July 2013

Agile Project Execution Leads to Rapid Innovation

by Juan Riboldi

Case Summary

Situation: Technology product consistently missed market deadlines causing customer complaints and low competitiveness.

What We Did: Implemented agile project execution principles and practices

Outcomes: Started delivering five innovative product features to the market each month



“Your job is to get the product back on track” said David, the company’s CFO, as he gave Ascent Advisor consultants their assignment. David’s final remarks summarized the challenge: “We have missed important market deadlines for too long. Now, we need to catch up, deliver what was promised and regain a leadership position. We need Engineering to deliver the product roadmap.”

This innovative New York City technology startup had a big promise to live up to: to automate personalized marketing. The young founders soon found themselves in front of a fast-growing company at the leading edge of technology with an expanding customer base and growing market expectations.

We had worked with them in the early stages of the start-up was no longer carrying them along. Up to this point, not one of the founders had ever managed more than five people, let alone lead an organization fast approaching 300! Even after adding seasoned executives, most of the workforce was young and rather inexperienced.

Most decisions were run by the executives. Everyone acted as if they reported directly to an executive. There were many competing priorities, escalating assignments and no established process. In survival mode, accountability did not happen.

Execution was the obvious place to start. Ascent Advisor consultants focused on setting goals as the priority. For the Engineering team, that meant creating a 12-month roadmap breaking down all development work into epics, themes, stories and tasks. This allowed the Engineering team to set realistic goals for the year and for the next 3 months into 2-week sprints, which were further defined into 1-2 day tasks. This goal-hierarchy helped Engineers focus on priorities while understanding the connecting between their daily tasks and the big picture. Moreover, by breaking down larger objectives into specific tasks, people were able to make more accurate estimates and doable plans.

The agile mindset emphasized completing deliverables within sprints. Working in sprints helped Engineers reassess all their activities in light of what they can achieve in the next two weeks. Daily Scrums consisted of daily 10-minute huddles to report on progress against goals to peers, standing by the Scrum Board.

At one critical point a team leader refused to write down every single task in a card just to be displayed on a board. “What’s the point?” he demanded, “I don’t have time to write each task in a card.” The CTO calmly replied that he would like to know what he and his team are working on. In frustration, this team leader hastily scribbled several cards with lots of tasks. “There you have it,” he said as he posted several cards on the board. The CTO step forward and read several of the cards with interest, then he asked: “Are you going to do all these things in the next two weeks?” The team leader looked puzzled. “Well not all of them . . . some may take a lot longer than two weeks.” To which the CTO replied, “Just post the tasks you will do in the next two weeks!” Only a few cards were left on the board showing what this team leader was committing to get done.

In an environment where almost all tasks were done in response to a crisis, the Engineering team began managing the workload according to a plan. As a result, product features that had been chronically behind schedule, were now being released on a regular and timely basis. The company was able to meet its promise to customers as it continued to grow.

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Cameron Wilkinson | Director of Business Development
801.900.6002 | cwilkinson@ascent-advisor.com