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Agile - delivery of agile in government

For a project to adopt a truly agile method of delivery, the collective mindset of the project team (both client and vendor) need to change from the more traditional fixed price, fixed outcome method of delivery via waterfall techniques.


Agile, by design, does not try to lock into a well defined outcome at the start of the project but rather relies on a frequently recurring assessment of highest priority requirements. If a project is able to adopt an agile mindset, which may be challenging under some government project control structures and processes, it is more easily able to navigate changing requirements and control project success.  This 'fable' further illustrates my point. 

Paul M 17 December 2016

Fable - The Queen’s Golden Floor

Once upon a time, in a land far far away, lived a Queen who was livid at the state of the floors in the two ballrooms for her palace. She summoned her two sons, Prince Patrick and Prince Paul explaining that she required each ballroom to be tiled in golden tiles of a quality befitting their family stature.

Prince Patrick, being the oldest son, was given the task of the first ballroom which came with a twenty thousand dollar budget.



Prince Patrick

Prince Patrick, ever eager to please his mother, consulted a wise old man of the kingdom. The wise old man explained that gold tiles suitable for the ballroom may be found but they are in a far away land which would require extensive planning and resources to obtain. The wise old man explained to Prince Patrick that he needed to travel first to the magic waterfall then on to the golden arches where he’d find the gold tiles to be purchased, but the journey is long and hard.  Prince Patrick worked tirelessly for 2 months planning and documenting the trip. All this time the Queen remained livid.

Prince Patrick and team set out in search of the golden tiles. After 3 months of hard slog, they found the magic waterfall. There they were able to get directions to the golden arches, and after a further month of slog, they finally arrived. Here they were able to negotiate the purchase of some golden tiles with a strange looking court jester dressed in an orange wig, yellow suit, and big shoes. Prince Patrick was worried about the quality of the gold tiles given his mother’s notorious pretense for nothing but the best, however his remaining budget did not allow him to be too picky. He purchased enough 18 carat gold tiles and set off on the long journey back to the palace.

Agile Blob Fable - Page 1 (1).png

Back at the palace, although exhausted, Prince Patrick laid the golden tiles that night and summoned the Queen the next morning. The Queen, initially excited at the anticipation of her new ballroom floor, quickly turned to rage when she saw the 2nd grade gold tiles and dodgy tiling job. Scalding Prince Patrick for using all his budget she set the task of the second ballroom to Prince Paul.

Prince Paul

Prince Paul, upon seeing the shame of his brother and the wise old man, enlisted the advice of an even wiser and older wise old man. The wiser older man recommended Prince Paul run a quick Discovery project to help the Queen really understand the attributes of a floor befitting her standing in the kingdom and an approximate budget for such a floor. A week of intense meetings were convened where the Queen, Prince Paul, wiser old man and members of the aristocracy (who would be using the ballroom) envisaged the ultimate floor. The Queen was tasked to provide some measurable acceptance criteria for such a floor. The wiser older man was able to give an insight to a near location where gold was mined and potentially forged into gold tiles. Prince Paul was able to quickly validate this process during the week Discovery at small cost.

Prince Paul was then able to give the Queen a degree of confidence, but no guarantee, of what looked to be achievable for the same budget as his brother Prince Patrick. His assertion - that his mother would need to buy into - was that for twenty thousand dollars the nearby mine would produce the gold squares in 24 carat gold, with diamond edging and personalised motifs (popular with the aristocracy), however budget did not seem to stretch far enough for golden picture frames which had also been discussed. Prince Paul assured the Queen, despite not guaranteeing an outcome for her twenty thousand dollars, she'd get great value and be in control of priority throughout the project. The Discovery process was complete and the Queen was happy.

Prince Paul then quickly set the project in train. The nearby mine was able to quickly manufacture the first golden tiles per the prototype during Discovery. A small section of the floor was laid. The Queen was able to use her recently commissioned high speed broadband network to connect on her tablet (stone) device into the Daily Standup meeting to discuss project progress and priorities. Every 2 weeks the Queen was able to view the progress of the floor, and provide feedback, as part of a Showcase activity Prince Paul had planned. It was at the end of the first of these Showcases where the Queen decided to use much fewer personalised motif gold tiles (only using these on the border) such that she could swap that effort for the gold picture frames.

The Golden Floor

At the end of 4 lots of 2 week Sprints the floor was complete, the Queen was happy and there was just enough budget left to invite the aristocracy to a welcoming party. 

Agile Blob Fable - Page 1 (3).png

Above is Prince Paul’s Sprint plan. Notice:

  • Wants and Needs (core requirements) are identified in Discovery where the project is sized;

  • Wants and Needs are further refined at the start of each Sprint;

  • The floor is demonstrated every 2 weeks and progressively rolled-out with the picture frames included as a swap of cost

And they all lived happily ever after... well expect Prince Patrick who was relegated to the rank of peasant for many years before he was granted access to the broadband network.

The Moral of the Story

While the above is my subjective attempt at humour, like any good fable there are some morals to take away. Those applicable to Salsa’s experience/success with application of Agile in government projects - and typically in general regardless of government/non-government affiliation - include:




An empowered Product Owner is essential

The Product Owner needs to be highly active in order to make ongoing decisions on Acceptance Criteria and priority. The Agile process will be highly compromised if this is not resourced effectively.

Government projects in particular, need to be sure they are able to commit the resourcing level for Agile which includes a Product Owner. They also need to be sure the Product Owner was the decision authority to be empowered.

The Queen was able to define Acceptance Criteria for the floor and be active in the rollout.

Discovery is necessary to produce a working Backlog of Agile Stories.

A Discovery process should be used to define a critical mass/coverage of stories and used to compile the initial project sizing. Ongoing this Backlog evolves as the Sprints are executed.

Government projects are often structured using tender responses to very long lists of requirements. If Agile is to be adopted in such environments, the entire team (agency and vendor) need to agree on the level of pragmatism able to be afforded to the requirement set. Ideally the requirements become a pool to be managed on-going by the Product Owner. If a project is not able to run using close variant of this concept, scope management method agreement is needed upfront - even if this determines the project needs execution in a Waterfall method.

Prince Paul used a 1 week Discovery to define requirements, understand and agree success, estimate project and prototype/verify methods.

Short Sprints allow an engaged Product Owner to change priorities if needed.

Inherent in Agile is the ability to be much more flexible with priority of requirements should needs change. Similar budget/capacity items may be swapped, redefined etc. as long as the Product Owner manages the project’s mandate of success. This allows much more flexible re-evaluation of requirements during the project while controlling budget.

Prince Patrick made a fatal mistake of showing his mother the results of the project for the first time only after all his budget was consumed. Rectifying misunderstood requirements (e.g. the 18 carat gold rather than the 24 carat) at this stage of the project is hugely more expensive and often is not possible resulting in a failed project.

Prince Paul on the other hand quickly demonstrated possibilities producing a ‘release’ every 2 weeks.

Agile process of Daily Standup, Showcase, and Retrospective at the end of Sprint is a powerful feedback loop.

The Agile process steps need to be taken seriously by the Scrum Master. The governance process relies on Daily touchpoints (Standups), 2 weekly review with stakeholders (Showcases), Story Grooming and prioritisation, and Retrospective discussions.

Government projects can lend themselves to inviting a cast of thousands to Showcases and uncontrolled solicitation of requirements feedback. It is very important that the Product Owner recognise this and work with the vendor and Scrum Master to mitigate this risk. An empowered Product Owner is critical to classify feedback and control priority via a structured process.

Prince Paul was able to keep his Product Owner (his mother) engaged via Standups. Most importantly the Queen and other stakeholders were given a demonstration of progress every 2 weeks and an opportunity to change requirements if necessary.

A final word on Fixed Price in Government

Adopting Agile thinking and methods is a leap. In Salsa’s experience the most foreign concept for any client used to more traditional methods of project delivery is not signing up to a fixed outcome for a fixed price and bulking at the idea of trusting the process to achieve a quality outcome for a fixed budget. Some clients (including government) are not able to get past this mentality (in some cases there are genuine barriers such as rigid procurement processes preventing the adoption). Such cases, again in Salsa’s experience, unfortunately are lost opportunities as the true power of Agile where a Product Owner controls (on-going) where the budget is able to be directed are not able to be taken advantage of.

Whilst the fable a simplistic example, Salsa has truly seen heroes in the mould of Prince Paul where a savvy client Product Owner is able to adapt to change, spend budget wisely, be agile, and deliver brilliant outcomes for their organisation. On the other hand, all too frequently Salsa has observed clients insisting on rigid structures to control costs only to be subsequently challenged by cumbersome change management/control processes and/or compromised projects of the ilk of Prince Patrick.

Salsa would be happy to discuss concrete examples of such experience both good and bad. Ring Salsa, …. ask for Prince Paul. Let your next project be Agile!

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