Agile project management conjures up the image of scruffy software programmers surrounded by empty pizza boxes at 3 AM hacking away at producing the next Google. What could Agile possibly bring to accounting and income tax preparation? Actually a lot, and it could transform your workflow and provide a quantum leap in the the efficiency of your project management.
Agile project management comes from the latter half of the last decade when the software industry became frustrated with project time and cost overruns. I became aware of Agile a couple years ago, because my wife is a cyber security engineer working on federal government projects. She was struggling with incorporating security engineering into the Agile process. Because of the maxim, “Happy wife, happy life,” I did some research so that we could discuss her frustrations in the morning while getting ready for work. It was either me or the dog, and since the dog had a higher social standing in the house, it was me.
Agile, as its name suggests, values the ability to switch course midstream in a project when a customer’s needs change or are reinterpreted. It addresses the problem of scope creep in programming projects. Customers never seem to want exactly what they tell you in the beginning. Thus, Agile developed as a method of incorporating changing customer circumstances in project management.
The Agile methodology incorporates a couple methods of responding to changing requirements called sprints and scrums. These concepts are useful in CPA, accounting, and tax practices.
Sprints are concerted group pushes to accomplish a set of goals determined at the beginning of a sprint. In the software world, this means adding and testing a set of features by a deadline. In our accounting world, a sprint could be the completion of a specific group of tax returns or financial statements by a team.
Scrums are short tightly focused meetings of team members to overcome project hurdles. In the software world, the hurdles are typically bugs or customer scope changes. In the accounting world, scrums are short team meetings to discuss why projects are stuck in process.
Here are some recommendations for sprints and scrums in the accounting world. First, your firm must be organized into project teams. A tax prep team might consist of a partner, a manager, and some preparers. A partner could head multiple teams.
Second, a sprint is an identification of projects that can be accomplished in a short period of time. For example, tax season is way too long to be a sprint. We all know it’s an Ironman triathlon. A week is a reasonable time for a sprint. Identify projects that can be done by the end of the sprint or projects that need to make a certain level of agreed upon progress by the end of the sprint.
Finally, each sprint is kicked off with a scrum. Since teams are relatively small, scrums require only ten to fifteen minutes. Team members are expected to arrive with full status reports on obstacles to project completion. Either the manager or the partner will take the lead role on discussing and removing the obstacles as well as detailing the projects to be completed by the end of the next sprint.
Here’s how sprints and scrums work for me.
I head a team of tax preparers and managers. We have defined a sprint as one week. Every Monday morning, we scrum. Using Clarity Practice Management, I create a list of all projects in process sorted by project status. We go from top to bottom with the preparer for each project giving a ten second status report. If a scrum takes more than ten minutes, we are wasting time somewhere in the process.
The key purpose of the scrum I identifying and removing obstacles to project completion. Sometimes, we are waiting for client input. Right on the spot, I’ll post a reminder note to the client’s project on CPM.
Sometimes obstacles aren’t really obstacles at all. For example, a preparer might be stuck waiting on a piece of information that someone else on the team already has. He might be waiting on a 1099-INT that someone else on the team got by e-mail days earlier. Or, maybe we really don’t need that 1099-INT if last year’s amount was $11. Either the manager or I will make that call, and the preparer goes back to work.
Without scrums, small or nonexistent obstacles kill project turnaround and cause unhappy clients. Dealing with obstacles in a scrum always leads to some sort of positive action, and action is the only possible driver of progress.
So the next time, you run into that unkempt programmer, you should feel a kinship with him. You are brothers in the Agile fight, applying sprints and scrums to remove obstacles to project completion. Maybe, you’ll even convince him to toss out the pizza boxes and take a shower.
Thanks for reading!
Frank Stitely, CPA, CVA