3 Steps for Successful Agile Implementation of Government Operations and Maintenance Projects — Article

by: Matthew Potter
August 26, 2013

Category: Business Line, development program, Editorial, Events, GAO, IT, logistics | RSS 2.0

ESI IntBy Peter Schmidt, MBA, PMP, ACP, CPL
Vice President Client Services, ESI International

Established software systems account for 68 percent of overall federal IT investments and present the single greatest opportunity for agencies to ensure they continuously deliver IT value. Working within a few guidelines, Agile methods are very effective for delivering rapid and flexible modifications to established systems. However, agencies’ use of Agile for operations and maintenance (O & M) of established systems has been uneven and ad hoc at best. An examination of the reasons behind previous Agile shortfalls, and a three-step approach to implementation will provide a framework for federal agencies’ IT project success.

What went wrong?

The failure of many agencies to conduct the appropriate annual operational analysis (OA) is partly to blame for limited successes with Agile in the management of embedded infrastructure. When conducted at all, OA is performed only partially or infrequently. According to the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) IT report titled “Agencies Need to Strengthen Oversight of Billions of Dollars in Operations and Maintenance, ” agencies often rely on a highly structured budget submission process, referred to as Capital Planning and Investment Control (CPIC), in lieu of OA. As a result, agencies do not routinely gauge the need to modify or terminate an existing investment. Nor can they recommend modifications or redesigns to forestall potential obsolescence.

Steps for sustainable change

Following are steps agencies can take to achieve sustainable transformation and tangible benefits through an Agile approach to O & M investments.

Step 1: Obtain executive support and understanding of the benefits of Agile
Finding a champion tops the list of steps to successful Agile implementation and execution. The most common barriers to executive support are (1) their lack of time to oversee a project, (2) their need for more information to make an informed decision and (3) their fear of losing control. Today, one might be hard pressed to find agency IT or operations executives who haven’t heard of Agile. Most know what Agile is, but much fewer know how to make it work in government environments. A good way to overcome the first two barriers is to set up an executive level briefing that shows why Agile is the right approach. To overcome an executive’s skepticism or reluctance to cede control, uncover the source of concerns by conducting one-to-one conversations.

Step 2: Conduct Rigorous Operational Analysis

When one or several executives have offered their support, the team can begin to identify the right systems or processes for applying Agile to O&M. Conducting thorough OA will help to
• Determine where in the system lifecycle the operating investments are currently situated,
• Gauge to what extent investments are improving administrative efficiency or citizen services,
• Determine whether investments are continuing to help the agency fulfill its strategic goals,
• Identify which steady state and mixed cycle investments are good candidates for Agile methods.


Such an integrated process will encourage development and operations teams to collaborate on building and managing a system throughout its lifecycle. Improved collaboration between development and production teams reduce cost and risk while simultaneously raising customer satisfaction by delivering upgrades at the optimal times. Conducting routine OAs will close the loop started with the CPIC process by giving development and operations teams shared visibility and accountability for a system’s performance after its release.

The Office of Management & Budget’s (OMB) guidance on OA suggests that agencies should address 17 key factors which can help identify systems in need of enhancements or updates, as well as:

• Areas for innovation in customer satisfaction, strategic and business results, and financial performance,
• Identification of whether there is a need to redesign, modify or terminate the investment,
• Recommendations to redesign or modify an asset in advance of potential problems.

Demand for service delivery and administrative efficiency is rising and sequestration cuts are leaving few budgets untouched, so making the right judgment call on whether to enhance or retire a system is more crucial than ever. Why? Because as systems reach their retirement or disposal phase, the cost of running them escalates rapidly over time.

Step 3: Prepare the organization for Agile
The next step is to assess the readiness of the organization, project manager, team and stakeholders to adopt Agile practices. This should be measured in the following areas:

• Innovation – How much do the organization, project manager, team, and stakeholders value innovation and creativity over organizational stability?
• Independence – To what extent can people make independent, product-related decisions without consulting other groups within the organization?
• Risk tolerance – How much are people willing to accept and work with uncertainty?
• Resource allocation – To what extent are people able to devote resources full time to one investment rather than divide people’s time among multiple investments?
• Flexibility – How able is the organization to accept multiple approaches to documentation and measuring progress?
• Customer focus – How much can customers and the organization partner with each other?

Regardless of an organization’s Agile maturity, teams with the right skill set will help ensure the success of an Agile O&M effort. Findings of a recent survey of participants of an ESI International Agile for Government Executives workshop corroborated this: participants cited the lack of teams with the right skill set as a critical barrier to implementing Agile in agencies.

Improvement with Agile

The high sunk-cost of the existing infrastructure and the budget-driven need to operate systems for a longer period point toward the need for better, more agile approaches to managing the O&M function. Agile methods are a well-recognized approach to managing these challenges more effectively and should be the standard for any government agency looking to realize the benefits of improved operational efficiency.

About the Author

Peter Schmidt, MBA, PMP, ACP, CPL is Vice President Client Services at ESI International. For any questions or comments, Mr. Schmidt can be reached at pschmidt@esi-intl.com or visit ESI International’s website http://www.esi-intl.com.

[1] Agencies Need to Strengthen Oversight of Billions of Dollars in Operations and Maintenance Investments, GAO-13-87, Oct 16, 2012

[2] Ibid

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