In the face of unexpected obstacles, higher customer expectations, and ever-evolving adversaries, agile practices have proven themselves necessary to helping federal agencies stay nimble and execute on their missions. Yet, just knowing you need to be agile isn’t enough – shifting from presumptive project management approaches to adaptive ways of working requires a fundamental shift in how the organization operates.

In support of this need, Accenture Federal Services established the Agile Institute five years ago as a central guiding coalition to help lead this transformation with our clients and internally.

Since its founding, the Institute has trained almost 10,000 people, equipping them with knowledge, certifications, tools, assets, and anything else they might need to help our federal partners successfully deliver their mission. This includes work with both civilian and defense agencies, from large, multi-year executions to small, single-day explorations. And to ensure alignment with the broader agile community, the Institute tailors many of the leading agile training programs, including ICAgile, SAFe and Kanban University, for the unique demands of federal work.

As leaders and educators within the Agile Institute, we’ve learned our fair share of lessons as we trained others over the past five years. Here are five that stand out, and that will shape our efforts for the next stage:

1. Don’t just do agile. Be agile.

There’s a natural inclination to think of agile like a checklist – “Follow these steps and voila! We’re agile.” But adopting an agile approach is more than bringing the right process and technology to the table. It’s about getting employees, managers, and leaders to understand and embrace the agile mindset. That’s a cultural shift that takes time to cultivate.

Making that change requires continuous assessment and learning to understand what works and what doesn’t, essentially treating your way of working as another product. Because of this, it’s important for teams to understand the larger goals they are working toward. True transformation builds on a foundation of core principles, not a specific process or tool.

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True transformation builds on a foundation of core principles, not a specific process or tool.

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Accenture Federal Services is committed to introducing our employees to agile fundamentals: the principles and values of what it means to be agile, so they are better prepared to adapt them for the needs of all teams and projects, as opposed to simply following a checklist. This establishes a lean/agile foundation for workers from the outset – one that they can build on and use to work efficiently with all agencies. Examples of those principles include satisfying customers through early and continuous delivery of valuable software, applying systems thinking, and giving continuous attention to technical excellence.

2. Use the new, remote-first environment to scale training.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, we got our own lesson in being agile as staff members pivoted from in-person to online classes. The effort was hardly a lift and shift. Refactoring two-day, in-person classes, chockfull of simulations and group work, into engaging online classes demanded innovative, out-of-the-box approaches, to keep participants engaged and learning. We weren’t above playing games like “Name That Tune” to hold students’ attention in between lessons! As we worked through these adjustments, though, we realized that the new, remote-first mindset was not a constraint, but an opportunity to reimagine how we approach learning and development.

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Agile Institute students participating in a virtual course.

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Our changes were effective – so much so that the Institute has trained more people now than it did before going virtual. That’s because remote classes:

  • Removed the constraint of geographical location.
  • Enabled greater participation, especially among students who tend to be introverted in classroom settings.
  • Increased the Institute’s flexibility to roll out more classes. During the pandemic we introduced four new certifications.

We don’t know what new challenges the future holds, but this shift helped us realize that unforeseen obstacles can create unexpected value, if you keep your eyes focused on the opportunities.

3. Understand the role leaders play in the success of agile.

Grassroots transformation initiatives that lack a clear champion routinely stall. To avoid that, we need to innovate how we train and coach leaders, to equip them to make better choices that align with lean/agile principles and values.

Part of that innovation requires meeting delivery leads and project and program managers where they are and offering new ways of learning that are more flexible. To that end, the Institute has adapted its courses. Notable changes include:

  • The Agile Coaching Cohort is a 14-week course that takes students from the basics of agile to capable in the field. Instead of being taught in two eight-hour blocks, it happens for one hour once a week. Participants get “homework,” in that they must show evidence each week of how they applied what they learned to actual projects.
  • Leading Agile Delivery is a four-day course with content targeted to the “pressurized middle” group. For instance, we specifically built time into the course to allow leaders to raise specific concerns and we reason through lean-agile approaches to solving relevant problems and issues they see in the field.

By tailoring training to participants’ specific needs, we can help teams achieve greater success by ensuring no one feels like they have a critical gap in their knowledge or are overwhelmed with too much unnecessary information.

4. Systems thinking is essential.

As teams progress in their agile journey, they should be continuously looking for new ways to improve how they work. Yet, we’ve found that adaptations are often only adopted locally or on a small scale, which limits their effectiveness. Instead, agencies should implement all improvements with an eye to their effects on the whole system.

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When we optimize a part independent of the whole, we can inadvertently harm the overall system performance. Consider the following example: We may have a goal to help the system deliver a product faster and intuit that we should add five more developers, a local optimization. What we may find, though, is that this actually slows down our ability to deliver a quality product, because we cannot conduct appropriate testing to keep up with the new overproduction of software. Our once-good practices are compromised and we produce low-quality products that aren’t what the user needs or wants. 

Instead, a systems view may have also balanced product management support and automated the build and test process to accommodate the increase in developers.

We’ve seen this selective mindset in the implementation of SAFe. But users can’t look at SAFe like a salad bar, taking only the cheese and croutons and skipping the kale and broccoli because they’re harder to stomach. The “system” that delivers a valuable product to the end user is made up of many interdependent parts that must effectively work together.

5. Align technology delivery with advancements in cloud, open source and automation.

In the past fifteen years, technology delivery has radically changed, and ultimately shifted the economics of engineering. Ensuring that agile practices stay aligned to these shifts is crucial to fueling continued innovation and results.

But keeping up with technological advancements can be tricky; software solutions involving cloud, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and virtual environments grow in complexity and capability daily. At the Institute, we are reimagining what’s possible by automating common elements among these technologies to serve the greater good. Even as technology marches forward, we can provide lean, fast delivery using tools such as continuous integration pipelines, automated testing frameworks and automatic tool installers. Because these are part of any modern development project, we should not waste any time recreating them for each new solution.

The Institute’s Modern Tech Delivery accelerators help teams and projects go from working to meet minimum customer expectations to providing value and innovation, even in today’s rapidly changing technology landscape.

Looking ahead

The federal government, like most organizations, needs to be nimble and responsive to change if it wants to create cost-effective, resilient, and adaptable products for the Digital Age. At the Agile Institute, we’re proud of our work empowering Accenture Federal Services’ teams with the knowledge, skills, and mindset they need to successfully apply agile practices to our clients’ complex needs and issues.

The past five years have been a journey of relentless learning and improvement for us – and we can’t wait to continue our education in the next half-decade. We see a future that builds on these ideas and focuses on the flow of value through our delivery systems and processes, with tangible outcomes driving how we measure our performance.

Chris Palmisano

Senior Manager – Accenture Federal Services, Lead Agile Coach

Greg Pfister

Principal Director – Accenture Federal Services, Agile Lead

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