3 actionable tips ‘from the trenches’ to succeed with agile

You can’t just rely on having the right tools and processes in place to succeed with an agile approach, you have to focus on the people that will be following the methodology, according to a payments processor that’s dedicated four years to transformation.

That was a key learning shared during an IT World Canada webinar, Digital transformation stories from the trenches: Why an agile approach is essential to survive, sponsored by CA Technologies. Anthony Noble, the program director of Cincinnati, Ohio-based payments processor Vantiv Inc. has been working on implementing agile methodology since 2013. He wanted to adopt the increasingly popular project management approach because it’s meant to help teams respond to change by requiring its adopters use an iterative approach while monitoring quantitative feedback. In Noble’s eyes, it was also a ticket to a company that was more customer-focused and more product-focused. But it wasn’t working out at first.

“Our transformation became stagnant,” he says. “We had some pockets of success but we didn’t really get the amount of true change that we were looking for.”

Digital transformation trenches webinar speakers
IT World Canada’s own Jim Love hosted the webcast sponsored by CA Technologies, available to watch on demand.

To shake things up, Vantiv turned to CA and transformation consultant and services director Skip Angel. Beyond implementing CA’s Agile Central platform (which at the time was Rally Software – CA acquired Rally in July 2015), Noble worked with Angel as a coach to help implement the transformation he was looking for at Vantiv. Today, it continues to run an Agile Centre of Excellence to oversee agile practices and Noble says employee engagement has never been better.

Here’s three actionable tips that Vantiv and CA used to achieve agile success:

Bring in an outsider

Angel has 25 years of software development experience and now helps implement several agile techniques as a coach and mentor. Whether it’s lean startup principles, leadership agility, or the Scrum approach, Angel helps shine a little light down on organizations facing challenges with agile implementation. As with Vanity’s case, challenges are normal.

Coming into Vantiv’s organization, Angel could see that from a technical standpoint, a lack of automation and a lack of quality of systems was hurting the business. Problems also extended into operations.

“There was a lack of standardization, there was a lack of constant delivery, and that was causing some problems with customers,” he says.

To get started, he took advantage of the corporate initiative to work beyond the IT department. He talked with the leadership in the lines of business and all the way up the executive chain to understand how he could help bring IT into the business.

“i wanted to really hear what some of their challenges were and what they felt agile would make better,” he says. “We’re not just putting things in place without trying to solve real problems.”

That’s the power of bringing in someone from outside the organization to help with a transformation project, Noble says. They can help take an objective look at the people involved and instead of conceding in some areas, help to change habits.

“We had the daunting task for transforming over 100 teams to be agile,” he says. “We really needed to focus on the people, the people are what makes it happen.”

Plan to train teams with consistent approach

To get started, Vantiv and CA prepared a consistent approach so that each of the teams would go through the same steps of formation and execution, with the goal of creating a shared culture in mind. Here’s what the process looked like:


  • The team resourcing phase included identifying the key roles for each team and then setting the rosters, which contained names and start dates. An agile coach was assigned and agile training materials were made available. As the Product Manager began the prioritization and assessment of the team ready to accept the existing workload, the new team’s availability window was communicated to transformation stakeholders.


  • During week one, team chartering was the focus. This meant the team attended an ‘Agile 101’ class to start, then went on to discuss the product requirements and designs. A product vision and the targeted personas are discussed and the key performance indicators are set. The initial user stories are developed and the initial plans are set for team co-location options.
  • For week two, how the team will work together and what roles members will have are set. The stories are sized and estimates are developed. Knowing the KPIs from week one, a plan for measuring progress is determined. The content is groomed for initial sprints and all the assets needed are shared across the team.


  • For the sprints, Vantiv used an iterative pattern and did quarterly value reviews to check the team’s health and make sure progress towards objectives was being achieved.

As more teams were trained, Noble charted Vantiv’s progress through four levels of maturity. At first it was dedicated teams addressing a backlog of projects, then it was using internal teams to train up other teams, and eventually it was full organizational agility. By using a consistent approach with each team and tracking their progress, Noble was able to identify the common blockers that were encountered at each step of the way and begin accounting for them.

“If you haven’t had a blocker, you’re not doing it well,” commented Love. “That’s natural, that’s going to happen.”

Do the hardest thing first

And Vantiv didn’t start off with the low hanging fruit. Instead, it chose to train its mainframe team that used COBOL to assemble applications, sometimes working for a few decades in the same model, as its starting point. A bold move that proved to be a good place to start, Angel says.

“You’d think it would never work with that technology, with that group of people that had done the same thing forever,” he says. “One of the most pivotal things was this was a team that doubted they could go to agile and they touched every other team in some way. To address that coordination that has to happen, that took away a lot of the fears and uncertainty and it became more of a pull in the organization instead of a push.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jacksonhttp://www.itbusiness.ca/
Former editorial director of IT World Canada. Current research director at Info-Tech

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