If it really was all about business value my life would be so much easier

The principles behind the Agile Manifesto state Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software. I’ve often heard this shortened into a frequently used battle-cry of Agile: It’s all about business value!.

This is an incredibally liberating and empowering statement. It tells us that we have a concrete, measurable, fulcrum we can measure all our decisions upon. Should we implement feature A or feature B? Well think about how much each are worth! Should we write this support documentation? Well, is the company going to save money by having it? And so on.

But there’s a problem. How many people in an organisation actually care about business value? Sure, the CEO probably does. He needs to justify the bottom line of the company accounts to the board. And so, by the chain of responsiblity, should everyone else in the organisation. But what if someone doesn’t. How does an Agile project justify its existence and practices then?

An immediate counterpoint may be ‘well, if there’s an Agile project happening in a company, then obviously someone believes in business value, and they take the responsiblity for the justification’. Great, but there’s more than one stakeholder a project has to deal with, and what happens when some of those people don’t care about business value? What if they only care about process? What if, at the end of the day, they only care about doing work they can’t get fired for? How does Agile prove itself here? And no, you can’t just ignore those people. If you do, your project is doomed to fail.

In my experience Agile can be promoted as a worthwhile change in process without using the argument of business value, but it’s hard work. It gets harder the bigger the project, the more visibility the project has within the organisation, and the more bureauocratic the organisation is. Arguments about quality, visibility, repeatiblity, etc can be used, but effectively what’s needed is a knowledge about what motivates every individual within the stakeholder community. If that community conists of 50+ people, that’s a lot of work, requires a lot of patience, and needs (at least) an experienced Agile project manager or Agile coach. Even then there’s going to be a certain amount of extra work required within the team to satisfy the environment in which the project lives.

Of course, there’s also a danger that not even the project sponsor really cares about business value. Maybe they had ulterior motives when they picked the methodology or supplier, or maybe they move on from the project. In this environment, Agile can still win, but until Agile becomes ‘mainstream’ any such project is in a dangerous place and such teams need to tread carefully.

Looking forwards optimistically though, what if the Agile Software movement changed not just the world of software development, but also helped to bring about a more ‘agile oriented’ business world in general; one where business value, respect, individuals and interactions, and the ability to change were valued more highly than process, sticking to the rules, or making decisions based on how they would impact ‘me’ rather than ‘us’? In this business world, my life would indeed be easier.

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