Infrastructure and operations (I&O) leaders are under huge pressure to improve agility to accelerate product delivery and strengthen alignment between IT and the business. However, little guidance exists about what it means for I&O to become agile, as most existing literature around agile is aimed at development groups.

Here is where the difference between becoming agile and “agile” as a methodology is key. What I&O leaders are actually being asked to do is to improve agility — the ability to respond to changes. They are not being asked to try to implement a particular agile development approach, such as Scrum or XP. 

In many ways, agile is not just a firmly codified methodology and set of practices; it is a mindset, and it can offer important lessons for I&O leaders. Here are four recommendations for I&O leaders to begin the journey towards improving infrastructure agility

Map customer journeys and improve communications

The goal of I&O is to provide capabilities – products, platforms or services – that optimize value, cost and risk for customers. That means I&O leaders must engage customers to better understand their needs and streamline communication with internal teams to ensure products reflect those needs.

To do so, I&O teams can improve their understanding of the customer experience through customer journey mapping. Work with stakeholders and customers to map customers’ experiences with the products, platforms or services I&O provides, and identify areas where improvement is needed.

Then, streamline the process of making these improvements by strengthening communications with the product team. Start by having an I&O representative attend an App Dev sprint planning meeting. This is a simple way to bridge the gap in how I&O and App Dev work and view each other. It can also enable I&O to see and help shape product requirements earlier. Ensure the I&O representative selected is keen on the idea, open to change and a strong communicator. Pitch their attendance to the product team leader as an opportunity to help, better understand needs and enable both teams to work more collaboratively on delivering the product.

Use a Kanban approach to streamline workflow

Interruptions to the I&O team’s workflow increase the risk that results will not be delivered when needed. Kanban is an approach used in agile practices, which aims to enhance workflow by improving work visibility and putting rules in place to limit waiting and interruptions. 

Use the customer journey map as a starting point to understand typical I&O workflows and engage with the team to identify common interruptions. Then, design the initial Kanban board, keeping it as simple as possible. A typical Kanban board might flow from left to right and include:

  • Columns that reflect process states from proposal through post-delivery 
  • Policies for each column/process state
  • Task cards (Kanban) that move across the board as tasks reach new stages of completion
  • Work-in-progress limits that identify and communicate interruptions or dependencies

As teams become more comfortable with the Kanban process, enhance the board to make work more visible while improving throughput of the workflow. Capture benefits and market the value to increase adoption.

Tailor agile practices for I&O

Part of an agile approach is optimizing the delivery of customer value relative to cost and risk. This means improving operational activities to reduce interruptions to higher-value planned work. Interruptions can be insidious because of the costs incurred when a person or team needs to switch tasks. The disruption to continuity of thought and emotional state can be problematic as well — the person or team may never be as productive as before the interruption.

I&O leaders must seek approaches to reduce the probability of, and impacts from, unplanned work. To reduce interruptions caused to planned work, improve monitoring, and enter incidents in a backlog for the I&O shift operations manager to filter and prioritize. Evolve change management practices to properly balance speed and risk. Finally, implement “blameless postmortems” to learn and avoid recurrence.

In addition, consider creating cross-functional teams that can work together to provision infrastructure. Standardize builds and move away from custom manual builds. Introduce new ways of working, including sprint events, having a backlog and a list of tasks for the sprint and the release. Use an agile coach to help the team members learn as they work.

Emphasize learning and continual improvement

Most I&O environments are complex and rapidly changing. To counter constant change, I&O leaders must enable agility by enabling their organizations to continually learn and improve. All efforts should seek to optimize value, cost and risk on behalf of customers and prospective customers.

Instill the foundations of learning and continual improvement, create opportunities for people to create, transfer, retain and unlearn knowledge. Implement metrics that help track progress that customers care about and speak with customers about how efforts will help them achieve their goals. In short, appeal to mutual success. Celebrate successes to reinforce changes. 

For I&O to embrace a truly agile approach, change must be able to happen as learning happens and as the environment and situation change. Rigidly following an obsolete plan won’t help optimize value, cost and risk, nor will it advance organizational learning. Continually return to the foundations of the agile methodology and the core of what it means to be agile. 

Make these concepts real to I&O

It’s one thing to discuss how I&O can theoretically embrace an agile approach; it’s another to apply these actions in a real-life setting. To demonstrate how these concepts can be applied, Gartner analysts authored a fictional story about a traditional I&O team that was directed to adopt agile and how they responded. In the words of the authors, “the real value with this research note is the story, because it brings these concepts to life.”

Gartner analysts Daniel Betts, Hassan Ennaciri and Roger Williams contributed to this research.