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Scaling Agile with Jira Align

By Dean MacNeil , Aslam Cader
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  1. Free Chapter
    Chapter 1: Introducing Jira Align
About this book
Jira Align is a platform purpose-built for enterprises to connect strategy with execution and drive transparency, consistency, and predictability at all levels of scale. The platform supports business value delivery in agile frameworks such as LeSS, DAD, and SAFe. It also caters to organizations that mix agile with waterfall to support scaled bimodal delivery. Starting with an introduction to the platform and its features, this book takes you through the foundational building blocks of Jira Align. You’ll learn how an organization can benefit from implementing Jira Align and understand how to connect dimensions such as people, work, time, and outcomes. The book takes you through the typical steps for implementing Jira Align for maximizing outcomes and helps you solve common team, program, and portfolio-level challenges by enhancing visibility, tracking dependencies and risks, and using reports for real-time, distributed decision making. Throughout the book, you’ll explore features such as remote agile ceremonies, live roadmaps, and objectives and key results (OKRs). You’ll also get to grips with lean portfolio management, financial reporting, and using the program board for planning and execution. By the end of this book, you’ll be well versed in the key features of Jira Align and be able to leverage them to support all levels of agile at scale.
Publication date:
November 2020
Publisher
Packt
Pages
326
ISBN
9781800203211

 

Chapter 1: Introducing Jira Align

This chapter provides an introduction to Jira Align. You will learn about the past and present of Jira Align and the company that brought it to the market. This chapter also covers the types of organizations that can benefit the most from implementing Jira Align and the key factors for success. Lastly, you will learn how Jira Align supports organizations in using a scaling agile framework.

We will cover the following topics:

  • Connecting with Jira Align
  • The ideal candidate for Jira Align
  • Assembling the Jira Align Core Team
  • Selecting a framework
  • Working with an Atlassian Solution Partner
 

Connecting with Jira Align

Jira Align is a product whose time has come. Its story begins with agile frameworks created in the 1990s for development teams to deliver quality products early and often. When leaders of these frameworks met in Snowbird, Utah, to formulate the Agile Manifesto in 2001, team-level execution was still the focus. But the world has grown more complex in the two decades since, with the need for diverse sectors such as banking, automotive, and government to embrace digital transformation. As organizations struggle to create ever larger and more complex systems and even systems of systems (such as aerospace and military applications), the need to coordinate the delivery of numerous agile teams has grown more pressing.

In 2007, entrepreneur and technology executive Steve Elliott teamed up with a talented engineer to answer this challenge by creating what would become AgileCraft and later Jira Align – a way to break down the barriers between product management, project management, and engineering to coordinate and deliver complex product development efforts. As the tool was taking shape, a new type of agile framework was emerging, one that harnessed the power of successful agile team delivery and scaled it both upward to teams within teams and ultimately the enterprise, and outward to parts of the organization not traditionally associated with agile.

AgileCraft has had a close working relationship with the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), the leading framework for agile at scale, since SAFe was launched in 2011. After 7 years of rigorous, real-life testing during his tenure as a technology executive, Steve left his day job and launched AgileCraft in 2013 to help companies achieve enterprise agility at start-up speed. By 2015, AgileCraft was named a Scaled Agile Gold Partner and Gartner Cool Vendor.

In 2016, Team AgileCraft scored its first Fortune 10 client, AT&T, which adopted it as a companywide standard in 2017 after delivering its mobile TV product using the platform. In 2018, Gartner named AgileCraft a visionary in the Magic Quadrant for Enterprise Agile Planning (EAP) Tools. In 2019, Gartner named it a leader and Atlassian acquired AgileCraft. Today, known as Jira Align, it is still a leader, if not the leader. Moreover, the product is continuously improving, with new features and enhancements released every 2 weeks.

 

The ideal candidate for Jira Align

Jira Align is not for every organization. It is vast in breadth and depth, built from the ground up as an agile-first platform, unlike competitors that attempt to transform waterfall project portfolio management (PPM) solutions into EAP tools. Much as SAFe builds upon team-level agile delivery and scales it to the program, solution, portfolio, and enterprise levels, Jira Align too works in concert with the top team-level agile tool, Jira Software, extending it to all levels of scale. It natively supports a variety of frameworks and approaches beyond SAFe, including Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD), Large-Scale Scrum (LeSS), Scrum@Scale, Spotify, Lean Startup, custom frameworks, and any combination of these. It is therefore geared toward larger organizations that have or seek a more formal approach to agile at scale.

The ideal candidate for a successful Jira Align implementation meets the seven qualifications listed here:

  1. 500+ developers using Jira Software: Functionally, Jira Align can support hundreds to thousands of users across all levels of an organization. The quantity of developers using Jira Software is often a good indication of whether an organization's size is well suited for Jira Align. If you have 500 or more developers using Jira Software, then Jira Align may be worth your investment. For fewer than 500 developers, Jira Software alone or in combination with Atlassian Marketplace apps may suffice.
  2. Following an agile scaling framework: There are two rules of thumb that apply when selecting a tool to support agile at scale. The first is that you cannot scale the unscalable. The second is that any tool is only as good as the underlying data, organizational structures, and agile practices that it visualizes and supports. Therefore, having a formal practice around agile at scale is often a leading indicator of successful outcomes with Jira Align. See the Selecting a framework section later for more information.
  3. Has executed two or more quarterly planning events: Quarterly planning and execution focused on the highest-ranking features in the product backlog have become standard practice among companies engaged in agile delivery. The Program Board is one of the key pieces of functionality in Jira Align used to support this practice. But it's best to have practical experience of a methodology before applying a tool to it, especially one that is so feature-rich it could be overwhelming at first. Therefore, it's sensible to have at least two quarterly planning increments under your belt before introducing Jira Align.
  4. Has an established team agile practice for at least 6 months: Successful agile delivery at the team level is a prerequisite to scaling with frameworks and tools. Just as you would not scale buggy code, you would not want to scale suboptimal product delivery methods. A good way to gauge the effectiveness of your teams is to review the 12 principles behind the Agile Manifesto. If your teams are regularly enacting at least 7 or 8 out of 12, such as satisfying the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable product features (Principle 1), then they've achieved a high degree of agility. Your organization can then build upon this foundation by scaling it to achieve goals such as the following:
    • Delivering larger and more complex initiatives
    • Expanding agile methods to more areas of the company
    • Connecting execution with strategy

      It all begins with your agile teams, so get them the training and experience they need. Jira Align will then allow you to connect their skilled tactical execution to corporate strategy.

  5. Each program has 5–12 teams: Whether you call it a program, agile release train (ART), tribe, or something else, the team of teams construct has proven successful for delivering higher quality products faster to market. There are two important considerations when structuring these groups of teams.

    The first is that each group of teams should be able to deliver product features independently, on cadence (typically quarterly), with minimal dependencies on other groups. The second is that each group should comprise 50–125 individuals (5–12 agile teams) due to the inherent limitations on cohesion in larger groups observed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar in the 1990s.

  6. Executive sponsorship for the agile at scale transformation: Agile at scale, and the tools to support it, needs buy-in from executives. This is not merely a matter of funding, but one of embracing and leading the change. This requires openness and commitment to shifting the internal culture. According to the 13th annual State of Agile survey, the top three impediments to successful transformations are culture-related:
    • Organizational culture at odds with agile values
    • General organization resistance to change
    • Inadequate management support and sponsorship

      These 3 remain in the top 5 of the 14th annual State of Agile survey, published in May 2020. Additionally, a new impediment reached the top 5 in that report: Not enough leadership participation. This speaks to the importance of leaders embracing the agile mindset, first by learning it themselves, then by walking the talk – advocating the principles, exhibiting the practices, and coaching others. Start small with a few showcase programs, generate short-term wins, then consolidate gains and produce more wins. John Kotter, author of Leading Change, has shown that this is the way to anchor new approaches in the culture. When teams experience wins, their energy shifts. They move from merely doing agile toward being agile.

  7. Center of Excellence (CoE) or governing body in place for agile practice, with funding: The CoE is a team dedicated to implementing and supporting the agile transformation. It is a key differentiator separating companies who are agile in name only from those who are achieving the best outcomes. Functions of the CoE include training staff in the new methods, sourcing specialized roles such as product owner (PO) and scrum master (SM), and the all-important practice of coaching.

    For three years in a row, 2017–2019, respondents surveyed for the annual State of Agile report designated Internal Agile Coaches as the top tip for success with scaling agile. This makes sense, as it reduces dependency on outside consulting firms and creates a sustainable agile capability. Even apart from agile, professional coaching is taking hold within many Fortune 1,000 companies. A recent study by the International Coach Federation (ICF) found that the typical company can expect a return of 7 times its initial coaching investment. It's important to note, however, that there's a wide range of expertise among those who practice coaching. The best agile coaches we've seen are ICF certified in addition to holding agile-specific certifications.

The better an organization meets these seven parameters, the better the outcomes it will achieve. These are the key success factors that have worked for AgileCraft and then Jira Align throughout the years. But once again, it's important to remember that a tool is only as good as the underlying data, organizational structures, and agile practices it supports.

It's one thing to have success at the team level, but if you are going to scale throughout the organization, you will need to standardize methods and tools for product delivery so that you can achieve the following:

  • Numerous teams can seamlessly collaborate to deliver large and complex solutions.
  • Various parts of the organization speak the same language and work toward common strategic objectives.
  • Dispersed tactical information can connect uniformly with the highest-level corporate strategy and objectives.

So, it is important to get the house in order before implementing Jira Align. But don't worry, we will guide you through the pitfalls and challenges, providing tips and tricks learned in numerous Jira Align implementations to help ensure your success. Whether you're a hyper-growth tech start-up, an old school telecoms company, or a government agency, we'll show how Jira Align can work for you.

 

Assembling the Jira Align Core Team

The work of John Kotter, author of Leading Change, has shown the importance of a guiding coalition for any transformation effort. The first order of business is to assemble a guiding team for the Jira Align implementation, including roles such as the following:

  • Implementation Lead
  • Agile Practice Lead or Representative
  • Product Management
  • Program Management
  • Jira Align Administrator
  • Jira Administrator

These are individuals with skin in the game who are willing to embrace change and lead by example. The Jira Align implementation approach is to start small with a few showcase programs, generate short-term wins, then consolidate gains and produce more wins. As Kotter has shown, this is the way to anchor new approaches in the culture. This technique works well with teams and teams of teams, but true enterprise transformation requires an even more disciplined and holistic approach. At this level, the scaling framework you choose will help you achieve a connected knowledge environment supported by Jira Align.

 

Selecting a framework

In successful enterprise transformations, all levels of an organization work toward a common understanding of how people, practices, and tools are orchestrated for efficient and effective delivery. In the best cases, your practices and tools work in unison to create competencies that allow your organization to scale and stay competitive in the market. This setting combined with engaged leadership creates a knowledge environment geared toward continuous learning, business agility, and innovation.

The knowledge environment is not a state but an evolving journey. Any organization can start from where they are. The following illustration represents how an organization can align toward transformation by connecting strategy with execution:

Figure 1.1 – Alignment toward transformation by connecting strategy with execution

Figure 1.1 – Alignment toward transformation by connecting strategy with execution

Earlier, we spoke of the importance of leadership in any transformation effort. Here, we see that when leaders at all levels work together to align people, practices, and tools in a connected knowledge environment, they create a positive ripple effect through culture, competencies, structure, content, and systems toward continuous learning, business agility, and innovation – the fruits of transformation. The path may not be easy, but those who have blazed the trail have told of three waypoints you will encounter along the way.

Beginning with Dr. Alistair Cockburn, co-author of the Agile Manifesto and author of Agile Software Development, the practice of frameworks to acquire the agile mindset has been likened to the stages of developing expertise in the martial arts, Shu-Ha-Ri:

  • In the Shu stage, you are learning the forms and becoming proficient by following the guidelines set by your teacher.
  • In the Ha stage, you've gained a level of proficiency in how to use the forms and may safely bend some of them when necessary.
  • Ri is the stage of the masters who break with tradition and create their own forms after practicing for years at the levels of Shu and Ha.

Another popular three-phase model for understanding where you are in your agile journey is Crawl-Walk-Run.

In either model, assess where you are and know that success lies in the journey itself, not the destination.

A scaling framework is an essential companion in your agile journey. You will likely select one because it is a proven method backed by numerous case studies. Therefore, resist the urge to modify the framework from the start. That would be analogous to an apprentice attempting to create their own form, skipping the Shu stage, and the results would not likely be optimal. Similarly, resist the tendency to think your organization is unique. Look for a case study analogous to your industry to see the results your peers are achieving and stick with the approach to yield your own great results.

It is common for agile teams to practice scrum, kanban, or a blend of both. According to the 14th Annual State of Agile Report, scrum is the leading agile methodology practiced by a majority of teams around the world, followed by hybrid approaches, scrumban, and kanban. Scrum is a lightweight agile framework practiced by teams of 5–9 members who collaboratively manage complex knowledge work to iteratively and incrementally deliver products of the highest possible value.

Organizations operating with hundreds of teams find that scrum alone does not suffice to deliver optimal results at scale and struggle with alignment, dependencies, risks, and collaboration across teams. In the 2000s and 2010s, scaling frameworks emerged to answer these needs. According to the 14th Annual State of Agile Report, SAFe is the most adopted and leading framework named year on year.

SAFe is a full-fledged knowledge base of proven, integrated principles, and competencies with guardrails to implement lean, agile, and DevOps practices at scale. However, there are several other frameworks worth considering. Creating a scorecard or matrix such as the following, with the most meaningful parameters to your organization, can help guide decision making:

Figure 1.2 – Scaling framework comparison, adapted from Rico, D. F. (2014)

Figure 1.2 – Scaling framework comparison, adapted from Rico, D. F. (2014)

If you have yet to choose your framework, the Agile CoE with co-leadership from the Jira Align core team can lead the way to recommend one that suits your industry and culture. Practicing the framework will involve the key effort of coaching and training teams to create a consistent operational understanding and aligning the language between teams across the organization. Your next step will be to engage an Atlassian Solution Partner for your Jira Align implementation. Unlike Jira Software, which can be purchased on a credit card and implemented on your own, you will not be alone with the sizeable undertaking of implementing Jira Align.

 

Working with an Atlassian Solution Partner

If you haven't previously worked with a solution partner, Atlassian can help you find one. Simply go to www.atlassian.com/partners. The partner will guide you through workshops to discover what is most important to your business and how Jira Align will support your goals. With this understanding, the partner can ensure that the platform is configured to support your highest-ranking business goals, helping you achieve the best outcomes. Atlassian wants you to be successful, so they require working through a partner. There are, for example, more than 769 different configuration toggles in the platform, so you will want to leverage the partner's experience and expertise to help you succeed. In the next chapter, we'll introduce the fundamentals of implementing Jira Align, beginning with a quick setup. This will provide foundational knowledge to help you work with your solution partner and jumpstart the role-based training that the partner will provide as part of the implementation.

 

Summary

In this chapter, we introduced Jira Align and the company that created it. We discussed what the ideal Jira Align candidate looks like, including seven success factors. We covered the importance of assembling a Jira Align Core Team and of selecting and following a framework. Lastly, we introduced the necessity of working with an Atlassian Solution Partner on your Jira Align implementation.

Now you know the purpose of Jira Align and who can benefit the most from it. You're equipped with the seven key parameters for a successful implementation, and you know the importance of the core team, scaling framework, and solution partner.

In the next chapter, we'll build upon what we've learned and get into the fundamentals of implementing Jira Align.

 

Questions

  1. What circumstances gave rise to the agile platform now known as Jira Align?
  2. Which scaling framework has a longstanding relationship with Jira Align?
  3. How many agile teams can belong to a program or team of teams?
  4. What role does leadership play in a Jira Align implementation?
  5. Why is it important to have a Jira Align Core Team?
 

Further reading

  • Enterprise Agility by Sunil Mundra (Packt, 2018)
  • Agile Technical Practices Distilled by Pedro M. Santos (Packt, 2019)
About the Authors
  • Dean MacNeil

    Dean MacNeil has been passionate about agile practices and tools since before they were called “agile”, having pioneered a form of iterative and incremental product delivery at the world’s leading music company in the mid-1990s. As an Atlassian Certified Consultant and Enterprise Agile Coach, MacNeil has helped companies of diverse sizes and verticals, including some of the world’s largest and fastest-growing companies, to improve business agility and outcomes. MacNeil also writes about music and is a lifelong musician. He lives in Los Angeles where he enjoys hiking, biking, and sailing with his son.

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  • Aslam Cader

    Aslam Cader is a software professional with over 10 years of experience working with teams at all levels to solve complex business problems while improving business productivity and agility. As an Atlassian Certified Consultant, Cader has helped companies standardize business processes around lean, agile, ALM, ITSM, DevOps and digital transformation programs. He is particularly passionate about scaling agile, governance, and best practices to support the scaled use of Atlassian stack, cloud and ecosystem solutions. He lives in London and enjoys traveling and time with his family.

    Browse publications by this author
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