Agile from the Professional Services Perspective


Recently I was asked whether Agile is a viable proposition for Professional Service Organisations (PSO) to use in the management of projects? If so, what factors need to be taken into account?

Before answering this, it’s important to note that while Agile is a framework for Software Delivery, it is not a project managment methodology. This is a common misunderstanding. It is crucial to understand this when dealing with multi-discipline and multi-team projects.

In Scrum, (an Agile approach) an ideal team is made up of between 6 and 8 co-located members, all focused on the delivery of a product. If that product is independent of all other products then Agile is sufficiently structured to act as a quasi project management methodology. However, for all other types of project it is insufficient. Agile ignores all of those project management tasks required to ensure each team is working in a manner that supports and facilitates the work of the other dependent teams. It also ignores all those activities such as business case development, status reporting and change management that, while not delivery tasks per se, can be the difference between project success and failure.

That said, it is still true that from the perspective of a PSO Agile is the optimal mode of solution delivery. It allows for certainty in the engagement; as the customer is actively involved on a daily basis. It significantly reduces the gaps in engagement. For example, where the solution is handed over for UAT and the team waits for feedback before being able to finish. This in turn allows for greater resource utilisation and this means each project is potentially more profitable.

So why don’t all PSO’s use Agile all the time? Simple – often the customer can’t or won’t commit to the level of engagement required. You know the story, the key people needed to make decisions and sign off on the solution all have day jobs which prevent them from being available when they need to be. This means that the project stalls, or worse yet, takes the wrong direction when working on an ambiguous requirement. This is the typical scenario when dealing with smaller customers in particular.

An additional complication to the above comes with the customer’s lack of an internal IT function. Why is this a problem? Well, it prevents a project being truly Agile, as they will not have the capacity to automate the delivery of the solution into production (i.e. continuous integration/continuous delivery – CICD). CICD is a mandatory element of Agile projects which is often overlooked. Furthermore, if you don’t do it, then you aren’t truly Agile.

The PSO can set up CICD to deliver into an interim environment (usually a test environment); then manually release into production. This is a hybrid solution that will allow development to continue while the customer tests what has been delivered. Of course, in smaller projects the CICD overhead just isn’t worth it, as end to end the project is only going to be 1 or 2 sprints in duration (2-8 weeks). That is unless the customer wants to become Agile. In that case, setting up the automation mechanism becomes a proejct in its own right.

One other obstacle for a PSO using Agile to deliver a project is the contract itself. Many customers will view the initial statement of work as being a fixed price, no matter how you word it. The result is a rigidity in the project that prevents the team reacting to change in the way that Agile promotes. The change process has to be formal out of necessity for the PSO. It is the only way that a PSO can hold the customer to account for spurious changes, delays and the resulting cost overruns.



Agile in Mixed/Outsourced Environments


In 2011 I wrote a dissertation on Agile and outsourcing. After analysing all of the data I had collected along side that publicly available from various sources including Microsoft, Ambysoft ( and The Agile Alliance the only conclusion I could reach is that Agile and Outsourcing were incompatible. The fundamental obstacle was the contract between the vendor and the client.

Things have come a long way since then and it is possible to run projects in an agile manner. But only if the client understands the level of commitment required on their part. Having been on both sides of the contract I am finding that there is still a disconnect here. Often the expectation is that an Agile project can be run with the same level of customer engagement as a project run under a waterfall methodology, with a greater degree of success.

I exclude body shop engagements from the above as in those cases the reality is that the customer isn’t paying for the delivery of a project they are paying for the use of a specific type of resource/expertise.

So when are outsourced Agile projects successful? When the vendor is responsible for the delivery of the solution and has full commitment from the customer to be available at the agreed level. It all lies in the structure of the contract. The contract needs to be balanced and clear about the responsibilities of both parties and state the consequences from a delivery perspective if any of those responsibilities are not met.

Agile also does not work under a fixed price contract as the core tenet of Agile is the ability to deal with change. and fixed price is the antithesis of change.

Failure to acknowledge any of this is a recipe for disaster.