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An Introduction to Agile Project Intake

Challenges, learnings, and best practices: Part 1

03/27/2015 by Eric Aker,Gaurav Mehra

Are you part of a wonderful Scrum team that sometimes hits roadblocks for reasons that could have been discovered early on? Do you belong to a program or organization that is in transition from traditional development methods to Agile ones? Or is your organization starting the journey to develop agility? We have good news and (some) bad news for you! Good news first: Most studies with data spanning the past decade show that Agile development practices reduce project failure rates and improve customer satisfaction. The bad news is that many Agile initiatives still fail. Most Agile practices are still challenged in the overall project success rate when measured based on time, budget, and all planned features delivered.

Many factors play a part in the success or failure of any Agile initiative. We will present a series of articles to analyze the one factor that we deem most important: the intake of Agile projects. We have found most Agile frameworks to be silent about the intake process. It is an empirical fact that up-front evaluation and planning is key to the success of any project or larger initiative, and Agile development methods pretend nothing different. Thus the implementation of adequate Agile project intake practices can dictate the success of a Scrum team, program, and its ecosystem.

Some questions you may ask are: What is Agile project intake? How is it different from what we have traditionally done? Why should we do anything different for the intake of Agile projects? This article series tries to answer these questions and more. In this first article, we introduce the concept of Agile project intake and touch on relevant challenges. In subsequent articles we will discuss real-world challenges using nonattributable examples, suggest a framework, cite lessons learned, consider best practices, and conclude the series with a nonattributable case study.

What is Agile project intake?

Put simply, Agile project intake is a multistage process for reviewing and evaluating organizational needs that convert into projects, beginning with request submission and moving to the initiation, prioritization, and approval phases. The goal is to assess not only whether the project will feasibly address the organizational need but also what method is best suited to undertake the endeavor given the organizational environment, structure, availability of resources, and time.

How is it different from what we have traditionally done?

In many ways, Agile project intake is no different from the intake processes traditionally used by organizations, except that it aims to also assess, given the known facts at the time of evaluation, whether the proposed initiative is a better fit for Agile development than for traditional Waterfall, or vice versa. The results may lead to either a choice of adequate execution methods or, at the very least, make the management and delivery teams aware of threats and opportunities, allowing for efficacious risk management.

Why is Agile project intake important?

A clear understanding and execution of an Agile project intake process dictates the success of the project, which is why it is important to us and why we think it is important to you. Project intake is an essential component in the overall delivery work flow -- and it is often the least visible.

Traditionally, in most medium-to-large organizations, project intake tends to be primarily controlled by middle-tier management, often with minimal information to and input from the implementers. In the spirit of Agile methods, however, Agile project intake practices encourage an open and honest project evaluation by all parties, be they pigs or chickens. By increasing accountability, you can cultivate a workplace full of empowered and motivated individuals. Along with improved motivation, your organization will benefit from increased up-front time-boxed analysis and more realistic project estimates and forecasts, to include effort, duration, and budget. This increased accuracy will in turn lead to better-targeted communication and setting of expectations with customers and clients, leading to increased customer and client satisfaction. The ultimate goal for every business!

Given the likely behavioral response to positive reinforcement, positive outcomes will encourage teams to get closer to their optimal performance and thus more predictable and efficient project intake. Yes, this could be the virtuous cycle you have been searching for!

We state that if the requisite time and focus is given to the intake of Agile projects instead of passing them off as mere formalities, then organizations, programs, and teams will experience better alignment and overall efficiencies. Simply making an engineering team Agile does not make the program or organization Agile; this requires a change in organizational behavior. Introducing an agility assessment into the project intake process broadens these horizons across departments and layers.

Our next article will dive into some of the challenges of implementing and managing an Agile project intake process, and it will also provide a framework to guide our discussion.