Greg Pfister and Brian Mowbray explain that agile is a way to deliver federal government outcomes like never before.
Please provide a quick overview of the AFS Agile Institute.
Brian Mowbray, Agile Institute Lead: Our mission is to support agile enterprises and help our clients to be successful by providing premier agile solutions in the federal space. The Institute was founded with the goal to grow our agile culture and provide individual opportunities to forward the agile careers of our people. This program broadens agile delivery expertise across a larger pool of talent, differentiating AFS as a strategic partner that can deliver rapid value.
Why do you think agile has become so critical for government in recent years?
Greg Pfister, AFS Agile Lead: There are a number of contributing factors. Some of the top reasons are the need to accelerate product delivery, manage changing priorities, enhance quality, increase predictability and improve business alignment.
A shift in government has occurred over the past few years. We are seeing contracts now ask for more modular delivery, where pieces of the work are delivered more frequently and in smaller chunks. They are not calling out “agile,” but that’s what this shift represents. In other cases, the government is explicitly asking for agile development and support.
What makes agile unique?
Greg: First, there is a misconception about agile. Many think it is simply a process or methodology. The reality is, it’s more than that. It’s a mindset in how you do things more efficiently in a predictable fashion, focused on delivering value and eliminating waste. At the Agile Institute, we focus on teaching this mindset.
How do you teach an agile mindset?
Brian: We begin with theory and the core concepts of agile to create a common understanding of what agile is. We then focus on how to interweave various interactive activities, during our Agile Way Fundamentals class, that help participants make those logical connections back to those concepts. We are continually building on those logical connections throughout the course to ensure they leave with a solid understanding of why “being” agile is so much more important than just “doing” agile.
We focus heavily on the “whys” of agile; why breaking things down into smaller batches reduces cycle times and increases feedback opportunities, why face-to-face communication is ideal during customer/client engagements or anytime when collaborating, why having solid agile engineering practices is synonymous with delivering value in an agile ecosystem and why it’s so important to understand the fundamental concepts upon which agile is built.
What are federal agencies looking to achieve from their agile solutions?
Greg: Faster time to value, higher quality, improved user satisfaction. They want to be more responsive to change and be cost-effective. A common belief is that agile is cheaper, and it is, in an indirect way. By breaking the problem down into smaller pieces and delivering the smaller pieces quickly—say three months as opposed to 18-month delivery—we accelerate the learning process. Continuously adjusting the scope of delivery to the most valuable items is ultimately cost effective.
So the savings is a result of the fact that we aren’t wasting time on things that are not valuable. Historically, on a lot of projects, companies spent time building, reviewing and testing things that had become obsolete due to the passage of time. There was a giant list up front and contractors were obligated to do everything on the list. With agile, we continue to work from a list, but can achieve better outcomes because we can course-correct as we go. That leads to higher user satisfaction. We engage regularly with the client to deliver what is valuable to them now.
In what ways is agile improving accountability?
Greg: What’s beneficial is, in addition to the contractor being accountable, so too is the customer. That is a shift from traditional contracting. Traditionally, the client defined the requirements and threw them over the fence. Agile holds groups accountable for delivering value every two weeks. Accountability is built in, because we have to demonstrate what we have accomplished.
Customer engagement is also critical. We need to get feedback quickly, or that slows down the process. An engaged customer is part of the team helping to deliver the solution. The best agile projects have the customer right there to see the product evolve, providing feedback along the way. They gain hands-on experience shepherding their product through the development process.
What, specifically, are AFS employees learning through the training?
Brian: The key theme we hone in on is that agile is not just a process, it’s a mindset. Learning the various methodologies and frameworks isn’t hard; it’s understanding the concepts for why we do the things we do (the principles and values). We give all participants the opportunity to teach back to the instructors what they learned at the end of the course, so they have a mechanism to help them teach their clients and teams the agile concepts they learned during the course.
To ensure that we teach these agile concepts consistently with one voice, we have a fairly rigorous instructor training and assessment process. This ensures all of our instructors meet a minimum set of standards and have real world agile experience on a project for the federal government. This is in addition to the ICAgile Instructor assessment panel each instructor has to meet and pass before becoming a certified instructor.
What feedback are you getting from participants in the training?
Brian: People enjoy the training because of its interactivity and the energy of our instructors. They are not just watching 130 slides in a presentation. We try to spend less time talking, and more time engaging and doing. Based on direct feedback during class and through surveys conducted among participants, we hear from most that they have a clearer understanding of agile, and the mindset shift. We have more than 550 participants interacting about the class on our internal chat group. It’s slowly getting more interactive, but it’s great to see people share their own best practices and exchange ideas about agile development.
Why is AFS investing in the Agile Institute?
Greg: Beyond addressing specific agile requirements, we want to develop a more fluid, collaborative and entrepreneurial workforce. And we want to foster a common culture where these values are shared. We are committed to training all new joiners who are coming into a technical role. By doing so, we are building a solid foundation for agile projects and ensuring ongoing positive outcomes for our client work.
Watch this video for more about the Agile Institute at Accenture Federal Services