Adopting Agile Portfolio Management
The process of scaling agility can bring significant changes in the entire organization. At its essence, portfolio management is all about making informed choices based on knowledge and understanding. Agile portfolio management calls for an entirely new kind of working culture in which the commitment of all stakeholders is essential. It incorporates agile principles into the planning of larger and more complex development initiatives.
Agile portfolio management is especially crucial when planning initiatives that require significant inputs from several development teams. The portfolio is designed for continuous flow, aiming to generate value faster and in smaller batches (Minimum Viable Product, MVP). During development stages, companies often tend to experience a silo effect — teams have their own goals and may not be working towards achieving the overall strategic objectives. While the top management sets strategic goals and communicates them to the organization, the goals don’t often reach the daily operations of development teams. As operations expand, managing the whole system can become a considerable challenge.
Elisa set out to solve this particular challenge together with Qentinel Finland, company part of Gofore Group. The two companies had previously focused on test automation and improving the value creation of the development teams. Agile portfolio management, however, involved different business units for the first time, creating a unique situation.
Working together for transparency and flexibility
To increase transparency and flexibility, Elisa identified the need to introduce more agility to portfolio management. “Elisa needed to get a better picture of the priorities of this development area, and also its dependencies,” says Jussi-Pekka Erkkola, Director, ECommerce & Digital Services at Elisa.
Additionally, linking team level development items to the strategy was seen as a significant challenge. “The big picture question is how to ensure better visibility and the ability to prioritize for both management and employees,” says Lari Laine, who works as a Service Manager at Elisa.
Qentinel Finland and Elisa worked on this together by setting a shared vision for agile portfolio management to clearly define the model and outline its objectives for a successful collaboration. “Initially, we came up with a way to facilitate this process, created a portfolio, and then defined operational practices and certain structures at its foundation,” Laine adds.
The companies agreed on clear frameworks and deadlines for this agile experiment. “Based on the situation, we made fixes and updated the process. However, we adhered to a clear template,” says Erkkola. “Right from the start, we divided our work together into phases and we were clear that we would move forward in small steps,” says Tomi Korpela, Elisa’s Head of Customer and Online Solutions, IT.
Overall, the collaboration was classified into two phases — performing the tasks and continuously improving the process. “One phase was portfolio building and related practices, team documentation, and training. The second phase dealt with the development of operations, with a focus on current learnings and the way ahead,” Erkkola points out.
Adopting an agile experiment was a natural step. “At Elisa, we promote a culture of experimentation and encourage people to innovate,” Korpela adds.
Portfolio management is not just an annual plan, but a continuous process
Achieving lasting change can take a surprisingly vast amount of work, time, and resources. “When we started working on portfolio management, we imagined it would be like doing anything else — use a ready-made framework and a business model and apply it to the process,” Korpela observes. However, it turned out to be more complex than a normal development initiative.
It was essential to break down the progress of the initiative into small steps and milestones, making changes as and when needed — this helped simplify and manage the complexities better. “Don’t get caught up on particular roadblocks — you can always change direction if necessary and learn from it,” says Laine, summing up his process.
The benefit of an agile initiative was that it was possible to experiment with the unknown and figure out if it works or if the operating model still needs to be tweaked.
Small successes and practices build a culture
The most significant benefit of this initiative was the bold culture of experimentation and continuous feedback brought about by agile portfolio management. “Thanks to experimentation, a new model is constantly being created, which can be updated and corrected as we go forward. Nothing is set in stone; everything can change if necessary,” Laine says.
Erkkola adds, “It has helped us identify weaknesses that we need to address to be better prepared. The quality of development has improved.”
It was also crucial to understand how significant this initiative is for Elisa. “Everyone involved in introducing this portfolio management system knows that it is critical for us,” Korpela says.
When a portfolio is designed for continuous use, there is also room for constant improvement through a process of reflection. “By adopting an MVP approach, we narrowed down our scope to such an extent that we were able to identify bigger challenges which thought would only be solved later. In short, we were always moving forward in the right direction throughout the whole process of building this system,” Korpela says. This is where the advantages of an agile method become clear — value can be created rapidly and in smaller batches.
This new kind of operating culture built through small successes is gaining recognition. “We are doing something important, and we have taken the smallest step forward,” Korpela adds. A curious, open, and positive approach towards an agile model can help further expand the operating model in the future.
Honest and open collaboration
Elisa professionals feel positive about working with Qentinel Finland — at the heart of what we do together is a knowledgeable, conversational, and a healthy critical approach. The work has truly been collaborative — if something is not working, even difficult matters are openly discussed without hesitation. “The Qentinelians were pushing us to move forward and holding us accountable — that’s what we needed! All in good spirit, of course,” says Korpela.
The need for agile and interest in portfolio management is being discussed in other parts of the organization too. “We have felt the need to implement this kind of action even at the top management level,” Korpela explains.
The portfolio already includes the largest business units and will be further expanded — the goal is to eventually extend the principles of agile portfolio management to the entire organization. By working together, Qentinel Finland and Elisa’s relationship will continue growing stronger in the future.
Developing a link to strategy
Management of a complex system
Faster value in small batches
"We have felt the need to implement this kind of action even at the top management level."
Head of Customer and Online solutions, IT
"Thanks to experimentation, a new model is constantly being created, which can be updated and corrected as we go forward. Nothing is set in stone; everything can change if necessary."