Agile practices are not just for software development teams sprinting to code, test, and release applications. Agile methodologies, including scrum and Kanban, are being used today by a variety of business, data science, and technology teams, including IT operations.
Although agile methodologies can be applied to IT operations successfully, there are some notable differences in the charter, priorities, and culture of operating teams that need consideration. Understanding these differences and then defining strategic priorities structure how self-organizing IT operations teams can execute on their initiatives and be better members of other multidisciplinary agile teams.
Here are three steps to consider.
Redefine IT operations’ mission and charter
IT operations team members view their primary job as keeping the lights on for production, departmental, and development networks, systems, applications, and databases. Many follow ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) processes for incident, problem, and change management and use ticketing systems such as Cherwell, Jira Service Desk, and ServiceNow to track them. When employees and other end-users need help or have different system requirements, IT operations also rely on these systems to capture requests and support their workflows.
The CIO will probably have one or more strategic roadmaps that heavily rely on IT operational teams. CIOs likely have a mix of mobile, digital transformation, cloud, and data strategies where IT operations can play both primary and supporting roles. Priorities may include cloud migrations, infrastructure projects, major upgrades to enterprise systems, new support models for SaaS tools, compliance audits, installation of new collaboration and workflow tools, ERP upgrades, and office moves.
The question is how will IT operations manage the work tied to these initiatives? Agile methodologies are ideally suited for many of them, especially when there are ill-defined up-front requirements, technical unknowns, or conflicting priorities.
But because many in IT operations view agile practices as a development methodology, it requires some coaching and discussion on their more vital mission, the scope of responsibilities, and ways to manage their work.
Specifically, many in IT operations are more accustomed to being task driven by project managers. They have not had the opportunity to specify how best to engineer and implement solutions, sequence the work, and mitigate risks because of technical unknowns. Agile methodologies address these shortcomings of top-down project management. They require engineers to step into agile roles, participate in ceremonies, and use agile tools to understand a new way of working.
Redefine agile methodologies for IT operations
Agile leaders can’t just apply out-of-the-box scrum or Kanban to IT operations teams. Several significant differences in the culture and operating model need consideration. Here are a few steps to review as a group:
- Redefine agile roles. Most IT operations don’t have product owners assigned to their initiatives. At best, they may have project sponsors and analysts who write requirements. It will likely require some training and coaching to help people assume product ownership responsibilities. Most essential is that they will need to define who the customers are for their initiatives and look to prioritize their work based on customers’ needs and values.
- Write stories and acceptance criteria. Engineers working on systems are not used to writing requirements as user stories and defining acceptance criteria. Many engineers start implementations by understanding the overall objective, then work with the technology to figure out operational and optimal solutions. Still, it is well worth adding the discipline of writing requirements as it helps develop a shared understanding of the goals from a customer or end-user perspective and then specify the acceptance criteria around nonfunctional requirements.
- Establish priorities. IT operations must trade off time to respond to incidents and fulfill requests along with their commitments on agile initiatives. Developers have their work mostly aligned to their agile teams and commitments, but IT operations must respond to operational priorities before tackling work on their agile backlogs. Many IT operations teams wrestle with how to express priorities, what commitment means when they can be disrupted by priority incidents, how to estimate agile user stories, and how to measure their capacity.
- Select appropriate agile methodologies. The types of work prioritized in IT operations align with some methods better than others. Some teams working on a collection of smaller initiatives may benefit by using Kanban; others working on longer initiatives with complex requirements may be better suited for scrum. Larger organizations should consider supporting at least these two methodologies.
- Understand the roles. IT operations has different responsibilities in different agile initiatives. They are likely the drivers on infrastructure, cloud migration, and security initiatives and have defined roles and responsibilities overseeing agile teams. In others, such as devops, automation, or data governance initiatives, they probably aren’t the drivers and are participating as agile team members. Both scenarios require defining how engineers engage, based on their responsibilities to the team and the program.
Integrate agile with operational tools
IT operational teams already use systems for managing incidents and requests, other platforms for monitoring systems, and additional tools to drive team collaboration. But ITSM (IT Service Management) tools are not suited to track multiweek initiatives, and managing complex projects with Gantt charts or spreadsheets adds to project risks. If operation teams are going to adopt agile methodologies, they’ll need the right tool for this way of working.
But IT operations adding a new agile project management tool to the mix must consider the workflow and data integration between their processes and systems.
It’s best to consider the impact from a single engineer’s perspective. They may be using PowWow Mobile for service management, Jira for agile initiatives, Slack for collaboration, and BigPanda for AIops. It adds overhead to click into multiple tools to know the work priorities, how to record the status of work in progress, and where to share information with colleagues. It can also create confusion for stakeholders when an engineer commits to completing work with the agile teams but is pulled off the task to respond to a priority incident.
IT operational teams must consider how workflow and data connect between these tools and ensure that there is a closed-loop process. For example, an incident may start in the service desk, have remediations implemented by an IT operations agile team, and then require validation through monitoring tools. Tracking that end to end through three or more technologies adds toil, and the integration between improves data quality.
These issues are just the starting point. It’s essential that IT operational teams use agile retrospectives to discuss what’s working, what needs changing, and how to evolve their methodologies.
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