For around two decades, many companies have tried to adopt an Agile approach to their management style. One of the keywords of this transformation is Program – a set of various, interconnected projects that are part of a grander business strategy. But what actually is Agile Program Management? Let’s have a look and even delve deeper into this topic, to see what its key characteristics, challenges, and best practices are.
What is Agile program management?
Look no further than Atlassian, as it always provides a good description of Agile-related terms: Agile project management is an iterative approach to managing software development projects that focuses on continuous releases and incorporating customer feedback with every iteration. Software teams that embrace agile project management methodologies increase their development speed, expand collaboration, and foster the ability to better respond to market trends.
Project management is equally different from and complementary to product management. The former is usually a single initiative, while the latter is a specific, often physical product with its lifecycle and a target group. Fortunately, the aforementioned definition fits both Agile project and product management.
Why is program management important?
Program management brings key benefits to your organization:
- Creates space to work by definition – program management is the structured framework that enables organizations to run multiple, related projects at the same time to achieve a common goal.
- Saves money – program management allows better management and resource allocation. Projects that are part of the program can be complementary to each other and share the resources, meaning they don’t need higher budgeting.
- Better visibility and project tracking – you can see different tasks and issues within different projects. This allows you to spot potential problems, threats, and risks within projects, especially when they can possibly collide, and manage interdependencies effectively.
- Highlights best projects – seeing many different projects within one program, you can compare and measure them, to see which one is the most promising and which one should be dropped.
- Align with the company’s goal – program management is important because it can bring business value and save money. Never forget that stakeholders want to see the end results of each project, and proper management helps to achieve the desired results.
Key concepts of Agile program management
1. Constant change
Flexibility is paramount in Agile project management – you can’t just force some arbitrary goals in the beginning and then just execute them. Well, of course, you can, it’s not like we have tools to forbid you this. Unless you build a house or a highway, then prepare for complete and utter failure. Nowadays, most IT projects rely on Agile, on pivoting and high velocity of potential changes within the program.
2. Focus on collaboration
Agile program management is never about tools – they can help implement and keep the management afloat, but it’s always about people. Even Agile Manifesto emphasizes individuals and interactions over processes and tools in its very first point. Listening to your team’s opinion and stakeholders’ insight is the key to every Agile initiative.
3. Pinpoint the biggest business value
What is the true value of Agile program management? It’s the ability to respond to customers’ needs quickly and efficiently. You must deliver the program they want and need, exactly when they need it and how they want it. It’s always nice to keep a proper budget and be a reliable contractor and producer, but this ability to swiftly answer customers’ needs is what lies at the heart of Agile program management.
How does agile fit into program management?
Agile is a good choice for program management because it puts value and customers’ needs in the first place. It’s much more flexible than the Classic (Waterfall) approach, and its iterative nature makes it much easier to pivot or add features customers need. Also, Agile principles emphasize building working products that people can get their hands on quickly, versus spending a lot of time writing specifications upfront. Agile development projects focus on cross-functional teams empowered to make decisions, versus big hierarchies and heavy functional organizations. They focus on rapid iteration, with continuous customer input along the way, states PMI.
Roles and responsibilities in Agile program management
- Program managers – they manage and control the program’s life cycle on a daily basis. Also, their responsibilities include managing budget, risks, issues, potential problems within teams, and budget. They serve as the main coordinator and communicator with stakeholders. Program Manager manages the programs’ main documentation.
- Product managers – ensure that the product roadmap is accurate, up-to-date, and aligned — and the importance of the roadmap cannot be overstated. They work closely with program managers to determine what to build, when to build, and how to build, in order to optimize organizational resources and meet customer needs.
- System architects – business and technology experts. They look at business plans and goals, analyze technical solutions, and create recommendations of the right IT elements to achieve those objectives.
- Business owners – they establish and operate an organization with the purpose of deriving profits from its successful operations. Business owners, also own the assets of the firm or entity they formed, which they earn passive or active income from, and are the legal proprietors of a business.
- Scrum Master – according to Atlassian, Scrum Masters are the facilitators of Scrum, the lightweight agile framework with a focus on time-boxed iterations and sprints. As facilitators, scrum masters act as coaches to the rest of the team. “Servant leaders” as the Scrum Guide puts it. Good scrum masters are committed to the scrum foundation and values, but remain flexible and open to opportunities for the team to improve their workflow. Role specific for Scrum framework, without the Scrum master it’s impossible to fully use its potential.
How to implement Agile program management?
Implementing an Agile program management approach is basically changing the whole workflow’s philosophy within your team or your company. But, it can be done with just a few steps:
- Think about the best framework – as mentioned earlier Agile is an approach, an overall philosophy. But also, you need a proper framework. There are many different approaches, such as Kanban, Scrum, or scaling agile frameworks, i.e. LeSS, Scrum of Scrums or SAFe®. Each of those frameworks has their own advantages that work best for specific work environments. How to know which framework will suit us best? Well, we might need help from…
- Agile Coach for a smooth transition – a person from outside, who knows everything about Agile? That sounds like a good choice! An Agile coach is a mediator, facilitator, and advisor, who will help implement Agile’s rules and adjust them to our teams’ needs.
- Remember about four principles – it’s well known, but it’s also worth mentioning that there are four core principles of Agile:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
- Remember about core components – Agile program management has some core elements. These are mostly events, such as Daily, Review and Planning. Without them, Agile program management would fail, as cross-collaboration and cooperation between and within teams are key elements to succeed with the Agile approach.
Agile program management best practices
- Being as transparent as possible – open culture and encouraging people to share their opinions works miracles.
- Communicate with each other – sometimes the best ideas come from a simple talk, or sharing your thoughts and doubts.
- Make sure every voice must be heard… – making people feel important boosts morale.
- …but obviously, filter out bad ideas – being assertive is the ability to say “no” when necessary. It’s not about hurting people’s feelings, but being a good manager.
- Don’t be afraid to drop projects that do not show any promise – budget is not a bottomless pit, it’s better to allocate resources in more promising projects than be stuck with those, who will lead your team nowhere.
- Interdependence is a great way to keep the budget steady – one team made a feature that improves other teams work? Great, implement it and see the financial benefits.
- Don’t oversell your product – you must know how to sell yourself, but promises of the moon usually end up in a cold, dead vacuum of space. Be flamboyant, but keep the promises rational.
- Present a realistic deadline, don’t overpromise – one of the easiest ways to put your team in the crunch mode, or worse the death march, is setting a deadline so tight even Odysseus won’t swim through.
- In case of failure, organize a Retrospective instead of pointing out fingers – don’t look for someone to be blamed. Instead gather your team and talk about past Sprint or Program and think about highs, lows, and places you can improve yourself.
- Treat failure as a lesson – much more products fail rather than succeed. Don’t take it personally, but rather think about the experience you’ve gained, relationships you’ve established and insights you’ve obtained.
Benefits of program management and how to improve business results
There are many advantages of Agile program management. Mainly, it’s a framework to keep your work and progress on track. But there is far more benefits than that:
- Better oversee your budget.
- Manage risks and threats more efficiently.
- Keep every interested party up-to-date about the progress.
- Communicate with your team efficiently.
- Manage codependencies better.
- Focus on key benefits and goals.
- Have an impact on your business.
Differences: Program management and Project management?
Dependency management and visualization
Dependencies are always a problem for IT teams – one of Agile’s tasks is to minimize the number of external dependencies. If that’s possible, Agile teams should remove external dependencies altogether. The impact of dependencies can differ, and here are a few examples:
- Reduced ordering options – the highest-priority item in the backlog has a dependency on something else before the start. This forces the team to work on lower priority items.
- Increased lead time and risk of delay – The more dependencies between teams, the more likely they will miss deadlines. Lead time, a measure of how long it takes from the time a customer request is made to the fulfillment of that request, is adversely impacted by dependencies.
- The potential for cross-team friction – If different teams must rely on each other to finish work, the reality is that each of those teams tends to have their own sets of priorities and motivations.
To manage these dependencies better, you can visualize them with BigPicture:
Team of teams (ART) coordination
Agile Release Train (ART) is a long-lived team of Agile teams, which, along with other stakeholders, incrementally develops, delivers, and where applicable operates, one or more solutions in a value stream. How to coordinate this team of teams? The answer is, with the help of Solution Train.
As SAFe® describes it, the Solution Train allows businesses to build large and complex solutions, including cyber-physical systems (e.g., embedded systems) in a Lean-Agile manner. By aligning Agile Release Trains to a shared mission and coordinating the efforts of ARTs and Suppliers, the Solution Train helps manage the inherent risk and variability of large-scale solution development and requires the support of additional SAFe roles, artifacts, and events. This way, you can effectively coordinate many teams within the ART and bring much-needed business value.
Right technology for Agile program management – BigPicture
Looking for a proper tool for Agile Program Management? Look no further, BigPicture is here to help. With our tool, you can build any portfolio structure, including sub-portfolios, programs, projects, stages, SAFe® ARTs, LeSS Requirement Areas, and more. Regardless of methodology, you can easily optimize your work and track progress on all granularity levels. BigPicture supports Scrum, SAFe®, LeSS, and more, allowing you to work on a level of various timeboxes, such as iterations, Program Increments, or whatever meets your unique requirements.