How Digital Governments can Succeed with Agile

By Kirsten Oelrich 4 min read

Any Agile practitioner would agree that a large, complex environment is not exactly a ‘sweet spot’ for Agile implementation. Everything from the scale to the distribution of teams and the organization politics is unsuited for a textbook Agile implementation.

But times are changing. While Agile was earlier synonymous with small collocated teams working on small scale, non-critical software projects with simple governance rules, today it is being increasingly used for large projects. The widespread and fast-growing adoption of Agile in the government sector is one such case.

Now you’re thinking – How can Agile be applied to the large, complex IT projects in government? How do you ensure that inter-team dependencies are managed without creating the sort of bureaucracy Agile seeks to eliminate? And finally, is it even possible for governments to use Agile to quickly deliver technology that meets users’ needs?

Even though implementing the Agile approach in a complex government agency for a megaproject can be tricky, it can be successfully executed. We’ll find out how in this article. Let’s explore some of the core Agile principles for the government sector, a large, distributed-team environment.

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Detailed multiyear road maps

Any significant initiative in a big organization typically involves numerous objectives with a lengthy time horizon. A multiyear roadmap helps teams remain on track, stay informed about implementations, and be prepared to accommodate the end vision as new information emerges during the creation process.

To ensure the project provides consistent and ever-increasing improvements to business value for the future, it requires a ‘loose-tight’ long-term road map. The road map is designed for framing the work in executive level terms. It helps the team to understand the required sequence of work, which includes balancing the user-visible features with the basic assistance required to support the working software, to resolve the critical business needs.

Collective governance

Multiple teams from different functions and different locations are involved in extensive Agile implementations. These resources are brought together from various sections of the organization, especially those that may benefit from it. It is important to coordinate with these teams under one umbrella of governance, regarding scaled Agile. For instance, more roles are needed in order to make communications easy and resolve conflicts. It is essential to have a strong leadership as per the governance framework.

For this very purpose multiple Agile coaches and product owners should congregate to help cross community communication and provide instant decisions. The Agile community leaders provide a platform for the teams to communicate with each other, report and keep on track of the development. This process keeps the senior management and the stakeholders in the loop as they are regularly updated about the progress during and after attending ongoing product demonstrations of working system capabilities. These demonstrations take place regularly. The instant reports from the user and technical story completion rates, shows the progress of the project and it also shows that it is on track.

Managing cross-team dependencies

In order to proceed to the next step in the project, teams often require completed components from other teams. Cross team dependencies create the need for extra coordination when planning upcoming iterations. It is important to order sprints, but there needs to be a balance between flexibility and adherence to the overall plan. Project leaders in Agile at scale, need to focus on the main plan, while the teams engage themselves into sprints. Dividing groups of teams into multiple initiatives in a project is the most common approach. Different teams work on different features, one person has to ensure that the user interface – overall is consistent. There is a risk here that the user experience (UX) teams can get ahead of back-end services to a point that the product owner’s expectations are not met.

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At times, addressing cross team dependencies just requires regular communication and frequent validation through demos that exercise segments of functionality. The Agile team holds a brief planning sessions daily in the morning to identify the work completed on tasks and stories, work planned for the day, and what obstacles are hampering the progress. All this information can be included as a regular feature of scaled Agile, where the Agile coaches meet for a scrum of scrums to have detailed discussion on the needs, progress and blockers.

Orchestrating end-to-end functionality

Traditional Agile depends on functional and unit testing within sprints, as well as other quality control processes. An additional testing layer is recommended in Agile at scale. This provides end to end product testing to identify issues between particular components built by Agile teams. The natural partners of Agile are DevOps and micro segmentation architecture. They are in sync and enable the quick functioning of the team. Bad code does not scale and at the same time a perfect code does not exist. The main goal is to write a good code quickly and receive feedbacks frequently. Agile at scale helps balance and avoid overly prescriptive top down standardization and allows instant adoption of best practices, that too without creating a free for all atmosphere, which becomes a maintenance and troubleshooting nightmare. Coders dislike it when someone else writes a better code than them. Therefore, when teams are cross pollinated, they feel the need to compete in a healthy way, which results in innovation and opportunity through self-organization. More guardrails are required for Agile at scale, rather than on smaller projects. It is important to provide room for innovation within reasonable parameters.

While building a large system, it is imperative for multiple teams to approach and accommodate end-of-sprint demonstrations that exercise functionality and real capability from the start. Instead of building the systems up in layers from the bottom, it is better to sequence the vertical slices of functionality- this is the most favorable approach. The benefit of delivering in vertical slices is that it eliminates impediments related to promotion, provisioning, build and configuration, that are ignored at times and can lead to unexpected surprises towards the end, which is the opposite of Agile.

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Kirsten Oelrich

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Kirsten Oelrich