The Agile Tribe

Opening up an Agile window to let opportunity fly in – co-locating SMEs

on January 6, 2010

Author: Cara Talbot

In my organisational experience to date the level of Subject Matter Expert (SME)’s co-location and engagement has strengthened from project to project. Thinking of how things were only a few years ago compared to our current state, there is just no comparison.

One project team’s perspective
We (my project team and I) have a current Project Owner and SME who both attend 95% of our daily standups – between them attendance is around 99%. We have a Programme Owner who, without invitation, has jumped onto our build environment to play with our online claims prototype, and then emailed the team with several suggestions and enhancements. 66% of the members of our Steering Committee attend 100% of our showcases.

Our Project Owner is such an advocate of the project that she has voluntarily presented work to date to various Managers and Executives in addition to and outside of our scheduled showcases and usability sessions. Sometimes this has been arranged without mentioning it to the rest of the team, which has presented interesting results when we’ve been testing and deploying – but hey, the enthusiasm and support from her of the technical team is to be commended! The team feels valued and by default collaborates more directly with her and other SMEs and so the ‘meeting of the minds’ is further strengthened.

We still have a ways to go, but how have we got to where we are? Often SMEs want to see results before they’ll provide buy in, so we can probably all talk of experiences of the chicken and egg scenario of how we can prove their co-location on a project will provide dividends prior to having them co-locate with us!

Keys and challenges to success
I can’t speak for other projects however for us it’s been, I think successful, largely due to seizing any opportunity to engage SMEs in value added Agile activities, so you can quickly turn around and demonstrate the results. We lost our Business Analyst recently (to our Sydney office. Ahem.) and had a lag time prior to having a new recruit join the team.

In the interim we had a half share of another Business Analyst who was also working on the support team. We therefore had a desk free, in the team space, for a half day every day. Our project owner agreed with our proposal that in providing a dedicated SME to cover this half day with the team, we could maintain progress during a vital period of development (beginning of sprint 3). Team velocity dipped slightly during this iteration as you’d expect with resource interruptions, handover and new arrivals getting up so speed, however by the end of sprint 4 our velocity had jumped by 13% compared to our average to date at that time, and a whopping 30% increase from our dip in sprint 3.

Part of that jump was also reflected in the drop in change requests coming across, although I could also suggest that that having a co-located SME seeing Agile development ‘in the raw’ provided a unique insight much more quickly in terms of understanding the impact that decisions can make on changes – the SME himself referred constantly to our focussing question (relating it to whether the change requests were adding value to the project/end user) … in addition, to turning around decisions of what was IN (and therefore what was OUT) much more quickly.

A genuine partnership has formed
Our project team is now back to being fully resourced, so logically we could have lost our SME … however, he still spends every morning sitting with the team, and helping out when needed.

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2 responses to “Opening up an Agile window to let opportunity fly in – co-locating SMEs

  1. SA says:

    Hi Cara, I just wondered how did you and the team react (just going on my own reaction when I first read this) when your Programme Owner without invitation, played with the prototype, and then emailed the team with their suggestions and enhancements. Agile of course is about being adaptable and collaborative but I would have thought it may have been confronting. Did they have an Agile background/experience before they were involved in this project?

  2. Cara Talbot says:

    Hi there… thanks for your comment!

    My understanding was that the stakeholders hadn’t had much contact with Agile projects prior to the project until this one. They had heard of the method and some but not many had had been involved with an Agile project previously so they weren’t entirely sure of what role they were asked to play on this one.

    The team (incl developers) did a series of induction kick offs and workshops with them at the outset, and encouraged them to look at any part of the project (marketed on our wall, links within charters, emailing them links to confluence etc…).

    Interestingly our team’s social charter indicated upfront their wish to actively engage. One of the charter statements included – which stakeholders came up with with: “Stakeholders will ‘make’ time needed for the [dev] team when required”, so when our Programme Owner indicated a wish to take a closer look at the prototype the team took it as a positive rather than negative sign.

    I think the upfront workshops we undertook to introduce them to Agile really helped, so they understood that the feedback was exactly that – suggestions that we then took back and ranked in terms of priority with our end user groups (customers and brokers). Overall I think the genuineness to help and add value was there upfront, and the developers were surprised but happily engaged with the level of stakeholder involvement; given they knew the stakeholders had an understanding of adding changes in the Agile context (user group priority, something in, something out).

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