Responding to Stakeholder Changes with Agile Software Development

Understand the difference between Agile development from other development methodologies.

Gain clear insights into change management practices used to manage changing requirements in software development.

Responding to Stakeholder Changes with Agile Software Development

A software development life cycle is a complex, challenging and a costly undertaking for a business. When you consider the extensive resources involved in software development, any project hurdle could halt the progress of that project. If not properly managed or planned ahead of time, a project is likely to over run its project timeline, budget and even fail. A common hurdle faced by project development teams are changing requirements, which may have a cascading impact on other phases of the development process. 

Considering the volatile and ever-changing nature of business environments, it’s imperative that an approach be used that is acceptive to such changes. That is where agile software development comes to the rescue. While there are many high-level benefits of using agile practices in demanding environments, there is still doubt surrounding as to how requirements changes are handled in agile project management for software development. Also, how stakeholders can be better handled throughout the development period. We put together an in depth article that answers these questions and also sheds light on the concept of requirement change management (RCM). 

What is Agile Software Development and Requirement Change Management?

Agile focuses on fast and innovative development practices that are acceptable to changing requirements at any stage of the development cycle. The approach does not focus on top-heavy requirements, rather requirements are incorporated incrementally as the project progresses. The agile philosophy believes in collaborative effort between cross functional teams and using experimental techniques for problem solving and change management. 

Requirement change management or simply RCM is a specialized procedure that involves documenting, analyzing, tracing, prioritizing and agreeing on a set of final requirements. Which is then adequately controlled and communicated to the concerned stakeholders. Since both Agile and RCM are continuous processes, RCM techniques are frequently incorporated in the greater agile software development principles patterns and practices 

How Agile Differs from other Development Methodologies

Traditional development methodologies are basic and straightforward. If we consider Waterfall for example, It functions in a sequence of stages that come down like a staircase, the completion of one stage is followed by the next with workflow in one linear direction. Requirement changes in specific are managed according to predetermined procedures in the earliest stages of development with little to no chances of visiting them again. Each stage taking its own predetermined time and then moving forward, until you finally get to see the final software product. 

Whereas if we consider Agile for the argument, it functions on a more flexible and adaptive approach to improve the software product. Consider moving around a circle with the possibility to revisit key development stages right across the middle of the cycle without having to complete a full loop. Agile involves using innovative practices to speed up the development lifecycle while satisfying the customer.  It clearly outlines in its manifesto, to provide regular delivery of working software to customers. In addition to welcoming change requirements even late in the development process. Agile is meant to respond to change as is when encountered than following a predetermined plan for the entire development process. The requirements are not ‘locked down’ in an agile project development style. 

How Agile Change Management Practices are used to Handle Changing Requirements from Stakeholders

The Agile change management practices are based on the four core values of the original Agile methodology manifesto: 

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation.
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
  • Responding to change over following a plan.

The below mentioned methods are the most common practices used to handle changing requirements when encountered. All of these methods resonate with the core values highlighted earlier. 

Stakeholders Should be Engaged throughout the Development Cycle

Stakeholders consist of individuals directly concerned with the development of a successful project, who in some form or another are directly affected by it. In a software development context, these may exist within an organization or outside of it and normally include investors, clients, end-users, etc. Stakeholders provide vital information regarding the project’s expectation, functionality, core requirements, and the problem it intends to solve. Considering their significance they need to be involved throughout the agile development process. 

Since change is inevitable and new requirements are likely to arise working in agile environments then why not involve the concerned stakeholders more frequently. When undertaking an agile project and conducting shorter sprint cycles, feedback after the end of each sprint activity will ensure the necessary changes are carried out earlier than later. Having the stakeholders involved more closely allows agile development teams to take more risks and experiment with additional techniques to solve problems. 

Design a Product Backlog that can Accommodate Changes

It’s a good practice to establish a product backlog considering the heaps of tasks and development activities regarding the product development in the pipeline. Having a neatly defined backlog helps set priorities in order of criticality and necessity. Consider a product backlog as the priority checklist according to which the sprint team would be working for. It assists teams in knowing which development activities are to be performed first and delivered. In order to create an effective backlog, its advisable to consider input from all stakeholders or keep the agenda in one of the meetings as ‘ Brainstorm Product Backlog Activities’.

Maintain Frequent and Open Communication Channels for All

Involving all stakeholders in meeting sessions is rarely ever seen as a priority for many agile project managers. Yes, meeting the sprint deadline is important but not at the cost of increased development related issues, which could have easily been sorted out with earlier communication. In order to address more change requirements whether new or existing, it’s better to have all stakeholders express their concerns during daily stand-up meetings. Rather than getting the awkward call in the middle of the night requesting ‘Interface Changes’. Frequent communication between project members allows them to open up about the progress they’ve made during the sprint cycles and any hurdles that came their way. Majority of the times those frequent meetings highlight vital information regarding issues and feedback for product improvements. 

Create Visible Task Boards for Increased Transparency  

In a high-paced agile environment, minor details and even the daily progress of tasks can be overlooked easily. In order for project members to be on top of their game, digital white boards need to be established that increase the visibility of what each member is doing along with the status of each task and its expected deadline. You might be wondering, isn’t that the same thing as the project management tools operated by project managers for the entire project. Those tools are different meant specifically for the PM to use in order to ‘Run and Manage’ the project development cycle at a high level. Whereas these digital task boards are meant for smaller teams to be used and overseen by a team lead, senior agile developer or manager of that respective sprint cycle.

The task board is used to divide tasks into separate columns of To Do, In Process, Under Testing, and Completed. Members are assigned to each task card (Job), so all project members know who is doing what task and when that member completes that task. Once completed they move the respective task card to the next stage and it carries from there till reaching the completed column. By having an agile task board, changing requirements are clearly visible in addition to their current status and their impact on tasks yet to be completed. Sprint Managers have a clear outlook of the original requirements and how much has been changed since. Issues arising with changing requirements during a sprint can be mentioned in the comments section of that respective task card (Job). The chances of feedback and input from other project members increases even further than waiting for the physical meeting the next day.