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Help wanted: Senior agile leaders needed

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A recent GAO report, Agencies Need to Improve Certification of Incremental Development, created headlines by highlighting the discrepancies in incremental development governance.

According to the report, 62 percent of major IT software development investments were certified by their agency CIO as implementing incremental development adequately. However, just four of these 24 CFO Act agencies were found to actually have clearly defined policies and processes for incremental development certification. This is even though incremental development approaches like Agile are explicitly required by FY19 OMB Circular A-130 guidance, the recently passed FITARA enhancement legislation and the Managing Government Technology Act provisions that President Donald Trump just signed into law.

What I found more interesting in the report, however, were the specific obstacles that agencies faced in adopting incremental development. The bigger issue for most agencies is not a lack of standards, but rather, their ability to apply them effectively and consistently at scale.

According to the report, CIOs and their staffs identified the top challenges as follows:

  • Lack of skills and experience or overutilization of limited resources (14 agencies)
  • Inefficient governance and oversight processes (6 agencies)
  • Procurement delays (5 agencies)
  • Lack of stable, prioritized requirements (5 agencies)

The reality is that implementing Agile and other incremental models in a federal environment is hard. And what these results show is that our ability to integrate Agile practices into existing enterprise governance remains a work in progress.

While a number of continuing actions will be required to fully mature and institutionalize Agile in government, here’s my recommendation for the most important -- invest in making our senior IT program managers real Agile leaders. As most CIOs and CTOs can attest, experienced, qualified IT program managers are the most important role on the team -- and often the hardest to find.

In terms of Agile, it is important to remember that it is not a prescriptive methodology. Rather, it is a framework for making tradeoffs and prioritizations. This makes it a highly effective approach for development in the real world.

However, to be successful, Agile requires leaders with the experience and insight to take advantage of this decision-making authority. As Edward Deming once noted, “[i]t is not enough that management commits to themselves to quality and productivity, they must know what it is they must do. Such a responsibly cannot be delegated.”

To build this capacity, federal agencies should pursue a mix of education and experience for current program managers. My organization, for example, has seen success with programs like the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) and the International Consortium for Agile (ICAgile) that provide foundational training for taking Agile beyond the team level in order to manage larger projects, programs and portfolios. 

While this training can provide a solid basis for success, the real learning happens in the field. Agencies would do well to foster ongoing, cross-functional collaboration among new Agile program managers with experience in different disciplines. By facilitating the real-time sharing of emerging best practices and experiences, agencies can develop Agile leaders equipped to make the multitude of decisions that need to be made daily. In other words, they will know what they must do.

About the Author

Dave McClure, Ph.D., is a leader of transformational IT initiatives at Accenture Federal Services. In this capacity, he oversees future-focused client projects that include cloud computing adoption, digital transformation, IT modernization, cloud security and creative customer-focused web design.

Before joining Accenture in 2017, McClure led the design and implementation of FedRAMP, the federal security authorization process for cloud computing products and services and the most significant security authorization process of its kind worldwide. He was a chief strategist of cybersecurity at Coalfire Federal/Veris Group, in which capacity he worked extensively with both government and commercial enterprises.

McClure’s long IT experience in both the public and private sectors includes executive stints at Gartner Group, the Council for Excellence in Government, the US General Services Administration and the US Government Accountability Office.

A University of Texas at Austin graduate, McClure has a Ph.D. in public policy from the University of North Texas. He is a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, and is the Past Executive chair and current Executive Committee member of the Industry Advisory Council (IAC).


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