By Reilee Berger, Analyst

Most major companies today are practicing agile in some part of their organization. Those that have taken the step of scaling agile formally have likely encountered challenges in finding the right fit for them. While agile is meant to be a framework of principles to follow, it can be difficult to strike the right balance between following “the rules” and customizing to fit your organization. Ultimately, a well-tailored suit will always fit better than something off the rack, and the same applies to agile adaptation. Done right, however, agile has the potential to greatly benefit your business and fit your unique culture.

Playing Well With Others

The shift from traditional project management to agile often involves restructuring the organization into small, self-sufficient teams that can run autonomously and continuously release new products. Organizations may also choose to allocate resources and capital differently. Project manager roles may be removed or assigned to specific agile teams, and budgets that once belonged to a project or department may be dispersed to those teams as well. While there are clear benefits to these changes, challenges are quick to present themselves. Every organization has large projects which are undertaken every year. Projects of a certain size require multiple teams across multiple departments, clear management, and funding to be successful. An unintended side-effect of agile is that teams become inherently self-sufficient and working collaboratively with other teams does not always fit within standard processes. When teams are called on to work together on major efforts, questions can arise as to who takes ownership of the effort. Without clear leadership or processes, timelines can slip as teams wait for work to be handed to them, or for budgetary approval to make necessary purchases.

One solution which addresses this problem, while still leveraging the benefits agile offers, is to create temporary teams dedicated to a project. If an organization is already comfortable delivering in an agile model, treating major projects in a similar fashion makes sense. The team should be staffed sufficiently in order to deliver the end result without relying on other teams, or risk having the same challenge of ownership and dependency. Another solution which can be done in parallel is to assign a project manager to own the effort. Although the project manager role is not common in agile settings, the value they bring to cross functional efforts is great. The project manager can act as an intermediary between teams, reducing the questions of ownership as they assign tasks and track deliverables.

While agile is meant to be a framework of principles to follow, it can be difficult to strike the right balance between following “the rules” and customizing to fit your organization.

All Hands On Deck

Once leadership has signed off on the transition to agile, you may feel you have the buy-in needed to be successful. However, true agile adoption requires more than just a green light. Leaders may think they are agreeing to agile, but in practice they may not understand the organizational change required not only by the teams working, but by the business as well. One example of this is interactions between the business and teams delivering products. Business leaders in the past may have asked teams to stop what they are doing to focus on a new priority or asked to have their favorite team member work on something for them. In an agile model, teams are insulated from these requests and the business is re-directed to the team leader or Product Owner. These changes can be hard to accept for some who are used to a certain way of working, which is why leaders across the organization need to be bought-in to help reinforce agile practices.

A critical step in addressing this challenge is using organizational change management and agile training to make sure the entire company is ready to adopt agile. Leaders and business stakeholders need to be aware of what changes they need to make, and what benefits come along with agile practices. The more they understand what agile is and why it is important, the more likely they will be to not only participate, but advocate for it.

Another crucial component to ensure organizational buy-in is having the right people in the Product Owner role. The main responsibility of the Product Owner is to interact with stakeholders and set priority for the team. Rather than considering someone with the most technical knowledge for the position, focus on individuals who have an understanding of business drivers and can communicate those to the team, while also being an advocate for agile practices and their team’s need for autonomy.

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

In most industries, operational continuity and stability is critical to success. This is especially true for utilities and energy companies as outages mean huge losses in revenue. While the agile methodology is used for all types of projects, it is without a doubt best suited for new developments where constant change is anticipated. How then should an organization address certain areas where stability rather than adaptation is the most critical factor?

A simple solution here is to adopt agile only where it makes sense and keep certain processes that work well in other areas. For example, some projects may be best suited for the waterfall approach, where project timelines are closely kept, and changes are kept to a minimum. Additionally, operational functions may benefit less from agile as teams work to resolve issues as they appear and cannot plan what work should be done. In this case, teams will follow a standard approach to respond to critical incidents and work on less important issues out of a queue. In any case, being able to distinguish when agile should and should not be used will help organizations get the most out of their agile journey.

Powerful Possibilities

While it is important to consider challenges that come along with agile adoption, there are many opportunities that deserve to be considered as well. Agile has been a huge force for improvement within the tech space, and many of those advantages are becoming increasingly relevant for the utilities industry as well.

As energy companies grow their digital footprint, they should look to agile to deliver new features. Customers want the ability to manage their utilities online, which means constantly developing new web products such as dashboards, online ordering, chat features, and online billing. Agile development speeds products to market and allows companies to gain an edge over their competitors. Additionally, increasing digital features allows companies to reduce costs in other areas. For example, driving customer traffic online reduces call volume which is a large opportunity for savings.

Another use for agile is in getting new market products to the customer as fast as possible. Retail energy has become increasingly competitive as companies introduce innovative ideas to attract new business, such as free electricity during certain time periods. These campaigns require more than just marketing, as technology must be in place to offer the end product. The benefit of agile here is to beat the competition to market and gain new customers.

Lastly, agile should be considered as new, innovative projects present themselves in the industry. Renewable technology such as battery storage and solar continues to advance, so consider how agile may accelerate the project and help put your company at the forefront of the market.

As your organization continues on its path of agile adaptation, consider those challenges that lie ahead and how to best overcome them. Ultimately each agile journey will be unique, and learning to be flexible will take you further than trying to follow a script. Leverage your unique culture and competitive advantages, and enlist the right people who are passionate about the process.

While agile isn’t the answer to every problem, it should be considered as more than just a software development methodology and as a framework for releasing products in rapidly changing environments. Utilities have unique opportunities in the market to think outside the box and become innovators of the industry, and agile can help accelerate that growth.

Utilities have unique opportunities in the market to think outside the box and become innovators of the industry, and agile can help accelerate that growth.

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