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Jonathan Reichental doesn't shy away from a challenge. Two years ago, he left a 20-plus year IT career in the private sector to take a CIO position for the City of Palo Alto, part of California's Silicon Valley. But when Reichental arrived, he noticed the city's IT practices did not reflect the same entrepreneurial savvy that permeated the city's storied tech community.
The city's IT employees weren't nimble-footed; they spent years conceiving, planning, building and testing products before releasing them to production. The website redesign that IT had been working on for three-and-a-half years prior to Reichental's start was one example. "They were perfecting this thing, and they couldn't go live," he said.
But if Reichental wanted to ease his new employees into more operationally efficient processes, he was out of luck because, as he soon learned, his six-month evaluation hinged on pushing that redesign out the door. So Reichental had to create a new world order; he did so by introducing his staff to agile principles.
Reichental isn't the only CIO trying to turn legacy IT organizations -- and entire enterprises -- on their heads via agility. Rather, it's a sign of the times: Mobile, social, cloud and big data are raining down on IT while the lines of business try to figure out what's working, what isn't and what might be the next big thing -- faster than the competition. But how to make that happen? To manage the increased complexity, IT departments need to veer away from long project management cycles, according to experts. They need to embrace faster deployments that can change course quickly based on customer feedback. Building out agile principles from small IT projects to the enterprise, however, won't be easy, these experts warn.
Lean Startup: Get ready to communicate
Reichental's Web redesign is a case in point. The agile principles Reichental introduced to his staff were rooted in the Lean Startup approach. Conceived by serial entrepreneur-turned-consultant Eric Ries, Lean Startup combines concepts from agile development and lean manufacturing as a way to build nimble but economical operations. Today, Ries' advice is finding its way into the nooks and crannies of established companies, nonprofit organizations and even the U.S. government.
As things change, the most important thing is to really have the agility to change your plan with it and how you operate and how your team operates with it.
Mojgan Lefebvre, CIO, Liberty Mutual Global Specialty
The crux of the method lies in building products quickly while cutting down on wasted resources (i.e., time and money) by incorporating early-market response, according to Reichental. The feedback becomes an essential part of a quick iteration loop, indicating to the business what should stay -- and what should go -- in the next product release. Reichental decided the approach was exactly what he needed to get the Palo Alto's website redesign into production.
"Basically, we went out with a beta version of that site to our community," he said. "We told them, 'This is not a production site; it's just an early version. We want your feedback.'"
Due to the city's active community base, the project generated plenty of customer feedback that could be incorporated into the final version, which officially launched less than four months after Reichental joined as CIO.
But -- just as experts warn -- it wasn't all easy sailing: One of the big bumps Reichental had to overcome was a cultural one. Members of his staff were initially uncomfortable releasing a product -- even in beta version -- they felt was unpolished and flawed, he said.
"And my argument was you tell people what you're doing. You tell them this is an early version for the purposes of feedback. You communicate loud and clear," he said.
Adapting agile to enterprise-size projects
The agile principles that speed along a small project like Reichental's can work for large projects too -- but the difficulty level increases with the size of the project, said Nathan Wilson, a Gartner analyst and speaker at the consultancy's Application Architecture, Development & Integration Summit in late 2012. And timing can be tricky.
It's the need to balance the cost of not having a perfect solution with the cost of not having a solution out there.
Nathan Wilson, Gartner analyst
"It's the need to balance the cost of not having a perfect solution with the cost of not having a solution out there," he said.
Part of the difficulty in becoming agile stems from the sprawling nature of the modern enterprise and the complexity of its products. Today, project teams can include thousands of employees who don't operate out of the same office, don't live in the same time zone, aren't working on the same product component and don't use the same development practices, Wilson said. And yet, together, these teams have to meet the needs of the business.
Mojgan Lefebvre, CIO and senior vice president of the Boston-based Liberty Mutual Global Specialty, couldn't agree more.
"Really, for me, the most important thing in a CIO's role is to understand what the business strategy is, then to have the IT roadmap that actually supports that strategy," she said. "As things change, the most important thing is to really have the agility to change your plan with it and how you operate and how your team operates with it."
That means thinking about what obstacles might get in the way of agile principles, such as bureaucracy, slow development and an inability to make quick decisions. "All of these things go to governance," she said.
And, according to Matthew Hotle, a Gartner analyst who presented alongside Wilson at the Application Architecture, Development & Integration Summit, for IT governance to keep pace, IT will need to speed up the way it improves or updates those cycles, matching the business's pace.
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"Now you've got to pay attention to the governance of the business. You've got to pay attention to where the organization is headed," he said.
Even so, not all systems or software development needs to happen at breakneck speed. Wilson and Hotle suggest building what they call a pace-layered application strategy, a way to segment and manage an organization's systems based on their rates of change. In this model, applications are tagged as one of three categories: systems of record, where 75% to 80% of applications reside and the rate of change is slow; systems of differentiation, which change more quickly than systems of record and are industry-specific; or systems of innovation, applications that see a tremendous amount of change within a short period of time.
"The closer you get to the top of the stack -- the top being systems of innovation -- the more you have to do agile," said Hotle. "You can't do a 12-month waterfall when you're doing a system of innovation."
Let us know what you think of this story; email Nicole Laskowski, senior news writer.
This was first published in September 2013