3 steps to make existing IT more agile

Agile methodology can help agencies ensure that IT dollars are well spent by improving the maintenance of existing systems.


Even systems that were not designed with agile in mind can benefit from agile methodology. (Stock image)

Established software systems accounted for 69 percent of overall federal IT investments in fiscal 2011, according to the Government Accountability Office, and present the single greatest opportunity for agencies to ensure that they continuously deliver IT value. Working within a few guidelines, agile methods are very effective for delivering rapid and flexible modifications to established systems.

However, agencies' use of agile for operations and maintenance (O&M) has been uneven and ad hoc at best. The failure of many agencies to conduct the appropriate annual operational analysis (OA) is partly to blame for their limited successes with agile methods in the management of embedded infrastructure. When conducted at all, OA is performed only partially or infrequently.

According to GAO's October 2012 report, "Agencies Need to Strengthen Oversight of Billions of Dollars in Operations and Maintenance Investments," agencies often rely on a highly structured budget submission process referred to as Capital Planning and Investment Control (CPIC) in lieu of OA. As a result, agencies do not routinely gauge the need to modify or terminate an existing investment, nor can they recommend modifications or redesigns to forestall potential obsolescence.

The following steps can help agencies achieve sustainable transformation and tangible benefits through an agile approach to O&M investments.

Step 1: Educate executives on the benefits of agile

Finding a champion tops the list of steps to successful agile implementation and execution. The most common barriers to that support are executives' lack of time to oversee a project, their need for more information to make an informed decision and their fear of losing control.

Today, one would be hard-pressed to find agency IT or operations executives who have not heard of agile, but few know how to make it work in government environments. A good way to overcome the first two barriers is to set up an executive-level briefing that shows why agile is the right approach. To overcome an executive's skepticism or reluctance to cede control, uncover the source of concerns through one-on-one conversations.

Step 2: Conduct a rigorous operational analysis

When one or several executives have offered their support, the team can begin to identify the right systems or processes for applying agile to O&M. Conducting a thorough OA will help:

Determine where in the system life cycle the operating investments are currently situated.

Gauge the extent to which investments are improving administrative efficiency or citizen services.

Determine whether investments are continuing to help the agency fulfill its strategic goals.

Identify which steady-state and mixed-cycle investments are good candidates for agile methods.

Such an integrated process will encourage development and operations teams to collaborate on building and managing a system throughout its life cycle. Improved collaboration between development and production teams reduces costs and risks while raising customer satisfaction by delivering upgrades at the optimal times.

Conducting routine OAs will close the loop started with the CPIC process by giving development and operations teams shared visibility and accountability for a system's performance after its release.

The Office of Management and Budget's guidance on OA suggests agencies should address 17 key factors that can help identify systems in need of enhancements or updates, and uncover:

* Areas for innovation in customer satisfaction, strategic and business results, and financial performance.

* The need to redesign, modify or terminate an investment.

* Recommendations for redesigning or modifying an asset to head off potential problems.

The demand for service delivery and administrative efficiency is rising, and sequestration cuts are leaving few budgets untouched, so making the right judgment call on whether to enhance or retire a system is more crucial than ever. Why? Because as systems reach their retirement or disposal phase, the cost of running them escalates rapidly over time.

Step 3: Prepare the organization for agile

The next step is to assess the readiness of the organization, project manager, team and stakeholders to adopt agile practices. That readiness should be measured in the following areas:

Innovation — How much do the organization, project manager, team and stakeholders value innovation and creativity over organizational stability?

Independence — To what extent can people make independent, product-related decisions without consulting other groups in the organization?

Risk tolerance — How willing are people to accept and work with uncertainty?

Resource allocation — To what extent are people able to devote resources full-time to one investment rather than dividing their time among multiple investments?

Flexibility — How easily does the organization accept multiple approaches to documentation and the measurement of progress?

Customer focus — To what extent can customers and the organization partner with one another?

Regardless of an organization's agile maturity, having teams with the right skill set will help ensure the success of an agile O&M effort. The findings of a recent survey of participants in an ESI International Agile for Government Executives workshop corroborated that conclusion: Participants cited the lack of teams with the right skill set as a critical barrier to implementing agile at agencies.

The high investment in existing infrastructure and the budget-driven need to operate systems for a longer period point to the need for better, more agile approaches to managing O&M. Agile methods are a well-recognized approach to managing those challenges more effectively and should be the standard for any government agency that wants to realize the benefits of improved operational efficiency.