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4 April 2006

Is system governance agile?

By Andrew Clifford

There are surprising similarities between system governance and agile methods. Although they address different problems, they share many core values.

To help us better position our products at Metrici, I'm always interested in what other people do and say that are similar to our vision of system governance.

As I trawl the web to find similar ideas, I've often come across material about agile methods. I'm not an expert on agile methods, but they represent a move away from rigid system development processes to more iterative, human-centric, flexible methods. Approaches such as Extreme Programming and the Rational Unified Process are perhaps the best known examples.

When I first came across this, I was surprised because I could not see how my searches for topics like "management control", "measurement" and "governance" would lead me to agile methods. But slowly I realised that there were a lot of similarities.

Like agile methods, system governance is outcome driven. Agile methods emphasise the desired outcome, sometimes embodied as a series of tests, before detailed design and coding. System governance emphasises what the organisation wants to achieve with its IT, embodied as governance criteria, as a guide to current and future management. This is very different from the "see what you have and then decide what you want" approach.

Like agile methods, system governance delivers early and uses increments. From the start, system governance gives an idea of what you have and what you need to do. And you incrementally develop both your criteria and assessments to get a more complete view. This is very different from strategic reviews that run for months before producing any results.

Like agile methods, system governance does not document everything. It documents just enough to understand what the organisation wants from its IT, whether it is getting it, and to justify improvements. This is very different from methods that document everything in excruciating detail.

Like agile methods, system governance puts a strong emphasis on communication. System governance builds a body of information that is used to share a vision of what the organisation is trying to achieve with its IT, and how closely it meets that vision.

Like agile methods, system governance is not a heavyweight process. It is a lightweight framework that can be moulded around the people, requirements and circumstances of the organisation.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that I should not be surprised by these similarities. Both agile methods and system governance grew out of the frustrations with inefficient "big IT". Agile methods are a reaction to inappropriate, heavyweight, waterfall methods. System governance is a reaction to the "try to document everything" approach, which does not deliver the high-level management information needed to drive improvements.

Agile methods and system governance address different problems. Agile methods focus on systems development. System governance takes a broader view across the whole life of the system. It would be confusing to label system governance as "agile governance". But system governance does deliver a more lightweight, flexible and effective approach to IT management. Systems governance is definitely agile.

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