is remarkably similar to other emerging tech trends such as agile and DevOps. At their core, these concepts focus on collaboration, breaking down silos and having different teams working toward a common goal. It makes sense, then, that in many scenarios, program management and agile development are inextricably intertwined.

An inability to properly execute a program management strategy may also be why some agile initiatives fail. If your project leader views agile as a strictly IT affair, they may be overlooking how that project touches other departments and requires input from different teams. More egregiously, they may lose sight of the core business value and goal of an agile development project – a recipe for failure.

As we've outlined, establishing a crystal-clear business problem is a best practice of program management. Without that vision, individual projects like agile development efforts may flounder. Aligning everything under the banner of a clearly understood business goal will pave the way for success.

Quick development cycles and speedy delivery are hallmarks of an agile-aligned program management strategy.Quick development cycles and speedy delivery are hallmarks of an agile-aligned program management strategy.

Where the rubber meets the road

That all sounds well and good, but what does a harmonious alignment of agile development methodologies and program management look like, especially at a large scale? Management consultant Johanna Rothman discussed many of the characteristics of a scaled-up, agile-focused program management strategy, noting that individual teams still largely maintain their own autonomy. The key is that no one is working in a vacuum or silo. Everyone is keenly aware of how their work influences other departments and continues working quickly to hold up their end of the deal and prevent bottlenecks from forming.

That speed of delivery and quick release cycle is part and parcel of agile methodologies, and here it becomes part of something even larger. With so many different moving parts working simultaneously, Rothman explained that trust is critical to success in this environment. Teams and their individual members need to have the support of other project stakeholders and have faith in one other to carry out their particular responsibilities in a timely fashion.

Achieving an agile state of mind

This all goes both ways too. Program management, even with its sprawling coverage, can be influenced by agile methodologies. In fact, a 2016 Global Knowledge report recommended that program management strategies become infused with the same adaptive spirit that characterizes agile:

"An organization becomes more agile if the systems that support projects allow for more frequent reevaluation and alteration of a project's execution strategy," the report stated. "Increased agility is not simply a consequence of adopting a few agile project management tools. Agility is determined by how responsive or adaptive to changing conditions the overall system of project management is irrespective of the techniques employed."

If business goals change, that needs to be reflected in your program management approach and trickle down to your agile development projects as well. At the end of the day, these strategies are a means to drive value and meet business objectives. An established IT consultant with a strong track record of success can help steer you in the right direction and get the most out of both agile and program management.