By Dan Chenok and Joiwind Ronen

Over the past several years, government has taken cues from industry about the value of adopting an agile approach to software development.

OMB policy and this Administration have established offices across government to help agencies implement agile practices, including OMB’s US Digital Service, GSAs 18F program, and agency digital services teams. In 2012, IBM’s Center for the Business of Government published a report that placed agile concepts in context for government leaders and stakeholders. Recently, many agencies and programs have employed or expanded the use of agile as a technique to improve management practices and program outcomes more generally.

With the coming change in Administrations, solidifying agile as an effective and go-to approach will help to strengthen the management of programs, both now and in the coming years. Agency leaders can and should leverage agile management as an approach to help drive progress in both IT and program delivery, by breaking large governmental processes into iterative components that involve key stakeholders which accelerates processes and improves the quality of the solution, just as agile software development takes advantage of continuous delivery and user feedback to produce demonstrable value for users at lower implementation risk.

Last month, the IBM Center for The Business of Government partnered with Ethos Strategic Consulting to convene a roundtable discussion about the use of agile practices to improve program management and outcomes.  The session brought together thought leaders from both government and industry to address how best to further the adoption of agile approaches across government, focusing on the key areas of leadership and change management; transparency and stakeholder engagement; and procurement and results.

Participants shared challenges, successes, and best practices for continuing to drive the adoption of agile management practices in government. We summarize their key findings and recommendations below, and will continue to help drive dialogue on how government can adapt agile management approaches to enhance the ever increasing pace of technological change, and produce the outcomes that the American public expects.

Leadership and Change Management

  • In order to successfully run programs using an agile to approach, leaders must set a clear vision, empower team members, stay engaged, and remove obstacles.
  • for some organizations, a shift from a more linear to interactive/agile approach to developing and delivering programs may represent a significant change in policy, culture, roles and responsibilities, and possibly even program oversight. Like any change effort, leaders should not underestimate the need to acknowledge and explain the change underway.
  • Although agile delivery is based on flexibility, the leader’s job in this environment is to set a clear vision and ensure that teams continue to move in the direction that brings this vision to reality. While tactics may change along the way, the leader must keep the team focused on the original vision and the problem the team is trying to solve.
  • With a clear vision continuously communicated to the team, the leader’s next job is to ensure that every individual feels empowered to make decisions in service of that vision. The Roundtable discussion referenced the idea of “commander’s intent,” a military management tenet where all subordinates understand the operation’s purpose, and what constitutes success; when employed effectively, everyone is granted the ability to make decisions, and they do so based on the intent set forward by their leadership.  This piece is critical because the leader is not involved in every step toward execution.
  • In order for the above to succeed, executives cannot disengage once the execution phase beings. An effective leader will stay embedded in the work of their team, reiterating the vision and end goal and making decisions about strategic adjustments along the way.
  • Leaders must knock out obstacles that get in the way of their team’s ability to deliver.  Leaders and their teams must work with business partners in procurement, HR, and operations to clear the path for successful outcomes.

Transparency and Stakeholder Engagement

  • Government programs and initiatives often have broad and complex stakeholder groups, and effective engagement of these audiences will yield a stronger end product.
  • From day one, agencies should incorporate stakeholder engagement and transparency into their approaches. These groups should be brought in at the beginning of an initiative, not just provided the solution at the end.  Specifically:
  • It is critical to work closely with business partners on how they can add to success. This means program leaders play the role as educators about how agile development extends beyond the IT team, and what it means to align business functions accordingly.
  • To ensure the solution meets the government’s stringent security requirements, security and quality assurance teams should work alongside leadership to evaluate each iteration of the technical solution, rather than waiting until the end and finding out there is a problem.
  • Talking to users or customers regularly and gaining a thorough understanding of their needs and behaviors is another critical piece to finding the best solution.
  • Stakeholder engagement must be accompanied by transparency. Program communications should include not just successes, but failures and challenges as well. A continuous and open dialogue with stakeholders will allow them to help identify new solutions and paths forward and will help to continuously improve the process.

Procurement and Results

  • Procurement professionals can make or break a program. Effective agile teams will work closely with these partners early and often to employ agile acquisition methods that will provide better transparency, reduced risk, and much-needed flexibility. Procurement professionals should be part of the team up front.  The more procurement professional understand the requirements, the more effective they can be in helping find the best procurement tools to effect the optimal solution.
  • With the recent establishment of Acquisition Innovation labs by the Administration, the door is open to embrace innovation in this area and push for solutions that align with a leader’s vision, all in a safe environment where different ideas and strategies can be tested.  Establishing a Council comprising the agency Acquisition Innovation Advocates will facilitate the sharing of best practices, successes, and even failures to learn from.

Next Steps

The Roundtable discussion represented a first step in addressing how to best implement agile management practices in agencies and programs; the group supported continuing and expanding this dialogue.  One idea for consideration is the development of an agile management “playbook” that would provide effective practices for the constituencies that impact agile development, including procurement professionals, oversight (e.g., IG/GAO/legal), human resources, and communications. The Center and Ethos look forward to joining other government leaders and stakeholders in continuing the journey toward greater agility.