gear shift (Blaz Kure/


Shifting agile to a higher gear

Last year my wife and I started a parental rite of passage -- teaching our son to drive, but in a car with a manual transmission. Any parents who have taught their teenager how to drive -- especially a stick shift -- knows it can be an exciting and harrowing process.

While most parents could speak volumes about the experience, it’s probably a much smaller group that draws analogies between driving instruction and federal adoption of agile software development.  Although there, I might have a unique perspective.

As I was in the passenger seat overseeing my son’s progress as he learned the skills and timing of driving a stick shift -- and pretending that the grinding was not happening --  I began thinking about the results of Accenture’s recent State of Federal IT study. We surveyed 200 IT executives across defense and civilian agencies with a goal of exploring two fundamental questions:

  • Is federal IT serving the needs of the mission? To put it another way, is IT collaborating effectively with stakeholders to deliver the specific services and capabilities the agency needs to execute its mission?
  • Is IT pivoting quickly enough to the new (think: cloud, digital services, agile, DevOps and shared services) to address heightened expectations and more dynamic requirements?

Overall, we found that IT organizations are making progress in modernizing technology systems and infrastructures. However, they might be missing a significant opportunity to strengthen the alignment between technology, missions and outcomes -- looking at new ways to apply IT to meet ever-changing mission needs.

Consider the progress in adopting agile as the default in government, making approaches to software development more iterative, collaborative and user-focused. Sixty-nine percent of respondents reported that their organizations are piloting agile, if not partially or fully adopting it. But even though uptake is strong, agile also received among the largest percentage of “less than expected” and “much less than expected” responses for meeting expectations. While the differences with other technologies were relatively modest, these challenges caught my eye as agile is widely perceived as a more foundational and mature approach, suggesting that adoption may not be as seamless as sometimes perceived.

Our survey also suggested that there is a willingness to embrace change at an agency’s top levels but potential resistance on the ground, which is where the rubber meets the road.    Respondents did not view lack of management support or overall agency philosophy/culture clashes as significant roadblocks to success with agile.  Rather, their top barriers included organizational resistance to change (47 percent) and insufficient training or skills (46 percent).  Furthermore, the ability to manage changing priorities (cited by 56 percent) actually topped the list of agile benefits. 

That brings me back to my adventures in driving instruction -- because when it comes to agile, agencies share something in common with any new driver. The ability to refine and balance is the key to success.

As my son was first learning to drive a stick shift, there was a LOT of grinding, and when he stopped, he tended to stall.  So, I suggested that he always press the clutch when braking.  Of course, he overcorrected and began to ride the clutch. The real insight for my son was that as he became more advanced, he learned how to balance when to use the clutch (when coming to a full stop) and when to simply apply the brake (when slowing down while in a higher gear).

I think something similar may be happening as agencies strive to embrace agile as both a mindset and a methodology. You can’t master driving a stick shift or managing agile in the abstract. You have to take the wheel and be willing to grind the gears, stall, try again -- and keep at it until it becomes second nature. 

The key to success using agile is setting goals and targets that are challenging, yet realistic based on each organization’s current culture and capabilities, then moving toward those goals, keeping an open mind and continuously learning.

Agile isn’t just about iterating on code. It requires consistent iteration on how you manage the process -- not just doing agile but being agile. From time to time, you’ll stall. Don’t let that discourage or derail your efforts. By making adjustments, you’ll soon shift into a much higher gear -- meeting or exceeding expectations for the quality and speed at which you can deliver.

About the Author

Dominic Delmolino is chief technology officer, Accenture Federal Services.


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