Agile Professional Services?

Professional Services is clearly not my area of expertise (I have not been a contract-based service provider first hand) but I enjoy participating in the #ProfServ Twitter Chat led by @KRCraft @Berkson0 and @fredmcclimans (bi-weekly, next Dec 23rd 10PM EST).

In the last chat a week ago, I was hearing about the challenges contractors and service providers face in defining and managing scope and billing customers. Service Providers need to limit the amount of “free consulting” and then be careful defining the acceptance criteria of the project. Customers worry about escalating hours/costs and false “success” that does not deliver the business benefits. That difference in perspective also manifests in the conflict between Time&Materials or Fixed price models.

It is not too difficult to see that the issue is the same software companies face internally: The engineering department provides service, the product marketing department is the internal “customer”. Engineering never knows how much time a project requires and Marketing never knows the true market requirements in advance. Yet both pretend they know everything, sign up for very detailed  and structured 12-month product development plans. And fail miserably.

The Agile software development process emerged in its current form as incremental software development methods as the pendulum moved from the ad-hoc methods of the 70’s and  80’s to the extreme ISO9000-like planning of the 90’s and back. The Agile Manifesto came out in 2001.

I was sure it was not a new idea, but I thought: “Does it make sense to think about Agile Professional Services?”

After some time in Google, I am surprised that, though it is indeed not a new idea, it is under-explored. I haven’t been able to find good articles or material exploring the extension of Agile processes outside an organization.

My bullet-level description of an agile process (not necessarily the “A”gile Process) is:

  • People, interactions, working systems, embracing of constant change are more important than processes, tools, documentation, plans.
  • Partnership and mutual trust are essential. Communicate constantly, and at least daily without exception. Easy to say, hard to practice.
  • It is important to share a vision, the notion of success, and understand who the user is.
  • Don’t pretend you know every step of where and how. Agree on the direction, establish short-term incremental goals. Slides, plans, ideas are not acceptable deliverables. You must get to something incremental but tangible and demonstrable.
  • Execute, Evaluate, Adjust based on user feedback in quick iterations (in SW development, that means “Sprints” of 2-4 weeks).
  • Jointly measure actual progress and use that to plan the next iteration.
  • Rinse, Repeat.

I don’t really know how to translate it to the Professional Service world. Maybe, it would mean something like (a) establish trust and common vision, (b) run a sequence of incremental fixed-scope, fixed-price iterations grouped into a larger open scope that evolves as the project takes form.

Even in the software development area today, when a project is contracted to external organizations, we tend to gravitate towards fixed scope/price, traditional project management, not agile. The communication requirements of an agile process are difficult to implement with external parties.

So the question remains: Does Agile Professional Services make sense?

6 thoughts on “Agile Professional Services?

  1. The problem I struggle with is multiple projects.

    AGILE makes sense when there is no clear ‘end date’. But when there is an explicit (or even implicit in terms of customer sat) date the customer THINKS ‘this’ should be DONE BY, then I cannot see how you would not have to scale your AGILE teams in proportion to the effort.

    AGILE = CUSTOMER IMPLEMENTATION = One AGILE team per customer. Which means if the custer goes over 3 sprints, doesn’t this make the next customer in the ‘queue’ angry?

  2. Awesome thought provoking content! Not only does agile make sense for Professional Services, it makes sense for all 21st century business. If you truly practice and understand agile techniques and culture, the current ways of business, their silos, and their over-processed processes appear ridiculous.

  3. We LOVE agile. There is some customer education that is necessary since its not something that they are used to but if they catch on, the project goes so much better. They appreciate the sprint cycles and look forward to getting the new features to test and use in a short amount of time rather than waiting til the end of a project.

    It makes sense that if agile is good for software development then why not customer engagements. We always learn more about ourselves, our work and our customers so why not our projects and the needs of a customer.

    This idea definitely has some legs and given enough thought could take off.

    Thanks for sharing.


  4. Alan:

    In sync.

    The counterpoint to “client just want to know how much its going to cost” is that “consultant will use up all hours in the budget”. That is why mutual trust and partnership is so critical for anything that is not fixed scope/fixed cost.

  5. Marcio,
    Agile professional services makes sense in some cases, similar to software development. Let’s take a CRM implementation. For 5 users, it’s pretty straightforward. For 500 users across multiple departments, not so much. As the scope of the project grows, so does the uncertainty and hence the risk of failure.

    Now let’s take something more complex: disaster recovery planning. How do spec out a project where you don’t even know the scope? Here is a case where small, manageable projects can be scoped out along the path. First piece? Perhaps get all the stakeholders to weigh in on objectives and summarize. And so on.

    The challenge is always that the client just wants to know how much its going to cost. It requires educating the client. Think about going to a doctor. There is a flat fee for the initial consult, but the diagnosis and remediation cost is unknown. Cat scans, medications, specialists — it can all add up.

    Looking forward to see what people have to say on the #profserv chat.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s