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Aug 16 2012

Making Agile Work for Government: a Blended Approach (Part 1 of 3)


Making Agile Work for Government: a Blended Approach (Part 1of 3)

Written By Erich Knausenberger and Raj Shah

Tuesday, 16 August 2012

Agile Journal


In an era of looming budget cuts, expanded oversight, and increasing demands on limited resources, government agencies have found that their ongoing initiatives must incorporate three new realities. First, agencies must do more with less by increasing efficiency, cutting waste, and maximizing return on investment. Second, agencies must respond quickly and effectively to changing stakeholder needs by delivering functionality to mission users in shorter timeframes and ensuring that programs remain closely aligned with evolving stakeholder requirements. Finally, through strong, accountable control, agencies must minimize program risk and ensure that expected results will be delivered when promised and for the expected cost.


As technology development programs represent some of the biggest line items on agency budgets, there should be little surprise that agile development, with its promise of a fast, lightweight, and iterative approach to delivery of value, has caught the attention of officials from across the government space as they seek to improve their programs’ productivity and effectiveness. Championed by former federal CIO Vivek Kundra [1] and his successor Steven VanRoekel, agile is at the heart of a concerted effort across government agencies to transform sluggish, multi-year, multibillion-dollar IT projects into efficient, responsive efforts that deliver usable, stakeholder-aligned functionality every few months. [2]

Many agencies (notably the FBI, NASA, and the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security) [3, 4] are taking agile adoption very seriously, but as highlighted in a recent US Government Accountability Office (GAO) study, [5] implementation of agile remains challenging in the government space. The challenges described in the GAO study illustrate an apparent misalignment between the agile development approach and the government’s traditional acquisition and performance-management methodologies. These challenges have led to the perception—especially among those who have encountered difficulties first-hand in implementation efforts—that agile is simply incompatible with the government’s need to minimize risks to budget, schedule, and scope through strong and disciplined program control. To further complicate the matter, government managers' diverse workloads rarely allow them the time to participate in daily agile and Scrum progress checks, raising the concern among some managers that agile efforts effectively reduce rather than enhance visibility into program progress.


In our experience, a “blended approach” to agile development offers an effective response to the challenges listed above. This approach maintains the core principles of agile while also applying elements of other industry practices to minimize risk, increase program control, transparency, and repeatability, and enable visibility and accountability without forcing agencies to completely abandon their traditional performance-management methodologies as a precondition for success. By mapping agile concepts and terminology to traditional program-management frameworks (e.g., the Software Development Lifecycle, or SDLC) and adding additional elements of discipline from proven industry practices, government programs are able to effectively address many of the most critical concerns surrounding “pure” agile implementations in the government space.


The blended approach adapts, rather than replaces, an agency’s traditional waterfall-based development methodology. It introduces many of the most critical elements of the agile approach (agile-style scope decomposition, iterative development, collaborative cross-functional teams, and frequent business involvement) but retains several of the more traditional elements (project-management tools and frameworks, detailed status and earned-value reporting, and deliverable documentation).


In a typical blended-agile implementation, the project team breaks the overall scope down into a series of four-month releases, which are in turn divided into multiple three to six week iterations. Each iteration produces a small, tested, integrated, and deployment-ready subset of the overall project solution, which the client validates to shape future iterations. To proactively mitigate risk and to quickly establish the effort’s foundational elements, the project builds and tests 10 to 20 percent of the total application within the first release, focusing on the most complex requirements and high-risk components first. Throughout the effort, the project dedicates time and resources to building and maintaining project management frameworks, plans, estimates, diagrams, and other key documents that it uses both to ensure stakeholder alignment on project activities, and to maintain compliance with agency program-lifecycle review gates. Project teams track individual status, risks, issues, and actions internally on a daily basis, and use these as inputs for more structured progress-tracking mechanisms (whether an agency-deployed Application Lifecycle Management (ALM) system, or simple progress dashboards) to ensure ongoing alignment across internal teams and with the client manager serving as product owner for the effort. The result, illustrated in Figure 1, is an approach that is not quite as fast or lightweight as a pure agile implementation, but effectively scales from small single-team efforts to large programs featuring multiple distributed teams and platforms.



Figure 1. Characteristics of the blended approach


Using the blended approach, government managers can improve their programs’ flexibility and responsiveness to changing mission needs across many development cycles, retain high levels of program control and transparency, and remain compliant with their agencies’ traditional program-control and acquisition frameworks. This approach represents more than a combination of agile and traditional methodologies, in that it also requires a careful re-framing of the context (the on-the-ground management language and delivery environment) in which a project is planned and executed. To succeed, a blended-agile project must be staffed with personnel conversant in both agile and traditional methodologies, who can translate and overlay critical elements of each method where required. Involved, engaged program leadership is similarly critical. Even though the blended approach does not represent the wholesale paradigm shift of a move to pure agile, it does require leaders who are willing to set priorities, provide direction, and be fully committed to support the new delivery approach and all that it entails.


When implemented properly, a blended approach to agile development offers government agencies the opportunity to leverage the greatest strengths of the agile methodology (speed, flexibility, and efficiency) while improving program accountability and reducing delivery risk. It also increases the likelihood that the program will deliver expected outcomes on time and on budget. While implementing any new methodology bears adoption risks founded on natural resistance to change, the blended agile approach helps minimize the “newness factor” by retaining and re-purposing many of the familiar elements of an agency’s existing delivery lifecycle, including gate reviews, earned value management, and formal status reporting.


The benefits of the blended approach are borne out in practice. Several US government agencies, including the US Department of Homeland Security, the National Institutes of Health, and others have successfully executed significant development projects using tailored, blended implementations of agile methodology. In each case, the projects have delivered high-value, high-impact results on an aggressive schedule, maintained high levels of program accountability and minimized the disruption to existing program control methodologies and oversight mechanisms.


In Parts two and three of this series, we will examine several of the most significant perceived challenges to the implementation of agile in the government space and explore a “blended agile” response to each.




1. Federal CIO Vivek Kundra Advises Government IT Leaders to Learn From Private Sector

2. Why Agencies Are Racing To Embrace Agile Development

3. Agile Government: Elusive, but Not Impossible (Really)

4. Homeland Security Tackles Agile Development

5. Software Development: Effective Practices and Federal Challenges in Applying Agile Methods


About the Authors


Erich Knausenberger


With over ten years’ professional experience in business consulting, strategic planning, and program management for clients ranging from government agencies to nonprofit organizations, Erich Knausenberger brings to Sapient a background in organizational transformation, process improvement, and operational efficiency enhancement. Erich holds an MBA from Georgetown University and the ESADE Business School, and is an ITIL-certified PMP.


Raj Shah


As the head of Sapient Global Security and Critical Infrastructure division, Raj Shah brings to Sapient 16+ years of experience providing holistic insight and deep technological expertise. Working with both commercial and government clients, he has a background in technology planning, strategy, and software architecture design and development. Raj has been instrumental in Sapient’s growing account with the Department of Homeland Security, including work with US Customs and Border Protection and the US Immigration and the Customs Enforcement agencies. His focus includes expanding the company’s presence with the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy and the intelligence community. He holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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