What Makes an Agile Government Project Successful?

CIO.com defines Agile as “a project management methodology that uses short development cycles called ‘sprints’ to focus on continuous improvement in the development of a product or service.” Agile was established to optimize the commercial development of software. While it has been applied in many other ways, the purposes, requirements, and regulatory demands of government projects require significant adaptation. ‘Pure’ Agile is not compatible with the way the Federal Government does business. However, a modified version has been proven useful, especially regarding information technology (IT) projects.

Modified Values

Following our previous examination of Agile’s foundational values, we shared the following modified values, which provide a better foundation for government IT projects:

  1. Use of adequately trained personnel using vetted processes and tools
  2. Frequent delivery of working software and required documents
  3. User collaboration supported by flexible acquisition contracts
  4. Use of change-friendly methods described in meaningful plans

This adaptation is necessary for government organizations to apply Agile in support of project initiation, planning, execution, and monitoring.

Well-Defined Needs

According to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the first step in initiating a project is defining the need in terms of the mission, purpose, capability, agency components involved, schedule and cost objectives, and operating constraints. That is, the need should drive the project, and the requirements should flow from the gap between the current state (aka “as-is”) and the state that is needed to achieve the agency’s mission initiatives (aka “to-be”).

Needs-Based Approach

This process was outlined in the Information Technology Management Reform Act of 1996, (aka the Clinger-Cohen Act) which requires Federal executive departments and agencies to use a disciplined Capital Planning & Investment Control (CPIC) process, to acquire, use, maintain, and dispose of IT in alignment with the agency’s enterprise architecture planning processes. OMB has further required that agency CPIC processes link mission needs, information, and IT effectively and efficiently.

Capital Planning & Investment Control (CPIC) Process

Source: USDA

In brief, government organizations must determine the following before initiating any project:

  1. What are the needs of the organization’s operational activities to achieve mission initiatives?
  2. What gaps, if any, exist between needed assets and current assets to support the achievement of these mission initiatives?
  3. What is the best way to maximize the business value through prioritizing the organization’s discretionary funding of needed capital assets (i.e., tools, techniques, and solutions)?

Project Evaluation

For any project to be considered successful, it must deliver a complete solution for the need that was identified at the beginning — its intended purpose. What if the project came close but did not completely eliminate the need? Several possible determinations can be made in response to the question: “Did the project produce the deliverables that resolved the original defined-need for which the project was chosen for funding and execution?” which include:

  • Complete success – The project resolved the need initially defined within the parameters of scope, time, cost, quality, and risk.
  • Prioritized or evaluated success – The project resolved the need as initially defined, but strayed outside the parameters of scope, time, cost, quality, and risk.
  • Evaluated failure – The project failed to resolve the need as initially defined, but stayed within the parameters of scope, time, cost, quality, and risk.
  • Complete failure – The project failed to resolve the need as initially defined and strayed outside the parameters of scope, time, cost, quality, and risk.

Agile for Government
Previously, we explained how the values and principles of ‘pure’ Agile must be modified for use in government projects. In this post, we tied project success to the absolute resolution of the need that initiated the project. Our next post in the series will propose a workable Agile project life phase approach that is founded on sound systems engineering principles and may be applied to all types of government programs and projects, within and beyond IT.

Are there any other aspects of Agile that you’d like to see covered? Please provide your comments below or on any of our social media channels.

Written by:
Paul Lohnes
Project & Program Management
Media Type:

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