Sprints, scrums and burndowns

Agile project management may have originated in IT departments developing innovative software, but the techniques have spread throughout work practices, as John Lamb reports


The use of agile development techniques in IT departments has resulted in the production of faster, cheaper and more efficient software.

Now some organisations are extending agile methods to non-IT projects. Concepts pioneered in software development, such as so-called sprints, scrums and burndowns, are being deployed to solve a variety of business problems.

British Airways, for example, has used agile to develop new revenue streams. The airline established a number of Revenue Labs which in one case came up with a product for shipping that took just three weeks to put together.

Supply chain company Unipart, which runs warehouses on behalf of many of the UK’s largest companies, has invested £100 million in the Unipart Way, a set of tools and techniques for managing warehouses more efficiently.

Workers in Unipart facilities meet daily at communication centres to review their performance, identify problems and agree changes to working practices, with the aim of making continuous improvements.

Governments too have thrown their weight behind agile project management. In the UK the Department for Work & Pensions adopted the technique for the development of Universal Credit, an ambitious £2-billion effort to redesign the country’s tax system.

The Government Digital Service, set up to improve online services, has also scored hits with agile in developing the Gov.uk single portal and the e-petitions website. Both projects were completed for a fraction of the cost of previous development efforts.

“Just over a decade ago, a set of major management breakthroughs occurred,” says management consultant Stephen Denning. ”These breakthroughs enabled software development teams to systematically achieve both disciplined execution and continuous innovation.

“Over the last decade, these management practices, under various labels such as agile, scrum, kanban and lean, have been field-tested and proven in thousands of organisations around the world.”

Agile project management has its genesis in the 2001 Manifesto for Agile Software Development, which outlined 12 principles that revolved around quickly producing software, being prepared to make changes to it and involving customers in the process.

People rather than processes are at the centre of agile development and successful projects rely on leaders to drive them to completion

The emphasis in agile development is on breaking a project up into manageable pieces, called sprints, and working on them one at a time. Each sprint, lasting anywhere from one to three weeks, ends in delivering working software code.

Daily meetings, or scrums, are an important feature of the agile approach. Often conducted standing up, the short 15-minute get-togethers are an opportunity to review progress and set priorities for the day’s work. The list of priorities is known as a burndown.

In contrast to the traditional “waterfall” style of project management, in which specifications and outcomes are set at the beginning of a project, agile development aims to be as flexible as possible, making adjustments as work progresses.

Stakeholders or project owners are involved throughout an agile project, working as collaborators. People rather than processes are at the centre of agile development and successful projects rely on leaders to drive them to completion.

A number of big corporate hitters have chalked up significant software development successes using agile. GE Health, for example, was able to halve the time it took to complete a large software development.

“We liked the agile-based scrum approach of having the product owner as an integral part of the development team,” says Andrew Deitsch, vice president and general manager for GE Healthcare IT’s Imaging Solutions group.

“We hoped that adopting agile would break down these barriers and get the whole business working in unison to release the right product to our customers on time.”

The move towards agile has been helped by the growing importance of IT in business processes. This has prompted some observers to talk about the agile company, an organisation in which decision-making is passed down the line, making it more responsive to changes in markets. Tech leaders, such as Amazon, Apple and Salesforce, are held up as exemplars.

However, not everyone is convinced that agile can move easily out of the IT department. “In most cases the principles are more transferrable than the techniques,” argues Paul Wilson, a managing director of software company Neo Innovation, which worked on the government e-petitions project.

“People may say they are applying the lessons of agile, but they are applying ideas from outside software development. Techniques, such as lean, which started as a way of reducing waste at Toyota, have had just as much impact on the way business runs.”

Nonetheless, proponents insist that agile project management has had a major impact on corporate performance, raising quality, allowing for changes to projects, improved customer satisfaction, achieving better alignment between business and IT, and faster times to market.

“Agility is the umbrella attribute that enables companies to thrive. An agile company makes decisions differently by embracing a new, more bottom-up way to manage, one that enables the flexibility to embrace change,” concludes Forrester Research’s principal analyst Craig Le Clair.