Can Government Projects Be “Agile?”

A Project Management Article by Michelle LaBrosse, PMP, CEO, Cheetah Learning LLC (PMI-REP®), and Megan Alpine, CCPM, Co-Author

However, is agile really a good fit for every project? This question is especially relevant to government projects, which may have very different requirements and constraints than projects in the private sector. In this article, we discuss some potential challenges for making government projects “agile” and suggest some ways to overcome these challenges. Far from being opposed to each other, agile practices and traditional PMBOK® Guide standards complement each other to make ANY project run more smoothly and produce better results.

In an interview with the PMI DC chapter last month, Kimberly Hancher, Chief Information Officer for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), suggests that Project Managers should strive to improve communication on their team and stay focused on the “big picture” of a project’s progress. Both of these areas are emphasized in agile principles and practices, which value “individuals and interactions over processes and tools” and are driven by a broader vision for the project.

At Cheetah Learning, we’ve been using “agile” processes since before they were known as such, setting many short deadlines for projects and planning as we go (those interested in learning more about the basics of agile can check out Cheetah’s 2-PDU A Taste of Agile online course). We’ve found that agile principles and practices, paired with PMBOK® Guide standards, drive better results for our company, faster. Cheetah and other private companies that use agile practices can offer useful lessons to government agencies, even though the private and public sectors operate under different constraints.

Perceived Challenges to Making Government Projects Agile

Some may claim that the nature of government bureaucracy makes agile practices a poor fit for government projects - particularly those carried out in-house. The first and most obvious of the apparent difficulties of making government projects more agile is that often these projects have strict requirements, budget, and scope specified at the outset. This condition seems to preclude the possibility, as encouraged in agile philosophy, of valuing “responding to change over following a plan.” As we will explain in further detail in the next section, agile practices can be adapted to even the strictest circumstances.

Another perceived challenge to implementing agile practices in government projects is the slowness of bureaucratic decision-making. While agile encourages stakeholder involvement throughout the duration of the project, in government projects, legislators and other government employees may only be able to offer input during the initial planning of the project.

Agile also emphasizes moving the project along and creating deliverables fast, which requires frequent communication among team members in order to be able to respond to change quickly. A rigid hierarchy of decision-making may make it difficult to keep an evolving project moving along according to schedule. This challenge, however, simply requires that PMs familiarize their team and stakeholders to the agile process first, and then work within their constraints to make their projects “more agile” by using a variety of agile’s tools and processes.

A third objection to agile in government projects is the belief that agile practices are “too new” and can’t yet be trusted. This argument is the feeblest of the three, as it ignores the reality that agile has a history spanning as long as that of the field of software development (where agile was first applied). Research conducted by the Project Management Institute shows that the use of agile methodologies in all industries tripled from December 2008 to May 2011. PMI found that project management practitioners are embracing agile principles and practices as a technique for successfully managing projects because of the value that agile can have in decreasing product defects, improving team productivity, and increasing delivery of business value.

How to Make Government Projects More Agile

Project Managers overseeing government projects will undoubtedly need to work within some constraints that limit their ability to follow every agile practice. We’ve picked out some agile principles and practices which can be adapted to project management in both the private and public sectors:

  • Put communication first. The first value stated in the Agile Manifesto is: “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” To depart from waterfall and other non-agile practices, agile PMs need to encourage frequent and transparent communication among all team members and stakeholders. Communication across hierarchical boundaries will speed up decision-making and help develop a more effective and dynamic project team.
  • Get the right people on the project. Managers who are experts in a field relevant to the project will help keep a team’s momentum going. Someone who knows how to make decisions based on sound knowledge and collaborate with others may make a more effective PM than one who can decipher a management report. Finding the best people for your team will also allow for more productive collaboration and higher efficiency.
  • Re-evaluate often and keep your focus on the “big picture.” Agile processes break tasks into small “iterations” (project phases) with minimal planning and do not directly involve long-term planning. Iterations are short time frames called “time boxes” that typically last from one to four weeks. During each iteration, the team briefly revisits the planning phase and makes small changes in the plan as needed. With its dynamic approach, an agile team can avoid costly mistakes that wouldn’t have been visible until the project’s completion if waterfall methods had been used instead.
  • Learn from past successes of agile government projects. Agile isn’t entirely new to government projects. A recent Information Week article, “3 Agile Government Myths, Busted,” finds that agile practices were used in managing government projects as early as the 1950s - with Project Mercury. This project, the author writes, “practiced half-day iterations and test-first development,” and its team members dismissed waterfalling methods as ineffective. Even with tight requirements and budgets set up front, a project team can still make use of the agile practice of iterations, delivering value in small chunks beginning just a few weeks into the project.
Another recent example of a successful government project managed using agile practices is described in an article in Governing magazine, “Government IT and the Promise of Agile Development.” The local government of a small town in Indiana contracted with Code for America to develop a mitigation platform for vacant and abandoned buildings. The author writes, “At a cost of only $250,000, the city rapidly iterated through a number of ideas and projects and in less than six months launched a public-facing website that incorporates advanced technologies such as interactive voice response and real-time mapping.” Due to the project’s success, “after the City Voice agile project, many other [city] departments now want to learn and undertake agile projects of their own.” A shift to agile practices may take time, but will ultimately result in better results for government agencies of any scale.

The move to adopting agile principles and practices isn’t an “all or nothing” approach. Depending on the requirements of the project, agile – paired with PMBOK® Guide standards - can be incorporated to varying degrees to make any government project run more efficiently and produce better results.

About the Author

Michelle LaBrosse, PMP, CEO, Cheetah Learning LLC (PMI-REP®), and Megan Alpine, CCPM, Co-Author

CheetahLearningMichelle LaBrosse, PMP, is an entrepreneurial powerhouse with a penchant for making success easy, fun and fast.  She is the founder of Cheetah Learning, the author of the Cheetah Success Series, and a prolific blogger whose mission is to bring Project Management to the masses.

Cheetah Learning is a virtual company with 100 employees, contractors, and licensees worldwide. To date, more than 30,000 people have become “Cheetahs” using Cheetah Learning’s innovative Project Management and accelerated learning techniques.

Recently honored by the Project Management Institute (PMI®), Cheetah Learning was named Professional Development Provider of the Year at the 2008 PMI® Global Congress. A dynamic keynote speaker and industry thought leader, Michelle was previously recognized by PMI as one of the 25 Most Influential Women in Project Management in the world.

Michelle’s articles have appeared in over 100 publications and web sites around the world. Her monthly column, the Know How Network is carried by over 400 publications, and her monthly newsletter goes out to more than 50,000 people.

She is a graduate of the Harvard Business School’s Owner President Manager’s (OPM) program and also holds engineering degrees from Syracuse University and the University of Dayton.

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