What Agile can learn from the construction industry?

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Agile was, in reality, invented by the building industry, and discovered and reinvented by software engineers.

The story of the Tower of Babel shows how a project to build a tower that reaches heaven can suddenly fail if its participants are forced to switch from one common language to multiple unrelated languages.

Construction projects are the ultimate scaled agile endeavors. There are multiple streams working at the same time. A workforce of non-complimentary specializations needs to operate in tandem and across streams – whether it be the plumber, plasterer, or brick layer.

To date, of the five scaled agile projects that I’ve helped turn around, all had the same six common issue areas.

If a construction project contained any of these issues, it would be heading either for litigation or for a building code violation. For this reason, I often ask myself why sponsors of software projects persistently turn a blind eye.

  • No detailed solution roadmap: The roadmap can change, but there should be one. It is the blueprint to the building.
  • Non-existent mapping cash burn to end business objective. From team to program level, do not assume that just because it is agile, it will deliver. Every contractor should be able to tell you what a piece of work will cost.
  • Lacking a set common standard: Agree documentation, planning, reporting, handover, testing, sprint timings, and project language standards. Imagine the mess if the plumber for the sewage did not understand what the plumber who fitted the drinking water planned to do.
  • Coaching followed by QA audits did not happen: In large, scaled agile projects some teams will perform well, others need more coaching. An end-to-end ongoing coaching and QA audit keeps everyone on the same page. Every building has a foreman and a quality inspector for good reason.
  • Stories too big to achieve in one sprint by one person: Normally, this is a sign that the scrum leader may need coaching. It may take two months to waterproof the roof, but it can be broken down into stages.
  • Belief that Agile is a methodology and not a framework. Agile needs to be tuned to a specific organizational anthropology, technology, and organizational state. A building project needs to be adjusted to the country, climate, and society where it is being run.

Agile was, in reality, invented by the building industry, and discovered and reinvented by software engineers. It is designed to handle the uncertainty of the weather, the ground around the building site, changing regulatory and customer needs, and a whole lot more. However, just like building a tower, it isn’t a replacement for good project management.

If you would like to know more about how enterprise agile can be managed effectively, feel free to reach out to me.

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