How Agile methodology has redefined the understanding of business in Indian IT industry

While it is commonly accepted that a business degree is not required for project management, those times have quietly gone by a long time back. What has caused this dramatic change is the concept of outsourcing. To get to the bottom of this, it is imperative to understand what project management is.

Every organization can be broadly split into business and management verticals. Based on the amount of business it is doing in the current year, the organization sets revenue and profit targets for the next year. Everything that happens in an organization in a financial year is the mad rush to meet or exceed those targets, which is the responsibility of the CEO of the organization. Business strategies are created to meet the targets which in turn creates objectives and goals that cascades down the organization’s hierarchy. It is essential to understand here that companies create profits in two ways, one through generation of revenue and the other through savings on its expenses. Execution of business strategies which leads to profit creation is done through projects. So essentially project management is for creating revenue and saving expenses for the company.

I was freshly minted into IT outsourcing way back in 2004 and was working on an IT support and service delivery project for a European client which had 400 odd software applications running in the virtual environment. One day, one of the applications stopped working and the ticket raised to report the issue was of medium priority. I was in the technical team at that time and we took our own sweet time to resolve the issue. When we reported back that the application was working again, the client’s employee told us that it was an invoicing application and they couldn’t take new orders for half a day. The situation was a little complicated. The client had outsourced their IT services and support for the first time. The priority matrix for the applications was not defined clearly because of which the client’s employee did not raise the ticket with the correct priority. But most importantly it was the lack of awareness of the technical team working on the issue about the purpose of the application. It was the first time I realized two facts about outsourcing : 1) It has separated business objectives from IT implementations and this is why 2) IT has become an industry in itself in India.

Fast forward to 2010 and I was working for an IT giant and had taken a team to a client’s premise for knowledge acquisition and was back in India to set up part of their support and service delivery team. Even this client was outsourcing its entire IT environment for the first time. I had looked back at all the mistakes I had come across through the years and had ensured that I understood the client’s business environment and objectives as much as I can. When I communicated to my management team in India that to provide better support the technical team needs to understand the client’s business environment I was ridiculed and threatened with pulling the project from me. All they wanted from me was to make my team work harder without knowing what they were doing. I resigned immediately, completed all the tasks required to set up of the team much before expected time and left. There was no way I was going to tolerate and live with a short sighted and overbearing management team.

Those 6 years were extremely insightful times for me. I was sent on an onsite assignment to the Netherlands in 2008. I was in a team full of Dutch people and I had a Dutch team leader. They do not normally speak a lot about work and the team leader would give me a task and not even ask for a status update. I realized quickly that people were assigned tasks according to their experience and abilities so the onus was on me to estimate the time I need, finish the task and report back to him. But he would answer any number of questions I had about the task. I understood that it was up to the person working on the task to understand as much as he/she could about the different aspects of the task. This behavior becomes more enhanced in the Scandinavian countries. Those people hardly ask anything and they open their mouths only to answer questions.

With all these experiences in mind, I went to do a one year MBA program to increase my skills and knowledge to have better understanding of the business environments of companies. In those intervening 2-3 years the IT environment underwent momentous changes. Fundamental to it were two aspects. Emergence of the Cloud and Agile methodology as the preferred way of project management. Agile has in fact helped to plug the vast distance between business requirements and IT implementations in India. Agile works essentially on two aspects: 1) the idea to market strategy and 2) the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) concept. When there is a new idea, the objective is to get it out to the market asap as a product because it is foolish to assume that no one else will have the same idea. Fundamental to this is the strategy to create the product with the features that would most likely to be in demand in the market and can quickly gain traction. This is where the concept of MVP comes in. It is because of these two factors that Agile has become the backbone of all startup initiatives.

Agile is used in the software industry primarily to create software applications. Rewind upwards and companies need IT applications either to generate revenue or save costs. For both, Agile works best but only if the objectives are clearly defined in the business case document. If the objective is creating revenue, the business case should clearly define which features of the application would result in maximum generation of revenue. Then the Product Owner can create a product backlog correspondingly and ensure that those features are developed first so that the product can be quickly released into the market. Even in the case of the objective being to save on expenses, the same rule applies. Develop those features of the application that would create maximum savings and integrate the application into the environment quickly.

Agile also defines a role called Scrum Master whose primary objective is to manage the sprint backlog and the sprint sessions. The role also has the responsibility of keeping all management overheads away from the development team so that they are not distracted and can fully focus on developing the product. This is exactly what I did with my team back in 2010. I filtered all the noise away from my team, took the heat from all meetings and management overheads, managed their work loads and allowed them to work freely. This did help significantly to finish the tasks required to complete setting up of the team.

I didn’t know any project management methodologies back then but I worked based on my experiences and commonsense. These methodologies were created long after people started trying out different ways to manage projects and it has never been the other way around. Agile has created the situation where understanding business requirements for all stakeholders is on a very high priority now and novices or less experienced people cannot be team members because of the extremely short and intense time spans of sprint sessions unless they are skilled and nimble enough. Both these aspects could be at loggerheads with the traditional IT industry environment in India which focuses more on technical than business aspects and makes use of less experienced people in projects to save their own costs.

All of this vindicates my decision and reasons to take up the MBA program at that time. Companies abroad have chosen to not sponsor work permits for me, Indian companies and the IT industry in particular have ignored and disowned me and I am having a tough time establishing myself as a freelance consultant. But having vision and pursuing it always creates short term pain and long term gains.

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Companies and products don’t die they become irrelevant and fade away

I have heard from many people that the startup initiative in India has been a failure but no one said why. Below is a list I obtained from a social network about the top reasons why startups fail.

 

Interestingly, a startup company had contacted me few months back asking me if I could be their mentor. Their product is on the lines of Askme.com and they were trying to market it in Kerala, my state in India. The key problem was the people of Kerala are not even fully used to the shopping mall culture yet. We still prefer buying from local grocers, medical shops etc. So searching about products on the internet is still a long way away. My question to the company was, do you know if there is a need for your product in the market you are targeting? They had no clue. This is the top reason on the above list. Lack of proper due diligence. What they wanted from me was to understand how to market their product. I told them that you need to go back to your drawing board and figure out something crucial. Simply putting your product out there is of no use. You cannot force people to use your product. So what can you offer them for using your product? You need a better product strategy before you get on to business strategy and that is where marketing strategy comes in. I haven’t heard from them after that.

Even worse is not understanding when the product is ready to be in the market. Mature companies too have new products and services in their pipeline but what makes and keeps them successful is their ability to time their launches precisely. The extreme of this is Apple launching their products whenever they want to because they have a phenomenal market following. But that’s Apple. There is a concept called Minimum Viable Product (MVP) which can help understand when to stop working on the product and launch it. How do we know this? Work on creating those aspects of the product which could create market disruption or get noticed in the market quickly. When this is successful then it becomes easy. People will take over from there. All we need is to take feedback from customers. Customer expectations will tell us which features of the product are more relevant and need to be out there in the market quickly.

There are two phases of every lifespan be it that of the Universe itself and everything within it. Evolving and maturing. Business also follows the same pattern. A friend is learning to be a professional cake maker and my advice to her was simple. If she is going to bake cakes like everyone else is, she is not going to get far. Evolving stage is the experimenting stage where she needs to mix and match and see what unique she can create. So how will she know she has matured? When customers start calling her for her cakes.

My dad has always loved cooking non-vegetarian food. He looks up on a lot of recipes on the internet but then finds his own niche way of cooking. He has been asking me to help him find a market for his food. He cannot compromise on the quality of the products he uses for cooking which essentially means he cannot target the lower and the lower middle strata of the market. If he tries to sell at those levels, he will have to lower his price thereby lowering his profit margin considerably and moreover there will be very less appreciation among those customers for what they are getting. All of this means the key is in the positioning of the products. Positioning will determine the pricing and marketing strategies.

I believe products and companies become irrelevant and fade away rather than fail. Nokia and Kodak are great examples. Nokia phones became irrelevant when their Symbian OS was run over by Android and iOS. With Kodak, the most fundamental mistake happened. They matured and stopped evolving and got run over by technology. Evolving to maturity shows the growth trajectory of the company or the product. Sustaining and staying relevant in the market demands continuous evolution of another kind. This is where the sheer genius of Steve Jobs shines brightly. In the middle of iMacs and Macbooks and iOS and iPods and iPhones and iTunes, he still found the time and space to figure out that there could be demand for a device that could bridge the gap between the Macbook and the iPhone, thus creating the iPad. I have wondered how tuned his mind was into the world of business and how he used to keep his ears to the ground. He seems to have understood the threat of stagnation and becoming irrelevant which should be the reason why he created such a huge product catalogue and a possibly unknown product pipeline on which he was supposedly working till the time of his demise.

There are great companies and greater leaders to look up to. But ultimately success depends on the course we charter and when we are able to muster the strength, wile and guile and navigate ourselves through the choppy waters of the business world.