Public Services > Central Government

Agile is not a noun, it's...'scheduled maintenance'

David Bicknell Published 07 June 2016

LocalGovCamp discussion highlights agile challenge for central and local exponents


A session at last Saturday's Local GovCamp 'unconference' in Birmingham has highlighted some of the problems development teams are having in promoting agile techniques in their organisation - and how some of them are getting around the problem.

The day , which also featured other sessions around data maturity models, gamification, waste standards futures, co-development of technology, 'dark value', blockchain and government and 'fear of prototyping', was also attended by representatives from central government departments and by attendees from the Government Digital Service (GDS).

The session about 'selling and educating agile' set out to ask whether people are confident about what they think 'agile' is. Although there are plenty of people interested in learning about 'agile', with people looking for examples of success stories, the session noted that there are also individuals looking for ways to get around issues, problems resistance, and blockers.

There are also people who are looking at how they can leverage the ideas of agile and get it spread into areas where it might not be now.

One attendee suggested that, "People pick up bits. Someone told me the other thing they say is they wanted to do a quarterly sprint!Interesting idea. They might have got the concept but...."

Another commented that, "Agile is not a noun. And it's definitely not a proper noun. It's about agility, where the origins from the Agile Manifesto are about being team agile, as an adjective."

One of the central government attendees said, "Sometimes it's about 'staggered delivery' rather than agile. It's a phrase people say when they want to be a starting point and then some more and then some more. That's not agile. It's about giving them bits. As someone who's involved in central government, we need to go do our research and we've been told interestingly, "If your Discovery says you don't need it, then you should be prepared to can it." But that's not the way stakeholders think. They come along and say,

"We've got all these things, go do your research-y stuff, and then we think we know what we want."

"Sometimes it's the language. I don't know whether 'staggered delivery' or something like that. It's trying to find words when people just say they want to see something sooner. Agile is getting used as a word when they think it's magic. And it's not. Is it a step towards agile? I think it's more about managing expectations. They say they know what they want. It is waterfall in a way, but it is waterfall where they don't see it all in one go."

One attendee from local government referred to problems she was experienced around getting budget for an agile approach to projects. She said, "The difficulty we have is around the finance part of it. People in the project team won't sign up or won't give budget to do a project until they know what it is they're going to deliver. Giving budget to something that isn't actually set in stone? We can't get past it. Actually you don't know what you're going to do before you do discovery, but we do need funding to do that discovery, which may not be what you think it's going to turn into. The rest of the idea of agile I think people are getting."

Another delegate responded, "But what you're delivering is learning. It's totally intangible. From a financial viewpoint, let's say you blow ten grand on something, it's way better to blow ten grand on something and then decide to persist with it or pivot or just to abandon it altogether.

"At my previous organisation, it took us three years to get from where we were to where we are now. We went from having quarterly sprints, down to four week sprints, down to two weeks sprints, down to continuous delivery and then to hourly drops. But the finances had to cope with that."

One attendee referenced a Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) project that was stopped after Discovery "because they found there is no user need for it. They spent £40,000 on the design phase and when they actually canned the project it was going to cost us a million quid. So that forty grand stopped us spending a million quid on a piece of rubbish. "

Gary Barnett, the head of enterprise advisory at market analysis group Kable said, "For me one of the underlying things is that this is about sales and marketing. We as technology people tend not to be overly superb at the sales and marketing component. The language we use when talking to the business is really important because actually going to someone in finance and saying you don't know what the outcome's going to be. They are programmed to be revolted by that idea. Or at least terrified.

"I try and leave the agile word out of it until as late in the conversation as possible. To a lot of people outside tech,' agile' is ponytail and sandals. One technique I've used in the past is to talk about framed agile - 'framed by all of your excellent measures and disciplines and so on, we will iterate quickly.' That whole staged delivery thing, I think is really important."

He went on, "I'm totally OK with quarterly sprints in the early stages. You know it's not really agile but it's educating people into this idea. We have to retrain the business to trust us and part of this is being very careful about the sales and marketing and the language we used to describe what it is we do.

"In the context of bigger government departments, for some projects, waterfall is absolutely the way you should do it. For that legacy Cobol app which has been nurtured for 30 years don't try and 'agile-ify' everything you do."

One attendee added his own definition of agile as "sustainably reducing the lead time to business impact."

Another delegate, who works for a northern council, said, "What we're just starting to do in our city is we've traditionally built... you've done a bit of iteration of the local .gov website and that project is too big. So what we did this time is we did a very small but very flashy looking front-end of the thing. So people think we've done the big .GOV.UK project. Actually we haven't but we've now got a two year rolling process of agile project, agile project, agile project, which we've not calling agile projects. We're calling it 'scheduled maintenance.'

"It sounds really low key. We talk to people about their content on the website and how maybe it hasn't been updated for a while. The idea is to get them into the room and identify who the empowered product owners can be and who can sit with us and work and while we're talking with them we know we're going to spare out projects that are going to get done. We also have an old fashioned Gantt chart view of it that makes it look like a really long boring project that goes on for two years and nobody's really interested in it.

Actually, we use it to allocate time, so that we know who's working on what."

Which left one attendee remark to suggest, "So the secret is to disguise your innovation as something really dull and boring."

One delegate referred to two useful resources for 'agile', notably the PragmaticDave video and the Government Digital Service Service Manual which has recently released the Agile Discovery element.

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