THE CHANGING ROLE OF CONSULTANTS IN AN AGILE WORKFORCE

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AUTHOR: Bryce Hanscomb - Front End Web Developer

With the increasing adoption of Agile practices in enterprise, consultants must adapt to being increasingly involved with their client’s business needs.

It’s becoming rarer for a consultant to be given a completed specifications document, to deliver a finished product. Instead, units of work are becoming smaller, more well-defined, and subject to changes of direction.

To effectively contribute to a software project that isn't completely defined at the point of commencement, consultants need to be aware of how their positions and responsibilities have changed.

Increased Understanding of Product

In the traditional outsourcing model, a client would treat consultancy workers as a ‘black-box’ of productivity — requirements go in, completed work comes out.

Consultants would have some understanding of the intention behind the product’s commissioning, but could ultimately get by without asking deeper questions. They were given enough information to get the task done, from start-to-finish, and that was all that’s needed.

Thanks to Agile, consultants are given a much smaller picture of the product as a whole

Now, thanks to Agile, consultants are given a much smaller picture of the entire product. The product is built iteratively, with the discoveries made and work completed in each sprint, influencing the work of the next sprint.

Like a Renaissance sculptor liberating a statue from its marble block one chip of the chisel at a time, the client is discovering their product as they go. The true form of the work is not known until the completion of the project because — by design — it’s being defined on-the-fly.

As a result, consultants cannot rely on their clients having all the answers all the time, and need to increase their undersanding of the product as a whole. Instead of being instructed what to make and when, consultants must develop their own understanding of the project’s direction, size and priorities, to maximise their chances of success.

Increased Alignment with Client Productivity Structure

The hallmark of offshore-contractor horror stories is the disappointing discovery after a product is seemingly delivered on time, and to budget. Upon closer inspection, the delivered product is so poorly constructed, that the subsequent cost to maintain or extend it, far exceeds the initial savings from outsourcing in the first place.

This is a symptom of vendors who are happy to be instructed on what needs to be built, but are left alone to develop the associated execution strategy and implementation plan. This can lead to a situation where, not only is the initial product build outsourced, but decisions about the cost of support, maintenance and future development, have also ceded to the vendor.

“At the cost of bearing the responsibility of directing the productivity structure, the client receives greater visibility on progress and impediments, and the outsourced workers benefit from reduced reporting requirements.”

Businesses have endured the risk associated with outsourced workers traditionally having autonomy around the implementation strategy for a product. As a result, many enterprises are moving to Agile, to reclaim their authority of ‘the how’ as well as ‘the what’.

A project executed using the Agile methodology will have its units of work defined by the business. With this model, consultants must accept that they no longer have the same autonomy to implement as they normally would — their productivity structure is now increasingly directed by the client.

Previously, some tasks could be de-prioritised or re-organised in a way that is opaque to the client. However, now vendors must now adjust their workflow to match the more granular delivery expectations, and follow the client’s direction in parallel.

At the cost of bearing the responsibility of directing the productivity structure, the client receives far greater visibility on progress and impediments, and consultants also benefit from reduced reporting requirements.

Reduced Institutional Exclusivity Leading To Increased Work Opportunity

For many businesses, the cost-benefit equation for outsourcing the development of a product, leads to a culture where very few projects actually can be outsourced. In a traditional enterprise mindset, the cost of losing the product knowledge as a result of personnel changes, and the direct impact this has on successful delivery (on time and to budget), often outweighs the benefit of outsourcing, and restricts development efforts to the more stable, internal workforce. 

So, the utilisation of contractors, consultants and external vendors can be seen as a risk for the client. Even if the work can be done quicker with outside help, the intimate knowledge of the product’s implementation can disappear on conclusion of the contract. This results in reduced resource and work capacity, which can - counter-intuitively - leads to delivery delays and missed market opportunities. 

Fortunately, businesses employing product development via Agile methodologies can reduce and even eliminate these risks. With the reduction in scope and the greater granularity and definition of units-of-work, development can scale horizontally, with external help being commissioned to tackle smaller, more discrete tasks.

As the cost-benefit ratio reduces in favour of ‘throwing people at the problem’, consultants should seize the opportunity to jump into a team as required, offering value where they were unable to, previously. The positive outcome is an increase in viable outsourcing activity, and more work for the suitable and flexible vendor.

As businesses migrate more of their development operations to Agile, consultants and outsourced workers face pressure to adapt to these new working methods.

Consultants must make the additional effort to 'get closer' to clients to understand the direction and requirements of a project. In effectively doing so, consultants have more (previously unavailable) opportunity to collaborate and provide even more value.