How to Foster Agility in Fixed Scope Projects

Part one: Design Thinking and Deliberate Constraints

By Paula Moughton, Product Manager, Cognizant Softvision

As Product Managers, innovation of our process is where we find our biggest and most available opportunities to deliver value. This article will discuss how we can foster agility within our teams, specifically within the confines of fixed-scope, fixed-cost projects by employing processes with deliberate constraints. There will also be a focus on the deliberate constraints we adopt with Design Thinking methods, including Discovery and Design Sprints to bring creativity and agility when faced with fixed scopes and fixed budgets.

Our clients partner with us for some of their most difficult strategic initiatives. Prior to a client engaging with Cognizant Softvision, these high level initiatives have been prioritized and planned at the executive level. There is an appetite for investing significant money into achieving the successful business outcomes that these initiatives look to execute. They have budgets, timelines, and scope on what is to be ‘done’ for the initiative.

As a Product Management leader of software engineering teams employing agile practices, fixed-scope is one of the biggest and earliest anti-patterns to our methodology that we run into. It is also one of the first hurdles we look to overcome in order to get budgets approved so we can partner with our client and deliver the work.

Beginning a partnership with clearly defined expectations

When you need to replace an appliance in your kitchen, how often do we, as consumers, agree to pay for something without knowing whether or not we will get exactly what we want when we want it? Typically, never. If we expect this certainty when we buy things as consumers, then it’s understandable that our clients expect it when they partner with us for their strategic initiatives.

There are tried and tested practices for understanding the cost of a project. In software delivery teams we use the term “effort.” To our clients, “effort” is money. We use methods such as t-shirt sizing, to reduce effort at this early stage so we don’t waste too much time estimating unknowns. We state assumptions and potential risks to get a sense of why we estimated it to be a certain size or why it’s going to cost this much money to build. Finding alignment with our clients, this intentionally simple method allows us to start quicker so we can prioritize working software as our primary measure of progress, as opposed to accurate documentation. The information we initially have is as light as possible because we put value in early and continuous delivery over continuous planning. This process takes place early, so we can tell our clients how much it’s going to cost and, hopefully, begin our partnership.

Mitigating risk to deliver value

In theory, this is all great, but in practice, estimates are typically wrong. So, when we engage in delivering the thing we have promised, the anxiety we experience when things don’t move as we estimated is quickly realized with fixed-scope and fixed-cost projects because, for the client and the delivery team, it looks like you aren’t going to make it.

However, we can look to mitigate this risk by adopting agility so together we can respond to change quickly and keep driving to the expected successful outcomes. If scope can’t change, innovation of our process is where we find our biggest and most available opportunities to deliver this value.

It starts with the Discovery.

Using Design Thinking to explore problems and solutions

Cognizant Softvision’s Discovery process is rooted in Design Thinking methods to frame problems and solutions quickly in an accessible way. We explore the problem space, discuss potential solutions and adopt design sprints to build prototypes and test potential solutions.

Design Thinking methods ensure that a cross-functional audience, including people who are well versed in the process and people who have never worked with a software delivery team, can engage and contribute equally. Design Thinking is rooted in easy-to-apply actions that use deliberately simple tools to allow ideas to come and go fast. Alignment workshops can use metaphors and tell stories that involve characters so we can all relate whether we are a technical director or a point of sale representative. Also, these stories force us to look at a problem in a human centered way. Everything is time boxed in order to quickly move conversations toward shared alignment.

Following Discovery we should be able to estimate what it’s going to take to deliver the solution. If we estimate the cost of delivering a solution that has come about from a human-centered Discovery, we should at least have a road map that intends on delivering the strategic value our clients and their customers are looking for.

However, no matter how successful a Discovery, fixed-scope, fixed-cost projects can still feel like there are few allowable trade offs, and we risk getting to a point where it looks like we are not going to deliver as promised. So, how do we mitigate this risk as Product Managers? We look to innovate our processes.

This brings us to the Design Sprint.

The Design Sprint is a method rooted in Design Thinking that adopts the deliberate constraint of time boxing the creative process. Design Sprints are often followed during Discovery in order to explore potential ideas for the product — what it might look like, and what a user might actually do to achieve a goal. It provides a specific period of time to focus on ideas.

In part two we will explore how adopting the Design Sprint during the delivery phase of an engagement can drive the team to viable outcomes in fixed cost, fixed-scope projects with agility and a user-centric process.

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