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Dennis Stevens on the Hardest Problems of Enterprise Software

Dennis Stevens from Synaptus was the December speaker for SoftwareGR. His blandly titled but very energetically delivered talk, “Agile Program Management”, touched on some of the hardest software problems in the enterprise today. The 30+ attendees seemed to appreciate both the problems he described and the techniques he’s used to solve them.

Here’s a video of the talk.

Dennis shared a Capability Model and a lightweight means of identifying which specific efforts will deliver the most business value. In his approach, business value is decomposed into epics, features, and stories. Teams run “little agile” (i.e. Scrum, XP) processes, the PMO tracks feature flow with Kanban and steering committees or executive sponsors see the flow of epics with Kanban. He talked about the importance of avoiding local optimizations at the expense of delivering business value from the enterprise. A lot of his approach seems to be summed up in the statement, “Value trumps flow, flow trumps waste reduction.

Dennis told a story about working with a manufacturer in an agile adoption project. They were 20% through the project. He shared the status with the customer, pointing out that the project was behind schedule. The customer’s response was, “I knew this agile stuff didn’t work. In our old process we never had these kinds of problems until we were 80 or 90% through the project.” The point about agile shining a light on things that are broken is one we all need to remember. (I experienced this first hand today helping to analyze a project and deciding how to communicate to the customer a 2% budget variation one third of the way through a $250k project. We wanted them to know we were measuring and how things were tracking, but we didn’t want to set off any alarms unnecessarily.)

Obligatory controversial statement: Dennis says Jeff Patton stole his ideas for story mapping (and smiled).

To learn more, Dennis suggested Dean Leffingwell’s book, Scaling Software Agility: Best Practices for Large Enterprises or David Anderson’s book, KANBAN, SUCCESSFUL EVOLUTIONARY CHANGE FOR YOUR TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS for a good introduction to the topic. Dennis’s blog and Mike Cottmeyer’s blog are also good reads. He and like-minded “scaling agile to the enterprise” people hang out at the KanbanDev Yahoo Group and the Lean Software and Systems Conference.