Since 2001, software developers have used the Agile methodology, employing short sprints and cross-team collaboration, to bring products to market faster with earlier customer input. Others have begun to apply the tenets of Agile beyond IT to the general field of acquisition. Why? To speed results, lower risk, and benefit from lessons learned throughout the acquisition lifecycle. This is a way to do more with less in a tight fiscal environment.
At the National Contract Management Association’s (NCMA’s) Government Contract Management Symposium (GCMS), I led a presentation on what Agile acquisition is, who is involved when practicing it, and what benefits it brings. I also described some of the real-world considerations I’ve seen when applying the Agile methodology to acquisition and contracting support.
For those who couldn’t make it to GCMS, here’s a primer on the realities of applying Agile methodology to Acquisition.
What is Agile Acquisition and When Do I Use It?
Agile Acquisition Support is the use of Agile methodologies to support federal requiring activities, acquisition management teams and contracting activities. It is useful for any stage in the acquisition life cycle and can be used for simple acquisitions from the smallest product purchase, to very large acquisitions purchasing major systems. Agile Acquisition has three key features:
- Daily short “scrums” or meetings
- Collaboration through an Agile Support Team (AST)
- One AST point of contact who transfers knowledge among team members and to stakeholders throughout the acquisition lifecycle
Benefits of Agile Approach
With its daily updates and constant tracking, the Agile approach helps acquisition teams identify and respond to challenges in real time, before they become a problem. This prevents delays and further expense fixing problems downstream. Other benefits include:
- Increased communication
- Cross-team collaboration
- Development of repeatable procedures
- A high level of accountability
In its July 2012 report, “Effective Practices and Federal Challenges in Applying Agile Methods,” the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommended that Agile practices be highlighted as part of the government’s overall effort to promote modular development. It pointed out that effective Agile practices align with best practices in project management activities such as “strategic planning, organizational commitment and collaboration, preparation, execution, and evaluation.”
The GAO also recognized a number of challenges in implementing Agile among teams that are used to a traditional approach where they develop all aspects of a project before releasing it to the public or industry. Here are several things to consider, based on the GAO’s findings and my own experience providing Agile Acquisition Support to a federal agency.
- Culture: Know the personalities of those in your work environment and the overall state of your organization’s culture. If everyone is working well, Agile Acquisition support can work well. If people are struggling, introducing a change such as this can take time. For example, the GAO found that some teams had difficulty working collaboratively, managing iterative requirements, dedicating staff, or ensuring individuals owned the work. Assess the strengths and weaknesses of your team as well as the overall state of the current work environment relative to the needs of an Agile approach, then consider how best to implement a change.
- Skepticism: People who have done things the same way for years may be skeptical of the need to change. If people know the long-term advantages they may be open to working in a new way. For example, the point is to make the milestones shorter and to identify problems before a lot of the budget is spent. In the fiscal constraints we have now, Agile can be a way to take a small-chunk approach. On a more individual level, leading or being involved in scrums will teach team members new skills in facilitation, tracking and reporting. Skepticism can be mitigated by presenting the reasons for and benefits of Agile Acquisition before implementing the program. A workshop or training series provides background and can answer questions which will reduce confusion once you get going. Use real-world examples or an internal process to show how you would approach a project differently under Agile.
- Logistics: A key feature of Agile is daily, short meetings and continuous reporting. You may have to tailor it for your team or your worksite in terms of the size of the team, who is involved, the timing of meetings. With more organizations adopting tele-work, employees will need connectivity via Defense Connect Online (DCO), VPN, tele-conference or other virtual collaboration tools. I have found that if you don’t have as close to 100% participation as possible, the daily meetings will not be a true success. In my experience a larger meeting actually produced a better result. The answers were right at hand instead of having to reach out to people afterward. I also recommend having your scrums early in the day to capture progress and identify issues so they can be worked on throughout the day.
- Team Members: If you don’t have the team right, your outcome or results could fall short of your goal because you don’t have the proper mix of Subject Matter Experts (SME’s) to validate requirements, milestones and progress. While each project is different, I suggest some over-arching principles: Try to have participants who represent multiple stakeholders, such as engineers, it, acquisition, finance, etc. Incorporate a range of experience, from more junior to SME’s and from the project level to the organizational level. Ensure that the team is cross-functional to bring different points of view, such as technical, end-user, acquisition, and business strategy. And once again, take the time to train the team on Agile methodology for best results.
Agile Acquisition is Worth Considering
With the government’s desire to reduce investment risk and speed development, I believe we can expect to see growing use of Agile in IT and beyond. You can gain the trust of your customer, your team and your boss by demonstrating value at the end of each iteration. And we all know that people like to see results.
Have you used the Agile approach in acquisition? Share your experience in the comments section.
Free white paper on Agile Acquisition from the Integrity Knowledge Center
Presentation on Agile Acquisition Support from GCMS 2014