When agile development and stable operations come to equal terms

Operations

An increasingly complex and fast-paced digital environment combined with a great need for a never-failing operations delivery creates problems for many IT organisations. To meet at least a few of these demands companies are adopting bi-modal ways of working and DevOps methodologies. Often when agile methodologies are discussed, successful examples are from younger organisations that can design their organisations and ways of working from scratch. IT organisations that have a longer history can benefit from ways of working where extended development cycles (for example waterfall methods) are combined with shorter development cycles (for example agile methodologies). This gives IT organisations the ability to meet new demands with more aggressive time to market, while also enabling a never-failing service delivery.

In the traditional IT organisation, changes are typically performed in a slow and steady pace with an extended development cycle. Large chunks of functionality are developed and then thrown “over the wall” in large releases, landing on IT operations who often initially stumble, but hopefully have time to regain stability before the next update. However, an extended development cycle in combination with collaboration difficulties between departments makes it difficult for IT organisations to keep up with the increasingly fast-paced market, causing their business to fall behind on customer demand.

Pros and cons with extended development cycles in development

+ Operations normally have enough time to stabilise after product deployment

+ Resources and budgets can be planned ahead and the customer can in each step decide whether to continue or not.

+ There are commonly known models (for instance waterfall project methods)

 Slow development with long time periods between each product deployment

 Product out-of-date when deployed

 Hard for different departments to cooperate due to technical silos

“An extended development cycle in combination with collaboration difficulties between departments makes it difficult for IT organisations to keep up with the increasingly fast-paced market”

In order to adapt to an increasingly complex and changing environment, IT organisations need continuous improvement and deployment, which has led to the emergence of shorter development cycles. However, while these shorter cycles have increased output frequency, issues have arisen in the interface towards operations. When shorter development cycles are practiced only in parts of the IT organisation, instability is created due to lack of understanding and IT legacy systems not fit for frequent delivery.

Pros and cons with shorter development cycles

+ Faster development cycles and more frequent product deployment

+ Products are more up-to-date when deployed

+ Customer-focused development – higher chance of meeting customer needs

 Operations get overwhelmed with frequent deployments

 Hard for different departments to cooperate due to technical silos

“When shorter development cycles are practiced only in parts of the IT organisation, instability is created due to lack of understanding and IT legacy systems not fit for frequent delivery”

IT operations must be able to adapt to continuously changing needs

In a constantly evolving environment, it’s essential for the business to have an IT organisation that can adapt quickly when needed, which entails the ability to respond to frequent changes in customer requirements and develop and deliver new services in shorter cycles. This can put pressure on the IT organisation, and it is important to retain operational ability even with reduced development cycles. Meanwhile, there may be IT organisations where longer development cycles are a more suitable approach due to legacy in systems and organisation. In other words, agile development often needs to co-exist together with more extended cycles in development as shown in figure 1 below.

figure-1-a-combination-of-extended-and-shorter-development-cycles

Figure 1: A combination of extended and shorter development cycles

Introducing agile ways of working across the entire IT organisation in combination with close collaboration between developers and operational staff, facilitates development supporting multiple development cycles and stable operations. The very premise of agile comprises a steady handling of continuous change. To create efficient development, collaboration and operations, the change enabled IT organisation needs to focus on a set of building blocks, as shown in figure 2 below.

figure-2-the-building-blocks-of-a-well-functioning-it-organisation

Figure 2: The building blocks of a well-functioning IT organisation

Culture

Culture plays a crucial role in employee engagement and is also one of the top challenges faced by business leaders today. Organisations do not only look for the best employees in the market, they look for the best employees fitted for them. An increasing employee bargaining power has put employee engagement in focus, why organisations now more than ever must strive to become great places to work. And just as cultural factors have become a key reason for organisational success, they have also become key for IT operational success. A successful change-enabled culture can be broken down into two subareas: top level management engagement and continuous improvement oriented culture.

  • Top-level management engagement is crucial to drive and implement change. Almost every success story of an IT organisation is based on the support it gets from top level management. This is true for any organisation, but especially when it is driven by constant change. Management needs to actively communicate changes in strategy and how it affects the organisation. To suit the changing needs of the organisation and obtain the behaviours needed for the organisation to thrive, it is key to cultivate, motivate and help employees develop themselves.
  • A continuous improvement oriented culture encourages its employees to constantly look for improvements and take initiative to bring forward ideas. IT organisations aiming for improvement should start by fostering this mind-set. This means informing employees on why they perform certain tasks and how it helps the IT organisation reach its goals, but also how the efforts of individual employees contribute to the bigger picture. For employees to take their own initiatives, they need the confidence to take it—both in themselves and in the IT organisation. They also need the will to improve and believe that improvement is possible.

Organisation

Organisational resource distribution and coordination is crucial for IT operations. Fast environmental changes demand an IT organisation that constantly change and enhance its ways of working, striving for improved efficiency and effectiveness. Three key elements of the organisational structure within IT operations include: service management office, cross-functional and self-organising teams, and clear responsibilities.

  • The service management office (SMO) is responsible for the IT organisation’s different processes and the general management of services throughout the IT organisation. The SMO should have the necessary knowledge and overall cross-organisational view needed to facilitate effective and efficient IT operations. A well-functioning SMO ensures that products are transformed into manageable and maintainable services before release and handover to IT operations. The SMO also contribute to stability by keeping a service oriented view crossing technical silos, organisational units and vendors.
  • Cross-functional and self-organising teams enable IT organisations to solve a problem by re-organising depending on the tasks that need to be solved. This enables a quicker response to changing requirements or issues that need to be addressed. For self-organising to be possible, walls between different organisational units and technical silos must be torn down.
  • Clear responsibilities improve efficiency. A change-enabled IT organisation will need fast decision making to facilitate change. Knowing who is ultimately responsible for specific tasks and areas will enhance the decision making process and encourage employees to improve and change.

Processes and tools

Processes and tools must meet the market’s changing demands. Standardised processes can help IT organisations reduce time to market while maintaining stability. Value is added by using different processes within the IT organisation (e.g. two different development models, change processes and procurement processes). These processes can be further supported by using tools that facilitate collaboration between the business and different departments within IT operations.

  • Tools and processes for automated testing allows employees to spend their time and energy on testing the specific aspects of a service that can’t be covered with automated testing. IT organisations should automate tests that run frequently and require large amounts of data or are particularly vulnerable to human error.
  • The extended development cycle as well as the shorter development cycle face difficulties on their own. However, by combining the best of both worlds, many disadvantages can be offset. Having multiple development processes, using both extended and shorter development cycles, enables the IT organisation to manage separate development models. This enables the IT organisation to make room for quick innovation in some areas with preserved stability in others. Some processes should focus on speed and agility in order to innovate and decrease time to market. That means releasing products when they are good enough, act on feedback and develop incrementally. Other processes focus on operational stability and scalability through traditional extended delivery models.
  • Standardised processes well adapted to an IT organisation’s need to solve incidents, prioritise changes, procure, perform maintenance activities etc. create an environment of stability. This enables the IT organisation to focus on the actual changes and the work that needs to get done instead of spending resources on figuring out who does what. One big challenge is to get these processes to work in in a two-paced environment. The key is to identify where each process needs separate routes for the faster agile pace vs. the slower pace. For example, it’s not possible to have a service request process that demands approval in multiple steps where each approval takes one week, if you have set a development cycle of one week.

By combining extended development cycles with shorter development cycles, it is possible to retain stable operations, increase innovation and decrease time to market at the same time. To achieve this, it is important to start at the top with the strategy, but also with the cultural aspects. When developing and implementing, it is important to identify areas that have greater need for innovation and speed to market and adjust the IT organisation, processes, and tools accordingly. Key success factors involve adopting a continuous improvement approach, evolving ways of working, removing obstacles, re-engineering underlying technology, and fostering collaboration and communication. With increasing digitalisation, the internal collaboration between development and operations have never been more critical for business success.

About the authors

Isak Faris is a senior IT management consultant and the head of 3gamma’s operational excellence capability. He is specialized in designing and implementing IT organisations, their internal processes and ways of working. Isak often coaches his clients, within a wide range of industries, helping them improve efficiency, collaboration and vendor integration.


Latife Aksoy (MSc) is an IT management consultant and graduate at 3gamma. Latife wrote her bachelor thesis on “How to find out whether a software development team is agile or not”. Latife is currently working on an agile sourcing procurement for a global non-profit organisation.


Johannes Evaldsson (MSc) is an IT management consultant and graduate at 3gamma. Johannes have earlier experience from agile development and related organisational challenges within a global distributed supplier of ERP systems. Johannes is currently working on an IT infrastructure improvement project at a leading industry company.


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