Making Agile Work for Government: Perceived Challenges to Agile Adoption

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It can be challenging when agencies try to map agile projects to the traditional engineering lifecycle. Where the traditional lifecycle anticipates a series of sequential steps (plan, design, build, test, etc.) that must be completed before the project can move on to the next phase, agile delivery is neither sequential nor linear. Instead, agile development focuses on delivering the key elements of project functionality in overlapping, iterative cycles that incorporate multiple different lifecycle elements (requirements gathering, design, development, testing, deployment, etc.) over shorter periods of time. Ultimately, an agile project will deliver the same functionality as a traditional project, but the way in which it delivers that functionality is very different.

To make agile development work when it’s expected that the team needs to comply with traditional program control processes, the team needs to use a hybrid approach to delivery and review for its project. At the beginning, the team can conduct a high-level planning and scope-definition effort (such as a planning workshop or a series of subject matter expert (SME)-led planning meetings) to build the overall delivery framework, then it can map subsequent lifecycle gate reviews or acquisition system milestones to checkpoints that coincide with the completion of core project functionality elements and iteration checkpoints, as shown in Figure 1.

fig 1

Figure 1. Mapping agile to traditional project lifecycle gates

In this hybrid approach, the mapped gate reviews are a series of program-risk-control checkpoints that enable government leadership to validate key elements of delivered functionality and redirect project efforts, rather than simply serving as a series of checklists for program completeness.

Where traditional agile development tends to emphasize the rapid delivery of system functionality over documentation, the hybrid approach must be adapted to function in the government space. As part of the initial lifecycle mapping process, the project must also map and plan for the development of the necessary documents and supporting artifacts that are  required for each lifecycle gate and acquisition milestone review. Under the hybrid approach, the project team iteratively develops and improves key documents and supporting artifacts alongside actual system functionality, with each element (documentation and development) directly informing the other. This approach can make the overall effort more complex, but it offers a unique opportunity to reduce delivery risk and increase product quality through development and validation of relevant documentation as project work progresses.

The hybrid approach invariably requires careful management of expectations and advance approval for modification or tailoring out of documents that traditionally accompany milestone reviews, an effort that must be built into the contractor’s proposal response and contract-negotiation process. However, by carefully mapping and tailoring the agile development effort to a given agency’s traditional development lifecycle, the new agile initiative can largely mitigate and bridge the institutional “acceptance gap” that it might otherwise face if it were to attempt delivery using only the agile approach.


Read all of the articles on Making Agile Work for Government:

Making Agile Work for Government: A Blended Approach
Making Agile Work for Government: Perceived Challenges to Agile Adoption
Making Agile Work for Government: Addressing the Challenges of Agile Adoption

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