Question
“What is agile government and how do I bring it to my team?”
Top Answer
Colin McIntosh Agile Consultant Inland Revenue
Top Answer

Introducing Agile is often more of a challenge than people anticipate.  The “why do we need to change” group are often the most vocal. However, starting small and gathering a coalition of the willing usually is enough to generate enough evidence of improved practices to win over the majority – at least when related to software projects.

It seems that Agile is primarily associated with software development, and it is relatively easy for government departments to adopt an agile approach to software development. This is especially the case for internal development of systems and websites.

It can be more complex for outsourced software development as many government agencies still hold onto the idea that knowing your requirements up-front provides certainty for those fixed price-quotes.  This suits the generally risk-averse nature of agencies, even though it is well known that agile frameworks actually de-risk programmes due to the iterative nature of the development. We need to move the thinking from “we are buying a product” to “we are buying a process that will deliver the right product”; this requires more trust in the vendors than the traditional contractual tightrope that is the norm.

But agile thinking can go well beyond the IT shop. I strongly advocate that agile has two key foundations, the agile framework and the agile attitude which can apply to all areas of a business or a government agency. True agile government needs to move beyond software and take agile thinking right back to Policy development.

In my current role as an agile coach working with a major New Zealand government agency I’m helping introduce agile thinking into their Policy group. This is both challenging and exciting. Exciting because there is a huge opportunity to embed new attitudes that can deliver better policy with less rework and less stress. Challenging because Policy tends to be based on long-term pieces of work dictated by legislative process, this is reflected in the attitude that everything takes a long time so what is the point of doing sprints!   Challenging because staff have generally been under a command and control management style which doesn’t lend itself to self-organising teams.  Exciting because there is a strong desire by management to become more customer focussed.

The key things we are implementing are:

  • Introducing scrum ceremonies and artefacts as ways to focus the team on what can be achieved in a sprint.  This focus helps the team to concentrate effort into shorter term sprint goals. The ceremonies are vehicles to help change attitude.
  • Challenging the who is your customer mentality from “the Minister” and replacing it by the “consumer of the policy”.
  • Move from a heavy-weight process to a more lean, agile process
  • Team members who can step into a self-organising team, are confident and able to make decisions
  • Spreading the message of “new ways of working” to other areas that come in contact with this new sprint-based team
  • Managers who understand agile and are supportive of the new team culture

So, what have we learnt? Even though most people have attended a 2-day introduction to agile course, few were able to translate the software emphasis of course into their ordinary everyday work experience. Having experienced coaches and scrum masters who have done non-software agile projects will be a huge benefit to the agency.

Having managers committed to the cause is crucial. These tier 3 managers are the ones who can effectively stop a project if they are not 100% committed to the agile thinking. This is every bit as important, if not more so, than getting the buy-in from the executives.  Get these people on board first. Talk about the global transformation that is happening, help them understand that they need tools that will support them to deliver faster, more effectively, more efficiently.

Then start with a single team. I’ve found that gently helping them to gradually discover new ways of thinking is easier than saying “OK team, as of Monday there are going to be some changes around here…”. Slowly introduce concepts and ceremonies, keep reinforcing them and don’t be apologetic for setting the standards - a stand-up means stand up!

Above all, hold onto the vision, don’t let the myriad of pitfalls get in your way – you will hit roadblocks, but you need to navigate them and be the champion for new ways of working! You will see improvements as the team gains experience and learns the new techniques – use this to sell the concept to other teams and other departments.

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