Lisa Mascolo

OPINION

Can an Agile mindset save you from the LPTA trap?

At Optimos, we’re pretty keen on Agile methodologies, whose iterative and incremental nature align with our smaller, smarter, faster, cheaper philosophy and approach to government services and solutions. Particularly in constrained budget environments, and when definitive requirements may be elusive, Agile’s component methodologies and practices increase the likelihood of success and return on investment on software-based development, integration and configuration projects.

There are clear benefits to Agile methodologies versus the traditional waterfall model, which does not allow a lot of room for mid-stream course correction.

In an Agile development environment, the emphasis is on regular planned opportunities to review, revise and adapt to changing requirements throughout the project. And because requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration, Agile development may actually help forge a truer partnership between the contractor and the government client - both of whom are vested in the outcome; and work toward it, together, every day.

Agile fosters a sense of ownership of the work product, especially with scrum – where the team works as a unit (as in rugby, from which the term originates).The emphasis is on team-building; the goal is a high-performing team.

Two new roles not found in traditional development methodologies, scrum master and product owner, are critical to achieving this objective. The scrum master encourages the team to proceed collectively and flags impediments to the team’s ability to effectively complete a sprint – a short development cycle within a larger software release.

The product owner represents the single point of accountability for the team, tracking business priorities and ensuring quality is built into the final product. Confidence and trust evolve from having subject matter experts, developers, testers, and business users working together toward a common goal – delivering quality solutions that provide real business value.

In addition, Agile methodologies afford the contractor the opportunity to be in the trenches with the government client, who has increased visibility into the work the contractor is doing. For example, the tech team may know the tools but not necessarily the client’s business processes; client subject matter experts work with the former to incorporate the latter.

Vetting (and sometimes venting!) at daily scrum meetings provides great insight for both contractor and government client,  because scrum team members are asked  to answer four questions that provide critical information necessary to keep projects on track and within budget:

  • What did I complete yesterday?
  • What am I doing today?
  • What are the issues I face?
  • What are the chances of finishing on time and meeting all commitments?

This framework of constant communication gives the client confidence in the contractor’s efforts, since the client is always aware of the project’s status. In addition, because no team member is bound by a specific role, each can contribute knowledge or insights that increase the chances of a project’s success.

An Agile approach also can affect the working environment and culture in a positive way.

Smart contractors understand that Agile is a framework, not a prescription, and that while Agile’s general concepts are widely applicable, the specific methods employed must accommodate and enhance the client’s culture organically over time.

Wholesale change is intimidating, and Agile comes with a whole new vocabulary around processes and roles, as well as a different way of delivering work products. The contractor must synthesize these so that they make sense and are effective in the government organization’s context.

Teams take on work to which they can commit – very different from someone at the top telling the team what to do and when to do it. They set reasonable expectations and timeframes in which to meet or exceed the project’s goals. As well, Agile forces teams to take greater accountability and enables management to release some control to the team. It becomes a joint effort, rather than a mandate. Eventually, “incremental deliveries” become sprints, and “daily short meetings” become the daily scrum; before you know it, you’re Agile without even realizing it.

In a true Agile engagement, the contractor works closely with the client to determine how the client’s organization operates today:

  • How do teams function? How is delivery executed?
  • What are the acceptance criteria?
  • Who is accountable?

Armed with this insight, contractor and client together can leverage Agile components that enrich the client’s environment.

Agile’s scrum component in particular emphasizes smaller tactical teams who deliver incrementally and frequently, versus one-time “big bang” product deliveries. It’s a more intelligent way to approach solution development because it leverages the natural, collaborative way a group of people would approach and solve a problem.

The emphasis on developing high-performing teams results in a more nimble delivery process that embraces change and puts value-added products in the hands of business users sooner.

Lastly, smaller teams that emphasize communication and contribute less overhead provide a more efficient means of producing low-cost, technically exceptional solutions.

Agile is not just a methodology - it’s a mindset shift that can drive IT solution success and organizational advancement.

About the Author

Lisa Mascolo is the CEO of Optimos Inc., a government IT provider.

Reader Comments

Tue, May 14, 2013 Lisa Mascolo, CEO, Optimos Reston

Actually, I think it could work really well. Often, even when the government requires a fixed price, the scope isn’t really fixed, even though they would like to think it’s fixed, and we (contractors) need it to be fixed to provide a fixed price. So, if price truly, incontrovertibly is “fixed,” then time-boxing and consistently refining what can get done within budget might be a great solution - regardless of whether it’s an LPTA (or LPTE!) contracting approach.

In practice, how might an Agile approach work in a firm fixed-price framework? First, the contractor delivers defined, time-boxed (sprint) work, with emphasis on delivering the "must haves" as soon as possible. Second, the team plans sprints in accordance with the program’s master schedule and provides regular updates to the client. Frequent product reviews help the client determine progress and work quality. Third, the client and technical teams are empowered to suggest and make changes during the product review (the end of the sprint), and the teams can reflect those changes in future sprints. Finally, planning includes estimating the effort required for those changes and/or modifications.

Incremental, iterative delivery as prescribed by an Agile, scrum-based approach could reduce cost over-runs, drive speed to value, and identify sooner those programs that aren’t working!

Mon, May 6, 2013 Tim

Since Agile (Scrum) time-boxes, and does not fix scope, how does this work under a fixed-price LPTA contract?

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