WSECU adopted the agile approach to project management in the fall of 2018.
Cross-functional teams complete projects in short time frames and employees can submit their own project ideas.
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Project management at WSECU ($3.0B, Olympia, WA) has taken a sharp turn in the past year.
Before the fall of 2018, the credit union would identify a new or improved product or service and, at the onset of each development project, create a strict step-by-step structure for stakeholders to follow. That linear methodology is known as “waterfall.”
In this methodology, the credit union can departmentalize projects, set schedules, evaluate projects as they move through phases one by one, and more. There’s a lot to be said for the level of control waterfall offers; however, there are also limits to the approach.
“We found we either weren’t getting things done quickly enough, or we were working on too many things at once,” says Paul Kirkbride, the credit union’s chief credit officer. In addition, the transformation to agile was made, in part, to improve the overall member experience.
"We wanted to make it easier for members to do business with us and for staff to do their jobs," he says.
So, in the summer of 2018, the credit union made the move to a new style of project management.
Paul Kirkbride, Chief Credit Officer, WSECU
For at least a year, the IT and leadership teams at WSECU had considered adopting an agile approach to development, which prioritizes incremental, iterative work — known as “sprints” — to complete projects. The credit union brought in an agile project management expert during its 2018 management planning process session to educate leaders at the state’s third-largest credit union on the methodology.
“We’d looked at it for a while,” Kirkbride says. “Sometimes, you’re just ready to make a change. Our CEO knew we were ready.”
As far as the development process, agile and waterfall do share DNA. An organization collects and grades ideas for new projects, and developers work on those projects until they are ready to deploy. But agile requires developers to work on narrowly focused segments, which increases the speed at which they can complete projects and allows the organization to better prioritize work.
The biggest change for WSECU, however, related to team structure. WSECU deployed programmers and other staff across four cross-functional teams based on the different aspects of the member journey. They are:
Awareness: How do members find the product? How do they engage with it initially?
Acquisition: How do members sign up for, or otherwise acquire, the product?
Utilization: Once they have the product, how will members use it?
Assistance: If something goes wrong, how will members resolve these issues?
Five By Five
When WSECU moved to the agile methodology of project management, it created four cross-functional teams. It also created a fifth team that still operates in the waterfall framework. This team handles overflow requests that aren’t conducive to agile.
These cross-functional teams include individuals from across the credit union, and each has its own leader — someone team members report to in addition to their boss.
“It’s matrix management,” Kirkbride says. “There were questions initially.”
Questions like: “I have my original boss and a cross-functional team lead. Whose requests take priority?”
To alleviate concerns, WSECU charged its six executive team members with overseeing the cross- functional teams. For the first nine months of implementation, the executive team answered questions, prioritized work, and helped where they could.
Three months ago, the credit union decided a single point of contact would be more efficient. Kirkbride was then asked to sponsor the team, and although the credit union might rotate this role among senior leaders in the future, his prior background in technology made him a good initial choice.
“It’s different to have a lending person do it, but I have enough of a background in technology to understand how it works,” Kirkbride says. “The reason technology transformations fail isn’t because the idea is bad. It’s because people forget they’re massive change management exercises. You have to be on the lookout for issues and be ready to communicate when they arise.”
While still technically reporting to their old department, most team members are now working full-time with their cross-functional team. Rather than split the day between agile responsibilities and day-to-day responsibilities, agile production work has become permanent.
“When they come to work, they sit with their cross-functional team and report to the team lead,” Kirkbride says. “But their department leaders continue to oversee these employees, including for reviews and performance updates.”
A Better Input Process
Budget and competing opportunities are two consistent factors in failed projects, regardless of the development methodology at work. But WSECU aims to control for both of these through a pre-development input process, which the credit union is currently testing.
Employees who have an idea can complete a simple online form that requires only a write-up of the idea. The goal here is to share ideas.
“We don’t want them to go through all this work just to submit an idea,” Kirkbride says.
These write-ups go to a group of six vice presidents who, on a weekly basis, vet ideas through a scoring system that relies heavily on how well ideas meet three key criteria:
Does it benefit the member?
Is there a revenue component?
How fast can we develop it?
“An idea that is great for the member and makes the credit union money but will take years to complete might not score very high,” Kirkbride says. “Something our programmers can knock out in a few months across several sprints will score higher because it’s providing value quickly.”
In practice, member-facing applications tend to score highest. But the scoring system is also not a full meritocracy. Fixes, compliance, and legal development work move to the front of the line by default. Ideas that sync with the high-level priorities of the credit union also score higher.
“That’s our way of maintaining some control over what’s prioritized,” Kirkbride says.
Ideas that score high enough go to the lead of the appropriate cross-functional team, who then assigns it to their team's backlog for completion in an upcoming sprint. Ideas that don’t elicit a high enough score move into a “Not-Now’’ list so the credit union can track ideas over time.
Agile has fit our team well,. We want that bottom-up approach to work.
Cross-functional teams still have a great deal of autonomy when undertaking their two-week sprints.
“They can stand down and move up assignments based on complexity,” Kirkbride says. “Giving them this freedom and flexibility allows them to manage their own backlog, so we’re not constantly changing their priorities for them.”
After the sprint, completed work moves to implementation — a final check is required before introducing new products, services, or features to members — or what the credit union calls its “output process.” This is for products and services that require additional internal work — such as training, networking, communication, and more.
All told, the input process has been a success. WSECU now has several best practices and lessons learned from which it plans to iterate its own iterative process.
For example, empowering teams to reprioritize work within a sprint and within their backlog has been a win.
“Agile has fit our team well,” Kirkbride says. “We want that bottom-up approach to work. We’re able to keep a do-the-right-thing mentality at the team level.”
The credit union also has learned it prefers permanent, cross-functional teams over teams that form for a project and disband upon completion.
“The problem with traditional project management is that everyone disbands at the end, and you hope they read the project requirements right,” Kirkbride says.
WSECU still has work to do, however. The agile methodology brings with it new concepts and modes of operation — not including management changes — that take time to understand. Last month, the credit union brought its agile consultant on-site for additional training to ensure employees remain on the same page.
“There are certain ceremonies and consistencies the team needed a refresher on, so we decided to take a step back and go through training again,” Kirkbride says. “We see this as a highly iterative process, and we know we are going to continue to learn things. We’re in the throes of it right now.”
Read more about the agile method in "Don’t Go Chasing Waterfall. Agile Thinking Helps Credit Unions Better Respond To Change."