What is the Agile Sweet Spot?

An interesting question came to us from an executive sponsor of our initiative: “What is the sweet spot for Agile?”

My initial response was unspoken; “What do you mean, ‘sweet spot’?  Agile is best for all projects!”

Then, I thought better of that response.  He was, after all, an executive sponsor.  Too much passion may be passion, but it’s still too much.

So, I went away with this question in mind, and I’ve been thinking about it pretty much every day ever since.

I saw an article by Tom DeMarco in the IEEE Software magazine, entitled “Software Engineering: An Idea Whose Time Has Come and Gone?”.  In that article, he makes a great point: There are essentially two kinds of projects, ones that have significant value, and ones that have marginal value.

Tom makes the argument that marginal projects require greater control over the lifecycle in order to manage the expense versus the returned value.  Whereas, projects with a greater or more significant value relative to cost require less control.

This sets up a paradoxical situation.  Quoting Tom:

This leads us to the odd conclusion that strict control is something that matters a lot on relatively useless projects and much less on useful projects.

Nice!  That appealed to the elitist agilista in me.  But how was I supposed to go to the executive sponsor and say, “Well, Agile projects should be ‘restricted’ to those projects that matter most.  Use Waterfall for the projects that don’t matter.”?

No way.

But, what did dawn on me was that ‘projects that matter most’ is a good analog for strategic projects.  So what is the opposite of strategic..

I was watching some conference videos this evening, and one that showed on my radar was a talk by Martin Fowler in Australia at the Amplify ‘09 conference.

He makes an excellent case for strategic versus infrastructure.  And he gives the ratio of 80/20 or higher (i.e. 85/15 or 90/10) infrastructure to strategic.

Perfect.

That’s what I’ve been feeling, but didn’t have a way to say it.

Apply Agile to Strategic projects.  Apply Waterfall to Infrastructure projects.

I know.  You’re saying, based on my previous discussion above, that infrastructure doesn’t matter.  That’s not what I’m saying at all.

What  I am saying, echoing Martin’s presentation, is that infrastructure projects are more like commodities; there’s value, but it’s low margin.  And that’s okay.  In fact, we couldn’t do our business without it.

But, if you want bet your business projects to get the most value faster, you need to do it in an Agile way.

And it’s a lot easier to scale 20 percent, or less, of the project portfolio than a higher ratio.  And to get business buy-in and their dedicated time.  And justify cross-functional teams.  And justify co-location.  Etc.

I feel like I have something I can work with to answer the ‘Sweet Spot’ question.

Let me know if you have a counter to this, but I’m feeling pretty optimistic..

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