Agile is the rising star of the IT department, promising to deliver projects in a fraction of the time that it took using traditional ‘waterfall’ methodologies.

Waterfall-led projects involve detailed documentation of every step and specification of a project, with delivery of the finished product or service at the very end of the process. Agile, in the case of one of its most commonest forms known as Scrum, simplifies the planning stage and breaks down large programmes into iterations that deliver potentially workable products or services within two to four weeks. The result is the delivery of regular upgrades, rather than waiting years for a entire system to be delivered.

By taking the agile approach to IT project delivery the Wellcome Trust, the UK-based charity that aims to improve human and animal health, was able to deliver 69 IT projects last year – ranging from upgrading 1,000 desktops to Office 2010 in four months to implementing electronic payslips.

Since the trust’s IT department began the shift to agile methodology in 2009, the department has delivered projects that have helped realise £1.9m-worth of cost savings.

Mark Bramwell, head of IT for the Wellcome Trust, said: “It’s allowed us to support growth, to work smarter and more effectively and realise productivity gains and savings.”

The agile approach immediately slims down a project’s preparatory documentation and design work. The trust has replaced months of drafting design specifications with sessions where the IT team, their outsourcing partners and business users hammer out ways to solve business problems.

“We can typically condense six months of activities down to a small number of days or weeks,” he said.

“It’s about ‘Let’s not try and pin down everything on day one, because we’re not going to know all the answers on day one’. Instead it’s ‘Let’s get the important messages and the concepts clear on day one and then identify what the problem is we’re trying to address, and what the likely benefit is’.

“If we religiously followed Prince (PRojects IN Controlled Environments) cover-to-cover we’d still be sat here documenting, and I believe we wouldn’t have delivered half the capability we have.”

Agile’s benefits extend beyond rapid deployment, Bramwell said, as the closer communication between the IT teams and business users leads to a solution that better meet the needs of the business.

“Our understanding of what we’re trying to achieve is much better, so we know the root causes that we’re trying to address,” adding that it has helped identify situations where a need can be met by an existing system or software.

Making agile work requires what Bramwell describes as a “relationship change” within an organisation, needing both the IT team and the rest of the business to devote regular blocks of time to discussing project requirements and outcomes, which they need to fit around the daily demands of the job.

“Working in an agile way means you need more access and time from your colleagues within the business to be able to sit down and co-create solutions. You’ve got to have strong productive relationships to work in this way.”

The IT team also has to adjust to working with less comprehensive documentation, and be able to handle repeated changes to a project’s specification.

“You’ve got to be able to live and deal with ambiguity, and within that be able to mitigate risk. It’s an evolutionary journey in terms of programme delivery, rather than a rigid, structured programme delivery.”

Another danger with agile projects, Bramwell said, is that they can get stuck in the design and creation phase, as the team gets addicted to constantly revising the what they project will deliver.

Bramwell said: “You deal with this through good project management, good business analysis, good governance, and reminding people there’re still benefits to be delivered, targets to hit, and still a cost of ownership associated with a programme.”

He estimates that it took about 18 months to get his team of 42 IT staff and outsourcing partners up to the “maximum effectiveness” in terms of agile delivery.

But he said that he found that the IT team have been keen to embrace agile: “People take great pride and motivation in delivering more. If you spoke to anybody at the end of a year, would they take more pride in having delivered 10 projects quickly and well or one project?”

Agile’s modular and less documented approach clearly isn’t suited to every IT project, for instance those involving large infrastructure upgrades or to develop a mission critical piece of software.

But Bramwell said that any business that doesn’t have agile capability risks being left behind by its rivals.

Agile organisations, Bramwell said, “have one eye on the horizon so they’re anticipating what the changes are going to be, and if leftfield events come they are able to respond to them more easily – so they are much more ahead of the game than the competition.”