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Large Scale Business Transformation Is Better with Disciplined Agile

By Mark Lines                                                                                         April 6, 2021
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Facing a large-scale business transformation, Insurance Company of British Columbia struggled to bridge the gap between agile and waterfall approaches. But with the adoption of Disciplined Agile, the company found a strong solution that provided both scale and flexibility in project delivery. Mark Lines explains how it happened.

Undertaking a large-scale business transformation has been likened to building a jetliner while it’s still in flight. But transformations in the government sector are even more complex.


Consider the case of Insurance Company of British Columbia (ICBC), which provides auto insurance to residents of British Columbia. ICBC’s project professionals had a clear mission: converting the company’s 1960s-era mainframe system to a 21st-century commercial off-the-shelf solution as part of an overall redesign of ICBC’s business. There was no room for error; the government had made a commitment to BC residents that the work would be complete by a set date.


Enter Disciplined Agile (DA). ICBC had experience with agile, but the team recognized the need for a more pragmatic approach—one flexible enough to encompass elements of waterfall and one that would allow the team to hit the fixed deadline. DA answered all these needs while also empowering the team to operate in a nimbler and leaner and fashion.


The ICBC work illustrates some of the best practices that we strive to bring to every DA engagement:


  • Executive Education: Executive education and buy-in are always critical. That’s why we were delighted when the two individuals then serving as ICBC’s CIOs attended an initial workshop to learn about DA. Their in-depth understanding and advocacy of DA set the stage for the engagement and helped solidify team support.
  • Training: Agile is a “team sport”—one in which all team members share ownership of the process and for improving its ways of working. It’s essential, therefore, that members understand good agile practices. At ICBC, we set up an ambitious training program in which all team members—developers, business analysts, agile leaders, testers, middle managers—took part in a three-day training course. We rolled out the training incrementally, training two or three teams per month. By the end of the engagement, some 20 teams—each with between eight and 15 people—were using DA.
  • Coaching: We also established a coaching consulting service that extended over the life of the engagement. It included both technical coaching for developers as well as coaching around power skills to ensure team members followed best practices in such areas as collaboration, communications and empathy. Eventually, we set up a center of excellence staffed by three of our team members and three of ICBC’s agile experts.
  • Governance: Governance is built right into the DA tool kit. It allows the team to monitor project progress but with a minimum of bureaucracy and documentation. This was particularly important to ICBC, given its commitment to lean process improvement. The lean governance approach allowed team members to focus on work that added value and to stop doing work that didn’t. In the end, this proved critical in meeting the project’s tight deadline.
  • Risk Management: Like governance, lean risk management is built into the DA approach. Bad stuff is bound to happen on any project, so it’s important to anticipate, understand and, when possible, mitigate those risks right from the start. This risk management mindset ensured that our work stayed on track and on schedule.

We quickly began to see the benefits of these best practices. For example, there was a notable improvement in team morale–a leading indicator of DA success. Using DA, teams were empowered to make decisions on their own rather than wait for a decision to be handed down to them. They focused on productive work, rather than paperwork. And they had access to the DA tool kit and supportive coaching for ideas about strategies and effective practices.


Internal clients were happier too. Because the teams stayed together longer, they developed a deeper understanding of the business. This made them far more productive, improved the quality of their work and strengthened their relationship with business leaders. The result was a positive feedback cycle in which happy team members produced better work, which prompted kudos from business leaders, which made the team happier still. Ultimately, of course, all this led to better quality products and happier customers.


And that, of course, is where the real business value lay. Thanks to DA’s iterative process, ICBC was able to move functionality improvements into customers’ hands faster via a series of incremental releases rather than in one big bang. Indeed, the number of releases, including several substantial releases, increased sevenfold in the first two years. In the end, the team delivered 36 successful transformation projects—on time and on budget—as part of the larger transformation at the company.


Since our initial engagement, ICBC has transformed itself and the way it does business. And Disciplined Agile was an important component of that transformation. It provided the practical, structured approach—the discipline, if you will—that a governmental entity like ICBC needed to make it all possible.

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