Waterfall contracts and iterative development don’t mix #BTF09

The post title is the best quote from Tom Higgins, CIO of the Territory Insurance Office in Australia, who came all the way from Darwin to speak at both the Gartner and Forrester conferences this week. I had a chance for a chat at the airport with him while waiting for our flight from Orlando to Chicago (and introduced him to the wonder that is the Chicago transit system), and caught his Appian-sponsored lunch presentation today.

TIO is a government-backed insurance operation that covers risks that most insurance companies won’t take on, including workers’ compensation, cyclone damage and other personal and P&C policies. They were looking to reduce their operational costs by making their claims operation more efficient, but also reducing their claims costs by reducing the length of disability claims, which can often be done through proper case management during the period of a claim. Originally the business was set on a COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) claims management system, but when they compared that with BPM, they realized that it met their requirements much better than the COTS systems available due to the ease of use and flexibility. They short-listed three vendors and did a three-day proof of concept with each; that managed to knock one vendor completely out of the running due to the complexity of the implementation, in spite of them being a large and well-respected vendor in the space (no, he didn’t say who; yes, he told me over a beer; and no, I won’t tell you).

For a short presentation, he spent quite a bit of time talking about the contract – including the “waterfall contracts and iterative development don’t mix” line – and I have to agree that this is an incredibly critical part of any BPM project, and very often is handled extremely poorly. The contract needs to focus on risk management, and you can’t let your lawyers force you into a fixed-price contract that has pre-defined waterfall-type milestones in it if you don’t know exactly what you want; in my experience, no BPM project has ever started with the business knowing exactly what they want ahead of time, and I don’t imagine that many do, so don’t mistake a contract for a project plan. If you plan on doing iterative or Agile development, where the requirements are defined gradually as you go along, then a fixed-price contract just won’t work, and will be a higher risk even though many (misinformed) executives believe that fixed price is always lower risk. Going with a time and materials contract requires a much higher level of trust with the vendor, but it will end up as a much lower risk since there won’t be the constant stream of change requests that you typically see with a waterfall contract. Besides, if you can’t trust the vendor, why are you working with them?

TIO had a number of issues pop up during their implementation: the CEO was replaced just before the vendor was engaged, and the business sponsor was replaced in the middle of development; however, due to a strong sponsorship and governance team, they were able to weather these storms. In fact, he sees the strength of the governance team as a critical success factor, along with using your “A team” for implementation, finding a committed vendor and engaging the business early.

He had a really good point about making sure that your project managers is not a business subject matter expert and does use an appropriate project methodology such as Agile. The PM is supposed to be the coordinator and facilitator of the entire project, and not an SME that will dive down the rabbit hole of specific business issues and requirements at the first sign of trouble. I’m a strong believer that PMs should manage projects, not gather requirements, write code or most other activities since that distracts them from the project and increases the risk that it will run off the rails when no one is looking; it’s good to hear that at least one other person shares my opinion on this.

They used Agile project methodology and Spiral development methodology, with six-week code cycles. The team was fairly small: seven TIO team members, an internal business reference group (the SMEs, who eventually became the rollout leads), four Appian people onsite, four offshore Appian team members, and four part-time specialists. The project started with Appian as the technical lead, but that shifted through the first three project phases, and now TIO essentially works on its own with no assistance from Appian. They established a center of excellence to assist with taking this success on to other projects, and that seems to be working: the initial project cost them over $3M, and the next one – which is three times more complex – cost only one-third of that since BPM is now built into their enterprise infrastructure. And, at the end of the day, they’re seeing a 30% productivity increase in their initial implementations.

Their biggest challenges were the introduction of Agile and Spiral methodologies, the geographic dispersion of the team, and recruiting the right talent for their remote location; they used internal education both for the methodologies and to grow their own BPM specialists locally when they couldn’t recruit them.

There were several things that they did that he feels contributed to their success, such as daily headline meetings, engagement with the business, fostering team spirit, and highlighting and addressing the riskier requirements early so that they can be tried out by the business and tuned as required. He also felt that Agile was a huge contributor, since there were no more 300-page requirements documents that were either not read or not understood by the business, but signed off regardless. He finished with a few strategic lessons learned: begin with the end in mind, including planning how this will become part of the infrastructure; and pick a big project in order to ensure commitment and executive engagement.

3 thoughts on “Waterfall contracts and iterative development don’t mix #BTF09”

  1. Project Managers look out of a project and Project Leaders look in.

    Unfortunately the vast majority of projects do not have a Project Leader and therefore increase their development risk immensely.

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