Everything You Need to Know about Agile Project Governance

Smartsheet Contributor Kate Eby

February 18, 2020 (updated August 1, 2021)

This article offers the most useful guidance and expert tips on how to provide strong governance for Agile projects. It also explains how organizations can effectively oversee Agile, while giving you the freedom that the methodology demands.

Included on this page, you'll find details on the guiding principles for governing Agile projects, tips for effective Agile governance, challenges related to governing Agile projects, and much more.

 

What Is Agile Governance?

The term Agile governance refers to how an organization oversees, monitors, and guides its Agile projects. It can apply to a single Agile project, but more often describes the governance framework for an organization’s full portfolio of Agile projects.

The goal of Agile governance is to ensure the alignment of any Agile project with an organization’s overall goals. In this way, Agile governance can — in the words of Ole Jonny Klakegg, Professor of Project Management at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology — “create value.”

Managers also frequently use Agile concepts to support an organization’s entire enterprise architecture. Enterprise architecture or Agile architecture is a system that calls for an organization to use a set of collaborative practices as it creates and modifies its systems and runs its organization.

These practices (and the governance of them) allow an organization’s systems and its overall operations to evolve over time and continuously improve.

Agile project management is a flexible and iterative approach to performing project management. The Agile methodology began in the design and development of software, but has now expanded to a wide range of projects. You can learn more about Agile at “Everything You Need to Know About Agile Project Management.”

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Guiding Principles for Agile Program Governance

Guiding Principles for Agile Governance

The concept of Agile includes significant freedom for project teams to make their own decisions. Still, organizations must be able to have some control over Agile projects. That’s what Agile program governance is all about.

Here are some of the major guiding principles for Agile program governance: 

  • Any Agile project must align with its organization’s business goals.
  • Leaders must analyze how a possible Agile project offers value to their organization. People will ask this kind of governance question particularly in organizations that combine Lean and Agile methodologies.
  • Agile teams themselves must determine the measurable governance and performance metrics that they will use and continuously monitor.
  • You must clearly define the expected output of an Agile project in terms of your organization’s necessary timing and resources.
  • You must clearly define and manage the risks within a project.
  • You must make the monitoring and the performance metrics of a project transparent throughout your organization.
  • You must make sure projects are compliant with any regulatory requirements.
  • Organizational or outside reviews of an Agile team’s work should focus more on the team’s behaviors and practices and less on its processes or documentation.
Jean Ballard

“There’s a different level of control with Agile than with other methods,” says Jean Ballard, a Senior Manager for Actualize Consulting, a professional services firm specializing in business process engineering and technology implementations for financial institutions. “With Agile, it’s important that you empower your Agile project team to do its job. In your governance, you have to be mindful not to add layers of bureaucracy.”

Your organization must ensure that the way it governs Agile projects follows the Agile Manifesto principles. Governance should focus especially on avoiding complexity and allowing teams to do their best work — teams achieve this by working together while minimizing wasted effort and expense. You can learn more about the Agile Manifesto in this “Comprehensive Guide to the Agile Manifesto.”

Best Practices in Agile Governance

Agile Governance Tips

Experts recommend some best practices for Agile teams to ensure they’re adhering to some basic principles of good governance and oversight:

  • Ensure that an Agile project aligns with your organization’s needs. At the start of a project, provide simple documentation that details how the project’s work will fit with your company’s overall strategic objectives.
  • Continually report to your organization concerning the new value that occurs with each iteration of work on a project.
  • The Agile project manager — often called the product owner — should provide others in their organization with easy access to notes from a project’s daily progress meetings, sometimes called standups or scrums. These notes might include details on progress, obstacles, and changes in the work plan. You can learn more about managing Agile projects by reading “A Best Practices Guide to Agile Planning for Project Managers.” 
  • The Agile product owner should also provide organizational access to the burn down chart, a list of tasks to complete and the time available in which to complete them.
  • Make sure your organization’s Agile project software provides other basic information about a project to organizational and other stakeholders who aren’t part of the Agile team.

Key Challenges of Governance for Agile Projects

The key challenges regarding the governance of Agile projects concern the tension between how an organization’s leaders get proper oversight of projects and how the Agile methodology works.

You should base the value and effectiveness of Agile on the degree to which company leaders (i.e., those who aren’t directly involved in projects) allow team members to make decisions and move forward on projects. Agile project leaders feel that they shouldn’t have to wait for approvals from people elsewhere in their organization. That sentiment, however, can conflict with some leadership views on oversight and monitoring. As a result of this clash of perspectives, the following issues can arise:

  • Some key leaders don’t understand how Agile is different and, therefore, don’t grant team members the appropriate level of autonomy to remain effective.
     

    Alan Zucker


    “One of the biggest challenges in effectively managing Agile is creating the right corporate culture and environment,” says Alan Zucker, Founding Principal of Project Management Essentials LLC with more than two decades of experience managing projects in Fortune 100 companies. “It’s not easy to create an environment where we really embrace self-managing and self-organizing teams,” he says. “It’s not easy to empower people to do things and then trust them to do them.”

    Zucker adds, “That’s really the cornerstone. When we’re actually able to create those environments, we unleash the creative energy of our teams. You can say that self-managed, empowered teams are great, and people will nod their heads. But, I think it’s difficult to create an environment up and down the management chain, where managers at all levels are comfortable letting their teams make mistakes and skin their knees. And, it’s difficult not to step in and say, ‘Well, you screwed up and now we’re going to do it my way.’”

  • An organization can require a level of documentation that constrains the Agile work. This is because inherent in the Agile methodology is the idea that there is a level of documentation that is not only unnecessary, but also inefficient.

    “The Agile methodology discourages controls that are not priority,” says Actualize Consulting’s Ballard. “It’s a waste of time to have unnecessary documentation that’s not helping your project.”

  • An organization can require excessive information on expected outputs, a prerequisite that conflicts with how Agile works. There aren’t really “expected” outputs in Agile, because the iterative work itself produces the best product. A project’s actual outputs may be different from what was expected at the beginning.

Governance Model for Agile Projects

Agile experts say that the best governance model for Agile projects grows from understanding how to effectively monitor your projects at a broad level, while allowing your team to work effectively.

Any Agile governance model needs to build the following two key elements into its infrastructure:

  • Establish a system to assess and prioritize projects before they start, and then nix some of those projects. Any organization can embark on hundreds of projects, including Agile projects. That doesn’t mean it should.
     
    Greg Githens

    “Governance is really about making decisions effectively, and a lot of organizations don’t do that very well,” says Greg Githens, an executive and leadership coach and author of How to Think Strategically. “A symptom of an organization with bad governance or bad decision making is that it has too many projects going on.”
  • Establish broad controls that don’t hamper the work: No one says Agile work “needs to be completely unstructured,” says Ballard. “It doesn’t mean you can’t have controls.” But, she says, organizations must “be thoughtful around where they really need the governance.”

How Agile’s Structure Allows for the Basics of Good Governance

Experts in Agile say that the very structure of the methodology (and how it works when it’s done well) allows for good governance. Below are two important components of Agile:

  • The Product Owner: The product owner is the person who leads the Agile team and is ultimately responsible for the delivery of a product to the customer (or for the successful completion of the work). 

    Zucker of Project Management Essentials says that the product owner and their connection with organizational leaders are an organization’s best insurance for proper control and governance of a project.

    A CEO or other organizational leader can and should trust that “product owners are focusing and delivering on what they’re committed to within their Agile teams,” Zucker says. “If I trust you [the product owner] to deliver and to let me know when there are problems...then I don’t have to worry about creating these structures to look over your shoulder.”

  • The Product Backlog: The product backlog is the single authoritative list of everything an Agile team needs to do — or may need to do — to complete a full project.

    You must make this list detailed enough to include the specific tasks that team members need to do in order to complete even just one phase of a project. And, you must remember that this list is constantly changing; tasks that are necessary at one point may become unnecessary when priorities change. The product owner is in charge of the product backlog.

    Zucker says that Agile also allows for an “enterprise-level” product backlog, in which the backlog’s “level of detail is customized to the audience.” An enterprise-level product backlog gives a product owner the ability to show the broad outlines of major projects, including the goals and major components of a team’s work. In this way, you can deliver an Agile dashboard that’s tailored specifically to your CEO as well as your organization’s other leaders.

How to Incorporate Governance into an Agile Project

There can be a tension between what some organizational leaders view as appropriate oversight and how the Agile methodology works. But, once organizations understand how Agile works, they can easily incorporate appropriate oversight and governance into Agile projects. Here are some basic overall concepts to remember and apply:

  • Understand that Project Governance and Project Management Are Not the Same Thing: You can have your Agile team do its normal project management work within Agile, while your organization implements high-level checkpoints that allow for good oversight. (You can learn more about project management in general at “Project Governance: How Little Processes Can Have Big Impacts.”)
  • Negotiate and Set Expectations at the Beginning: As your organization makes its first attempts at governance of Agile projects, your leaders and Agile teams will need to come together to negotiate, agree on some parameters regarding what’s reasonable and useful, and set expectations on governance and oversight. From the outset, everyone should understand these expectations.
  • Report on Progress: Then, your Agile teams or product owners need to report on progress in conformance with those expectations.
  • Invite Your Organization’s Overseers into Your Process: Some Agile teams invite their organization’s leaders or auditors to their daily standup meetings or scrums. That’s a simple way for these overseers to stay informed about an Agile project’s progress and problems.
  • Start with a Hybrid Process: With more traditional clients, Ballard sometimes starts out by suggesting a slightly modified Agile process. Such a “hybrid” process can initially focus a bit more on governance and oversight in order to better acclimate organizational leaders to Agile.
  • Start Small and Build Confidence: Once an organization has tried the Agile process, perhaps as a pilot on a smaller project, company leaders and employees will become more confident about Agile and more comfortable with less governance, Ballard says.

    “What I suggest is to pilot [a project]. Take some project and implement the Agile methodology,” Ballard recommends. “Try it out. Then, when an organization’s leaders see the benefits and the value — faster results and time to market, top quality, less waste, improved team morale, and, consequently, less turnover — it kind of forces them to give up control.”

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