What a Difference Agile Development Makes

By Madeline Weiss

Can you have your systems delivered faster and also have higher quality and customer acceptance? Verisk Analytics discovered that you can with agile development.

When Perry Rotella joined Verisk Analytics in 2009 as its CIO, he sought to substantially increase the pace of delivering high-quality IT solutions, which are critical to Verisk’s success as a data and analytics provider to such industries as insurance, health care, financial services, and supply chain.

Dramatically different results required a dramatically different approach. Instead of the traditional waterfall method in which all requirements are detailed before the system is designed, coded, tested and finally implemented, Rotella introduced agile development. Carefully limited sprints at Verisk deliver new capabilities every two weeks through strong collaboration among IT staff and project stakeholders. And an emphasis on continuous testing and integration, daily status updates, and dynamic prioritization enables agile development teams to quickly adapt to customer feedback and help ensure the best outcome.

Beginning in 2010, agile development was successfully piloted at Verisk with two high-profile projects that have since been rolled out across most of the enterprise. The first project involved a new product for fraud prevention, which had to be completed in time for a demonstration at a national convention. “With agile development, we accomplished what would have been impossible to do with a waterfall method,” according to one of the project’s stakeholders. “Everyone was accountable daily for their work, and the result was magic.”

The second project was for one of Verisk’s most important clients, a Fortune 100 company. The project—to connect data from three health-care providers for the Fortune 100 company’s new health benefits program—had failed twice before Verisk was engaged in May 2012. The project had to be completed by December 31, 2012, the start of the new benefit year. The client, its health-care providers and Verisk all had to collaborate to develop a system in which complex data from multiple sources could be integrated and used in real-time. Verisk provided the project management and platform for integration. Despite the challenge of collaborating across different teams, the emphasis on continuous integration helped to raise and resolve problems much earlier than with a more traditional approach—and the project was successfully completed by the deadline.

Today, agile development is used in at least 80 percent of all development projects at Verisk. The response from the operating units to agile development has been enthusiastic, and Verisk’s senior executive team has been impressed with the timeliness and high quality of the projects.

Rotella cites four lessons from the experience:

Take time to learn agile development’s methods before beginning.
Agile development requires a radically different approach to development, such as creating stories (aspects of business functionality), prototyping, continuous integration, collaborative ownership, new coding standards, simple design, pair programming and test-driven development. Participants must understand this approach and reach a certain level of comfort in applying it.

Create one manager for a project.
Members of agile teams can be geographically dispersed and work for different organizations successfully as long as one leader sets the direction, controls the plan, and coordinates activities. One non-obvious function of the leader is to ensure that all team members have similar expectations.

Get business participation right.
Clarifying the roles of project stakeholders in the process is critical. They must be empowered and accountable for making decisions as needed.

Manage the bigger picture.
Although agile development delivers specific projects exceptionally well, it’s not a substitute for upfront thinking on architecture, technology and scalability. In addition, organizations must create and manage a product roadmap to communicate how projects in the portfolio work together.

Verisk has demonstrated that agile development can be used on major, complex projects even with geographically distributed teams. With careful preparation, agile development can improve both time to market and quality while increasing business satisfaction with the process and the delivered outcomes.  

About the Author

Madeline Weiss, Ph.D., is director of the Society for Information Management‘s Advanced Practices Council, a research-based program for CIOs and senior IT executives. To learn more about how the APC helps deliver transformational solutions to organizations, download its recently released report, Anchored Agility: How to Effectively Manage the Balance between Local Flexibility and Global Efficiency.

To read her previous article for CIO Insight,How to Reduce Costs While Staying Agile,” click here.

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