4 tools you need to build an agile program management powerhouse

Getting individual teams on board with agile is hard. Scaling agile across the enterprise is really hard. As organizations move beyond the adoption of agile at the team level, program leaders are charged with the Herculean task of communicating strategic goals down to working teams while delivering status updates up the chain from ceremonious meetings and managing expectations at the portfolio and executive levels. All the while, they have to make sure they’re positioning teams to deliver value to customers and meeting top-level organizational goals.

Needless to say, these circumstances create the potential for lots of challenges and roadblocks. Here’s how to overcome them.

Managing dependencies

Problem: Teams are agile, but missed dependencies are impacting quality and delivery.

In the early stages of agile transformation, individual teams may show all the signs of being high-functioning: meeting each sprint’s goals, all-time-low defects, consistent velocity, a perfect sprint burndown, and happy retros that show continuous improvement of processes. 

But if teams are working in isolation, they can be caught off-guard by missed dependencies. In a dynamic and complex environment, horizontal alignment is crucial. Without it, it’s difficult to stay on track and meet strategic goals. Releases may be delayed, or what’s delivered may not meet customer expectations.

Solution: Take a systems approach and meet strategic goals. 

Instead of just focusing on the productivity of each individual team, help teams understand how their work comes together to realize the broader vision. Don’t get caught off guard by missed dependencies – remove them. Rather than trying to manage the dependencies between teams, join the teams closer together with a commitment to work cooperatively on critical features. This way, they know what other teams are working on and why, so they can proactively request and share information that will ensure predictable delivery and a high-quality product.

Managing cross-functional dependencies at Atlassian: preparing for GDPR
In the run up to the May, 2018 deadline for compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), Atlassian – like so many companies that hold customer data – had to plan and execute a product strategy to meet the new legal requirements. 

This effort involved acknowledging dependencies between teams that didn’t have any experience working closely together, especially on something so critical and with a hard deadline.

The product teams needed to understand not just the letter of the new law, but also the intent of each part of the regulation. And they needed specific guidance before they started work so they had confidence everyone was in alignment and they could deliver a compliant solution. 

But the legal team isn’t in the practice of coming up with product specs, and the compliance team usually reviews software when it’s in development. 

The dependencies between the teams threatened to create friction that could slow the work down or lead to misalignment. Instead of creating more process or documentation to solve the problem the experts removed the dependencies by joining forces under one team. 

For eight weeks, the compliance and legal representatives were at the same table with engineering and product, designing the path forward. Engineering asked questions about the intent of the law. Legal explained. Compliance approved. Sometimes legal pushed. Sometimes, engineering pushed back. Eventually, everyone agreed on the plan.

In the end, with this collaboration among experts, the team was able to avoid the friction and missteps that may have impacted this crucial effort. United, they were able to reach their shared goal and deliver product updates that were GDPR-compliant in a way that worked for customers.

Aligning teams

Scaled agile with Atlassian and SAFe

Problem: Teams can’t get aligned because they don’t share the same methodologies or tracking and reporting tools.

Contrary to popular belief, adopting an agile methodology is rarely all or nothing. While the organization as a whole may be committed to one framework (e.g. SAFe or Spotify), teams will modify the methodology to suit their work. You may find that even when teams are willing to work together, they don’t share a common vocabulary and have difficulty communicating the stage and status of their work. This can happen especially when teams that don’t normally work together – like legal and product, or engineering and finance – are put on a project where they have to share critical information or deliver feedback.

Solution: Focus on measuring progress, not the semantics. 

It’s not likely that you’ll get dozens (or hundreds!) of teams to agree on the precise definitions of “epic” or “story point.” Set your program down a path that allows you to track what’s important and deliver timely feedback to your leadership. Make sure there is enough commonality that each team understands the others’ work. And set them up with tools that have some level of integration and interoperability so you can surface crucial information and enable teams to adapt to new inputs.

Visible program tracking

Problem: Bottlenecks, opaque dependencies, and lack of clarity are leading to misaligned expectations. 

If you can’t see what people are working on, it’s nearly impossible to remove obstacles in their way. Then, a release goes out, and only then do people realize that expectations were misaligned. This can lead to missed opportunities and frustrated customers. Moreover, when teams believe they’re working on the right things, only to find they’ve missed the mark, there’s a high likelihood that people are going to get frustrated, impacting trust and productivity.

Solution: Connect the work to the strategic goals to ensure visibility and accountability. 

In order to connect the work to the business, you need real-time visibility that aggregates team-level data and makes all work visible across the enterprise. This allows everyone – at all levels – to get on the same page and determine scope, roadmaps, and dependencies across teams and portfolios. This way, everyone knows that they’re working on the things that will deliver value to customers, keeping their morale high.

Delivering accurate forecasting

Problem: Poor measurement and reporting inhibit predictability. 

Your ability to scale work with predictable quality is paramount to delivering in the enterprise environment. When you can’t see the level of effort, complexity, and time it will take to complete a feature, you can’t trust your forecasts. When your reporting doesn’t reveal the full picture of what’s going on across teams and your program, and is not representative of what’s happening in real-time, you may be flying blind to your actual ability to deliver against commitments. 

Can OKRs accelerate your scaled agile transformation?

Solution: Find the right metrics – the ones that people are happy to report. 

When people know that they’re first measured on key results that lead to organizational outcomes – and not on how many story points they delivered compared to another team – they’re more likely to focus their role in the big picture. Tying your objectives to key results adds perspective and puts more of a focus on measuring what matters. This doesn’t mean you do away with delivery metrics; just that they should be used primarily by the delivery team to help them learn more about themselves.

Real-time reporting

Problem: Information is scattered among tools and reporting is manual and tedious.  

Without an integrated and automated system for reporting, the simple act of creating a basic status report can take hours of exporting, manipulating, and aggregating data from a wide number of sources. Program and portfolio managers fight an uphill battle just to understand progress against goals and report upward to executives.

Solution: With the right enterprise agile solution, you have a windowpane into your development organization. 

In order to deliver real-time feedback to the portfolio management team, you need consistent and reliable data that tells a straightforward story. The right frameworks and data integrations between your tools can save time when creating reports, allowing all stakeholders to understand issues and make better contributions to the process.

By day, program managers are instrumental in delivering organizational value, from interpreting top-line strategic goals to setting development teams up for success. By night, they’re likely still thinking about these challenges. Truly superheroes in their own right. To help them accomplish this work, it takes a heroic effort involving a systems approach to the work and managing complex dependencies across teams and programs, program managers can help teams increase quality and deliver on a predictable cadence. And with a combination of the right metrics and automated reporting, you can get a full picture of everything that’s in development and deliver feedback to portfolio managers that keeps them informed and builds confidence.

If you’re scaling agile to the program level and beyond, Jira Align delivers the tools needed to track and resolve program risks while keeping stakeholders informed. Visit us today and sign up for an overview of our program management solution – we’d love to show you around.

Agile Program Management: Top 5 Challenges