Keeping pace – a layered approach to achieving agility

There is rarely only ever one path to reach your goal; we have to choose a path that is appropriate to the conditions, using the rights kit and tools for that path. This is true for developing and operating capabilities in our organisations too. There is no one way. Neither waterfall nor agile is a silver bullet. Whenever you hear “it’s my way or the highway”, it’s time to ‘do an Elvis’ and leave the building.

All too often we come across organisations still wedded to the traditional or waterfall styles of governance, programme/project management, and discipline silos. They recognise they need to change, but don’t understand how and think it too risky.

Those organisations lucky enough not to have developed these ‘bad’ habits, typically those in the start-up sphere, often adopt agile practices exclusively, because they are able to progressively release increments without the messiness of legacy systems. However, successful startups eventually grow to the point where the retention of existing customers becomes more important than the acquisition of new ones and all-too-often this coincides with realising a high technical debt caused by releasing to a marketing launch plan and not taking the time to refactor and fix defects.

Either way, the mature approach to understanding our capabilities requires a framework that explains how and why it is effective to follow a blend of methodologies.

Pace-layered application strategy framework

In 2010, Gartner introduced the pace-layered application strategy framework; this framework allows us to adopt an appropriate approach to development, operation, and maintenance of capabilities in our organisations. It posits three layers:

  • Infrastructure-type capabilities often deal with matters of Record, don’t change often, don’t have to be that unique, and can be managed and released on a slow cycle.
  • Service-type capabilities deal with how an organisation can serve and respond to it’s markets and require a degree of Differentiation; these capabilities are more volatile, and should be managed and released on a more responsive and adaptable cycle.
  • While Innovation capabilities enable organisations to tap new markets, launch new products, and find new customers; these capabilities are relatively short-lived, change frequently, and need to be managed and released on a rapid / lean cycle.

In a way, this is a simplified version of the product stack  I presented as part of the Nine P’s article I wrote a while ago.

Here, then, we can see how we could consider our capabilities against these three layers, and let that guide our approach to development, release, operation, and maintenance.

In spite of my experience that agile practices are extremely effective for organisations to deliver value; I strongly believe that it is still appropriate to take a more plan-driven, staged approach for infrastructure-type capabilities.

We therefore have a framework that supports a blended approach, where waterfall methodologies can sit comfortably side-by-side with agile practices.

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