Even If Agile's the Plan, Scrap the Plan If It Doesn't Work
The reason the admonition to be agile is such a critical enabler of the government's success with agile is because it goes to the heart of what agile really means. Agile, by definition, is inherently flexible. In fact, the Agile Manifesto exhorts practitioners to respond to change rather than follow a plan, even when the plan is to follow agile.
When the GAO identified being agile as a critical success factor, it was pointing out that successful agile initiatives adjust their software development plans as necessary to achieve the desired result--which, as stated, is working software delivered on time and on budget. This willingness to take what might look like a formal methodology--a recipe, if you will--and change it as necessary to accomplish the goals of the initiative is fundamentally agile behavior. This time, our government nailed it.
No one's out of the woods yet, of course. The GAO's list of agile challenges reads like an executive's laundry list--difficulty collaborating, managing iterative requirements, and committing staff; unclear guidance; lack of trust, and misaligned procurement practices, compliance reviews and project status tracking. (We're not alone: The British government faces similar challenges.)
The agencies involved could have easily bowed to these challenges and taken an overly dogmatic approach to agile techniques, essentially positioning them as straw men to prove that agile wouldn't work for their organizations. For the most part, though, stakeholders exhibited a sufficiently flexible attitude toward agile practices. That willingness to respond to changes to the agile recipe, instead of following the plan simply because it was the plan, made all the difference.
It's not a moment too soon. The American public has lost its patience for billion-dollar boondoggles. Of course, we don't want to compromise on the benefits the government provides, either. The secret to having our cake and eating it too is the Obama administration's mandate to do more with less and improve government IT ROI. The Sentinel project, as well as the GAO's report on agile, illustrates how the government is rising to this challenge.
Jason Bloomberg is the president of ZapThink, a Dovel Technologies company. ZapThink is a service-oriented architecture (SOA) advisory and analysis firm. Bloomberg focuses on enterprise architecture, SOA and cloud computing.