Agile Modeling: Flexible and Responsive Project Planning

On a recent visit to a corporate facility in Galway I couldn’t help but notice a vast amount of post-its dispersed across the ceiling to floor whiteboards in certain meeting rooms. It was explained to me that the reason for all these notes being stuck up was because of their adoption of the Agile Modeling system for product development.

Instead of just having one huge playbook outlining the stages of product development from inception to completion each stage and step of the process is labeled with a post-it note and stuck to the wall.

One traditional approach to product development is to define the outcome and fill in the interim steps by either working backwards from the goal or writing out a predicted trajectory or critical path for the fulfilment of the project.

The disadvantage of the playbook approach is that many projects have quite a long development cycle. A year to two years is not unusual. What seemed like a solid, logical, workable plan at the outset can be rendered redundant and meaningless by all sorts of unpredictable factors.

Changes in technology and changes in the market are just two such factors that could give pause for a rethink.

In the Agile Modeling system once the steps, stages and associated notes are placed the wall they can be shuffled around to conform to the criteria of the project and the availability of resources over a given time period. For instance, instead of assigning a hundred people for six months, a team of three can be used to processes one step whereas a team of ten may be needed for the next step.

A number of advantages are:

  • The idea of ‘fail fast’ is introduced to the product development cycle. Unpredictable factors can mean that the project has to be abandoned or repurposed. Rapid adaptation to these factors can be done quickly and reduce costs in wasteful production effort.
  • Only the expertise that is needed is engaged at any given stage. This frees staff to work on other projects when their contributions are not immediately needed.
  • Working leaner means a great many costs be reduced. Workspaces can be tailored to the needs at hand.
  • Decisions can be taken quicker. When all the appropriate effort is focused on a given stage it is needless to wait for a review meeting further down the timeline.
  • New ideas can be assimilated very quickly and bad ideas rejected equally quickly as there is no playbook legacy effect. The idea is that plans made for six months down the line shouldn’t unduly affect decisions based on new information in the present.

This last point is particularly key. Without necessarily sacrificing the aims of a given project it is possible to very quickly adapt to new conditions and new thinking and incorporate them into the production development process.

There is a radical game-changing aspect as to the demands that are placed on the company or corporation that takes the Agile Modeling idea on board.

Not only do the engineers and product people have to be ready to make intelligent adaptations of their plans in relation to changing circumstances but everybody working inside the business system has to comply as well.

  • Marketing departments have to be flexible in what the idea of the product is about.
  • Accounting systems have to be responsive to changes in agreed procurement schedules.
  • Delivery and distributions systems, both mechanical and electronic, need to be aware of unexpected fluctuations in demand on the systems.
  • Management has to trust, since this is an impossible scenario to micromanage, that for a good part of the process that the right people find themselves in the right place dictated by the demands of the current stage of product development.

This means not only does the product itself have agility the company that surrounds it must be agile and flexible as well to cope with the ever changing flux of requirements to help a product succeed.

For Agile Modeling to really work it entails the movement away from the traditional idea of the centralization of the management of resources in most companies.

Company and corporate structures will find themselves adjusting to accommodate more flexible working practices and be able to have a more agile response to the market conditions they operate in.

Businesses will always need a hierarchical command and control structure but, with new technologies such as social media tools for communication and systems like agile modeling for planning, the smarter companies will find ways to make the internal changes to take advantage of these ideas.

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