Lisa Zellers

6 keys to enabling holistic agile transformation in the federal government

Federal policy direction, rapid technology advances, and the increasing cost of legacy maintenance are driving the need to modernize outdated government systems and develop innovative technology approaches faster than ever before.

While agile concepts have been around in certain forms for decades, agile first came into prominence for federal software development following the U.S. CIO’s 25 Point IT Implementation Plan to Reform Federal Information Technology Management (2010) and the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010. Both promoted the use of iterative, rapid development methodologies to deliver high-priority user functionality—early and often.

Since then, agile has proliferated across the federal space. The majority of federal IT practitioners and even business owners now understand the range of benefits agile offers, including: improving project visibility, increasing team productivity, accelerating product delivery, enhancing team abilities to navigate changing priorities, enhancing quality, and more. Yet, despite the inclusion of agile in government recommendations and regulations, many agencies (like many commercial companies) have struggled with successful implementation. One reason is because agile transformation is more than just introducing efficiencies into existing processes—it’s about doing and thinking differently.

How can agencies more effectively and consistently transform into agile operations? Here are six success factors:

  1. Establish a transformation plan. A transformation action plan helps teams shift their focus toward creating customer-centric, high-value products and more frequent releases. It takes into account all the moving pieces of the end-to-end transformation process, including objectives definition, team formation strategies, organizational training, a governance operating model, metrics, and tooling. Most successful transformations are planned through a series of pilots, followed by an iterative roll-out.
  2. Change organizational culture to be more agile. You can’t just do agile, you have to be agile. One of the most commonly cited challenges to the adoption and scaling of agile is an organizational culture in conflict with agile values. In order to put agile concepts into practice and reap the rewards, agencies must actively enable a cultural shift. This means changing everything from acquisitions to evaluation.
  3. Engage executive leadership. Executive leadership plays a critical role in the success of agile transformation. Beyond providing approval, leaders should facilitate their team’s journey through active engagement, and through cultural and contractual alignment. These leaders are in a prime position to provide the necessary resources and training to facilitate team success.
  4. Adopt an agile mindset. If organizations take the time to familiarize their teams with agile values, principles and practices, and fully invest in fostering an agile mindset and culture, they will more successfully realize positive outcomes. (Read more on adopting an agile and lean mindset in a blog by my colleague Michelle Gilboy)
  5. Have a clear vision for your product. Defining your vision aligns your agile development teams, stakeholders, and end users. This means involving everyone on the team in the vision creation process from the beginning to capture all perspectives early on. Ask: What value will this product add? Who will use and benefit from it? Which processes will it help simplify?
  6. Don’t let tools be a driving force. Prematurely narrowing your tooling options can limit the use of dashboards, risk management and reporting charts and features, release tracking, and more down the road. Defining clear change objectives enables your teams to fill gaps by introducing the right tools, or reconfiguring existing tools, to maximize value in solving the right problems.
  7. Drive and sustain a culture of collaboration. As change speeds up, communication can fall between the cracks, thus inhibiting collaboration, creating delays and decreasing quality. Co-locate teams as much as possible to create an environment for easier alignment and to provide the opportunity for quicker issue resolution.

Although federal projects face different challenges than private organizations seeking to adopt an agile approach, these challenges are far from insurmountable with the right strategy. Agile practices are flexible to meet the needs of even the most constrained projects, promoting quicker delivery of critical innovations. By approaching transformation holistically, a number of agencies have successfully launched agile workforces and have started making gains.

Agile transformation in government is an ongoing journey. By creating a plan, leveraging external experts, and fully embracing the key lessons of agile, agencies can harness the power of this development methodology to innovate and continuously improve. Learn more about our federal agile application lifecycle approach and agile coaching for federal agencies, or contact me to continue this conversation on enabling government transformation.

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