The agile advantage

agile work, digital services

Will Huggins, CEO of Zoocha, discloses how public sector teams can make agile work for them

If you are designing or running public sector digital services then you should already be using agile – the GDS service manual is not ambiguous about this:

“You must use the agile approach to project management to build and run government digital services.”

In reality, there are often a number of factors that make the adoption of agile difficult for public sector organisations.

Organisational barriers

One of the biggest challenges can be overcoming cultural or organisational barriers to adopting agile methodologies. These barriers can include:

  • Centralised decision making: Some organisations are still evolving from a top-down, centralised structure for decision making, rather than devolving accountability to teams and service managers. This can hamper the agile process by causing unnecessary blockers to progress and make it difficult to agree on requirements and acceptance criteria within the backlog.
  • Siloed teams: Successful agile hinges on collaboration and open communication. Organisations with siloed team structures can find it difficult to align resources and priorities and to nurture cross-functional collaboration.
  • Limited tolerance for experimentation: Agile enables organisations to test and learn as part of the service design and management process. This ‘fail fast’ mentality can be alien to traditional organisations and requires a culture shift at the management level to embrace agile.
  • Organisation centric perspective on requirements: Last but by no means least, many organisations start defining service requirements based on inward facing insights and priorities. Starting with the customer and taking a user centred design approach is critical to successful agile service design and delivery.

Practical problems

In addition to the organisational barriers, there are a number of practical problems that public sector teams need to overcome in order to maximise the benefits of agile.

  • Experience – some organisations have very limited experience of agile methodologies and therefore find it difficult to transition to agile even when they have overcome the structural barriers.
  • Expertise and resourcing – building multidisciplinary agile teams requires organisations to identify the expertise and skills gaps and recruit experts or find expert delivery partners to fill the roles.
  • Systems and tools – collaboration tools like Jira and Confluence are great enablers of agile adoption when implemented and used effectively. Organisations that are new to agile can find it difficult to select and configure the right tools to embed agile ways of working.

Exposing the myths about Agile

These barriers and problems for organisations looking to adopt agile can be exacerbated by the many myths and misconceptions about how agile really works. The common challenges from those resistant to agile include:

  • There are no clear deliverables – as with many myths, the truth is actually quite the opposite. Good backlog management and sprint planning means that there are very clearly defined requirements and deliverables in both short term (2-4 weeks) and medium-term (2-6 months) horizons.
  • There is no project critical path – as above, agile actually has very clear timelines, based around sprints and the broader project phases (discovery, alpha, beta, live.) It can sometimes look different to a traditional waterfall gantt chart, but it is no less structured or transparent.
  • The budget is open-ended – in most cases, agile projects will have a fixed or capped budget, just like waterfall projects. The difference is that with agile, the project team is much more in control of prioritisation and allocation of resources to ensure the budget is most efficiently used.
  • There is no end-point – there are two perspectives on this; firstly, there are actually very clear definitions of done in agile projects, through acceptance criteria at a story level and sprint backlog at a sprint level. The second perspective is that digital services require iterative, continuous improvement, so the traditional ‘big launch’ of waterfall projects is an outdated notion of completion.

Top tips for Agile success

Debunking the myths about agile is just the first step in building consensus around the transition to agile project management. Here are a few tips to help you take the next step:

  • Define your vision – understanding the vision and goals you want to achieve is an essential first step in any project and agile projects are no different.
  • Assemble the team – bring together a multidisciplinary team that will design, build and manage the service. Check out the GDS service manual for the details about the roles and responsibilities you should consider.
  • Consider training needs – ensuring team members understand their roles and have the tools and knowledge to fulfil them. There are several organisations like Scrum Alliance who can help to embed the skills and expertise the team will need.
  • Start with the user – when building your requirements backlog, start your discovery with the user. Understand who they are and what they need and keep that at the heart of the project.
  • Understand that transition to agile is a journey – you don’t have to adopt a rigid methodology or approach from day one – it is more important to create a roadmap for understanding and adopting agile principles over time. Start small, perhaps on a single project or workstream to test what works for your organisation and grow from there.

Whilst this article has mainly focused on Scrum, there are other methodologies that can be adopted like Kanban which may be a better fit depending on the organisation, project or context.


Please note: This is a commercial profile

© 2019. This work is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND.

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