In their efforts to embrace agile management practices, federal agencies have focused on agile projects — setting up teams with a specific goal and a deadline, ramping up personnel, appointing a scrum-master and running sprints, and then winding everything down again once the project is complete. Agile project management can be effective in the short term — and it fits easily with the federal government’s program-based annual funding mechanisms.

But mature organizations understand that agile methods should inform strategic thinking and long-term planning, as well as short-term project cycles. To truly realize the transformative potential of agile, federal agencies must ensure they are fully integrating product management as a critical piece of the agile puzzle. That means understanding the ever-changing needs of the enterprise and its users and continually honing product strategy and features as required.

Project vs. product management: What’s the difference?

Product managers are responsible for the strategic development and goals of a product across its entire life cycle, while project managers ensure execution of specific developments. Think of the difference between an Apple project management team responsible for the latest version of the iOS, and a product management team responsible for the life cycle development of the iPhone.

The product management approach is even more important in federal agencies, where the product is, at the highest level, representative of the government’s relationship with its citizens.

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The product management approach is even more important in federal agencies, where the product is, at the highest level, representative of the government’s relationship with its citizens.

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For example, in 2017, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) expanded their telehealth capabilities in response to urgent business and user needs. Increased access to telehealth could shorten long wait times for VA medical appointments and improve medical care options for veterans living far away from VA hospitals. The short-term project to increase telehealth offerings was informed by product management insights that kept the focus on the long-term needs of the customer.

Three practices for effective product management

To their credit, managers in many federal agencies, including the Department of State, Transportation Security Administration, VA, and more, recognize the value of agile product management and have sought to embrace it. Yet, agile product management is hard in government, where there are often multiple stakeholders and accountability can be unclear.

In a recent whitepaper, we drew on our experiences supporting agile product management with federal agencies to lay out three principles they can use to harness its extraordinary power:

  1. Align contracts for success.

Because simple agile engagements — with a single team and one product owner — are rare in government, clarity in the contracts governing them is essential. Contracts set the rules for government-vendor relationships and they need to correctly align to organizational objectives. Government should own all scope decisions and the customer must play an active part in day-to-day development activities.

The contract should specify a single, full-time product manager, and clearly time-box key activities and decisions; unclear lines of accountability and delays in communication erode momentum and stifle innovation. Furthermore, the product manager may be a domain subject matter expert, but also needs a range of other skills and qualifications to see the technical big picture, or handle legal and governance issues, for example.

  1. Establish a support network.

A full-time product manager is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for success. Product managers need support to grow into their multifaceted roles and help them handle specialty legal or technical issues. They also need a “Value Team” of experts and specialists who understand how the product aligns to business goals and who can leverage their unique expertise in pursuit of agile objectives. Product managers must also interface closely with the “delivery team,” who is responsible for the technical implementation.

The composition of Value Teams will vary depending on the skills required for a particular product; agencies must clearly delineate responsibilities within the teams and ensure they have the skills, expertise, and bandwidth necessary to succeed.

  1. Go human-centered.

Human-centered design (HCD) means a lot more than polling users about new features before embarking on a design sprint. HCD must infuse every stage of agile product management. How?

  • Give HCD a seat at the table of the Value Team, equipping product managers with the data to inform strategic decisions, as well as tactical activities like prioritizing the backlog.
  • Collect continuous feedback. Think of software development like cooking a stew. The agile cook tastes the stew as she cooks it and gets stakeholders to taste it too, piloting new features to small groups of users and gathering invisible feedback through telemetry. Data about how users respond lets the agile cook tweak the recipe to perfection before features are rolled out more widely.
  • Pilot features quickly and cost efficiently to maximize innovation and minimize risk. A fast experimental deployment can validate (or not) a proposed new feature with minimal investment. If it works, go with it. If not, the losses to be cut are minimal.

Well-implemented agile product management can better enable federal agencies to optimize their services to citizens — increasing the efficiency of the process and quality of the output.

Chris Palmisano

Senior Manager – Accenture Federal Services, Business Agility Advisor


Jennifer Zinck, Ph.D.

Senior Manager – Accenture Federal Services, Business Agility Advisor

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