Don’t Ask for Permission to Use Agile. Just Start Doing It.

graja/Shutterstock.com

In attempting to move your program to agile methods, you may encounter a number of challenges more common for government program managers than for commercial firms.

Robert L. Read is a computer scientist, author, consultant and inventor, currently attempting to meld the Maker movement, open source and hardware invention into a movement for invention in the public interest called public invention. He was a Presidential Innovation Fellow in 2013 and co-­founded 18F and 18F Consulting. Twitter: @RobertLeeRead

Government program managers who want to pass on to the taxpayers the benefits of agile software development face some challenges that stem from noble intentions to avoid waste, fraud and abuse or the accusation thereof:

● To avoid waste, government workers tend to be very risk­ averse. This tends to favor “big design up front," which ironically leads to much greater risk.

● Government workers tend not to invite the customers to see the sausage being made, but wait until the silver platter is ready. All too often, that means the customer never gets to eat at all.

● To avoid the appearance of impartiality, governments workers tend to avoid informal interaction with their customers. These attitudes are specifically opposed to the agile manifesto.

Government workers are under some pressure to do the wrong thing. Such as:

● To value processes over individuals to be able to justify choices;

● To value comprehensive documentation over working software because it is hard to explain that an unreleased prototype is valuably mitigating risk;

● To value contract negotiation over customer collaboration because it seems to place all the risk of non­performance on the vendor, and:

● To follow a plan rather than responding to change because of a risk-­averse culture.

In attempting to move your program to agile methods, you may encounter a number of challenges that are more common for government PMs than for commercial firms.

Firm ­Fixed ­Price Attitude that Insists on Lengthy Requirements Upfront

It is officially implied that firm ­fixed ­price is the “least risky” means of procurement. In fact, the opposite is true, at least so far as software development is concerned.

Firmed fixed price, or FFP, is inimical to agile development because it demands all requirements be known (and captured in a document) before work is done. This is the same as saying there will be no learning and change during the execution of the contract, which is directly opposed to the agile manifesto.

Firm fixed price enshrines the idea of contraction negotiation rather than communication, when in actuality it is communication that speeds and de­risks software development.

Government knowledge workers and procurement officers must avoid these traps to get the benefits of agile development. Just don’t use FFP.​

Not Knowing How to Procure Product ­Building Services Rather Than Products

It is easy to say “Just don’t use FFP”­­­ but what, constructively, is the government project manager and procurement professional to do instead?

The conclusion that some of us at 18F came to was to use a strategy first articulated by Mark Schwartz, chief information officer of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services: “Buy competent teams, rather than buying a product​.”

The basic approach is to write a contract saying the team will do whatever you tell them to do communicated via an agile process, such as SCRUM. This allows you to have great flexibility and avoids the terrible problem of having to write a huge, perfect requirements document ahead of time before you really know what you need.

Inertia and Inexperience

The government has been late to adopt agile methods. A would­-be instigator now finds herself in a lonely place surrounded by habits and ways of thinking not easily changed.

Experience teaches the best way to convince people is to show them an artifact. ​A picture is worth a thousand words, a demo is worth a million and project delivered on time worth 10 million.

You must educate yourself and then find a way to succeed with a tiny agile project to build support for larger projects. If this has to be a one-­person, one-­week project, so be it.

Accountability Seen as Opposing Experimentation

Experiments sometimes fail. The media tends to looks on failure as waste. But experimentation is critical to effective learning and agile methods. Use agile methods to keep experimental failures small​. Agile allows you to fail several times each week. You cannot be accused of self­-serving dishonesty if everybody can see your backlog and your burndown chart.

Inability to Adjust Existing Policies

To follow an agile process, government habits may have to change, and formal policies may have to be re-­interpreted.

In general, don’t seek anybody’s permission to use agile. Just start doing it. But there may be times when you have to get your boss to adjust policies for you. That is their job.

Executives support agile when they see it decreases the risk of them looking bad and increases their ability to predictably get work done on time.​ Show them the money.

Keeping Customer at Arm’s Length

Many government organizations have a tradition and even rules about communicating with the end-­user.

There is a secret key to agile development: Magic happens when you get customers and developers in the same room. Do whatever it takes ​to get a customer in the same room with your development team.

The best interaction with the customer occurs both during story ­writing and at the time of demos during sprints. If at all possible, have customers present during both these activities​.

Misusing Cybersecurity Concerns

Cybersecurity concerns are a heavy club to be wielded on any side of an argument. Agile methods allow you to build more secure software than traditional methods so long as proper weight is given to cybersecurity. Ironically, cybersecurity concerns can cause one to develop waterfall­-driven systems that are fragile and hard to update and keep secure.

The best argument against this is to point out that agility lets you respond more quickly to evolving security threats.

Attitudes that Open Source Software is Dangerous

Using open source makes one both more secure and able to prototype more rapidly. An organization that doesn’t use open source is fighting with one hand tied behind its back. You may be able to use arguments presented in this article to convince people of this.

Not Using Rapid Prototypes

Something has changed in the last decade, and you may not have noticed it. Modern open ­source software stacks have shrunk drastically the time to produce valuable, informative demos. At 18F Consulting, we often made a demo in three hours, in a process we called proto-sketching.

Even if you don’t use an agile process such as SCRUM, do yourself a favor and beg, borrow or steal someone who can produce a rapid prototype quickly, i​n the presence of the customer​. Examples of this have been described here and here.

Fear of Looking Stupid or Worse in a FOIA Request

The sad truth is, the Freedom of Information Act has a chilling effect on email communication of federal workers. Similar regulation may apply to workers in other governments. It is fairly common for federal workers to inefficiently try to discuss things in person or by phone rather than email so their communications will not be subject to a FOIA request.

I recommend a radical approach to dealing with this problem: Send more email​. Communicate as transparently as possible. This will not protect you from a casual attack, but it will be your best defense against a serious questioning of your work.

Fear of Hiring Consultants

A private firm can hire any consultant or coach it wants and nobody cares or even knows. This is not the case for government workers.

Because the government worker must fear more than just wasted money if he or she happens to hire a consultant for a few days that produces non­stellar results, the channel of using outside consultants may be artificially constrained for government projects. This is true even of consultants working for the federal government, such as those working for 18F and/or 18F Consulting and U.S. Digital Service.

Cultivate a risk-­taking attitude by documenting your successes and your failures. ​Treat “exercises” and “workshops” as absolutely essential to your process.

Not Following Agile Process Rigorously

Kent Beck back in 2000 answered the question, “Do we need to do all of the extreme programming practices?” by saying, “Be agile in your agile processes.” It’s OK to adjust your processes to match your situation.

But “agile” does not mean “lax."  When in doubt, stick to the process, or the “ceremony." More attempts to move to agile fail because of not following a process than because of slavishly misusing a process.

Which process should you use? Any process followed rigorously will work. Personally, I prefer XP, but SCRUM is now considered the lingua franca of agile, so beginners should start there.

Paperwork Reduction Act Dullness

The Paperwork Reduction Act  is a federal statute, but other governments may have similar provisions. On the surface, it impedes the ability to get important information from the customer.

However, there are almost always creative ways to deal with this problem, ​such as:

● Asking only open-­ended questions rather than metric survey questions

● Using A/B testing

● Surveying at most nine users

● Using in-­person interviews

● Restricting your question to only federal employees.

“Everybody can say no" -- it does seem that everyone in the organization has the power to say “no,"  and nobody “yes." Keep working to change things. Each of your efforts is meaningful, even if unrecognized. Don’t be discouraged!

(Image via /Shutterstock.com)

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.