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InfoQ Homepage Articles Book Review and Interview with Brian Wernham about Agile Project Management for Government

Book Review and Interview with Brian Wernham about Agile Project Management for Government

Governmental organizations around the world are using agile, as the many cases in the book agile project management for government show. These are evidence stories of agile succes in government, large projects that have applied agile. Some used agile from the start, others adopted agile along the way to get the project back on track

Brian makes a connection between agile and leadership, by describing what he calls agile leadership behaviors. These 9 behaviors are based upon the principles from the agile manifesto, and give guidance for adapting agile in governmental organizations, increasing the chance of success.

A sample of the book Agile Project Management for Government can be downloaded here

InfoQ did an interview with Brian about his book on agile leadership and how to apply practices from Scrum and DSDM in governmental projects.

InfoQ: Thank you Brian that you are doing this interview for InfoQ. Can you shortly introduce yourself for our readers?

Brian: I have been working as an independent consultant for many years, and for the last few I have been directing some large ICT-enable change programmes.  Last year I took a sabbatical, and completed my book, “Agile Project Management for Government” which was published by Maitland and Strong in October.

InfoQ: Your book "agile project management for government" starts with case descriptions of government projects that have used agile. Why did you begin your book this way?

Brian: I strongly felt that the existing books did not provide enough real-life case study information – especially on large-scale, mission critical projects being delivered using Agile approaches. The sources in many books are not provided, and many contain case studies which are at best amalgams of an author’s experiences, and at worst are merely fictional illustrations.  I wanted to provide closely referenced real-world case studies that the reader could explore further using the on-line links I provided to proper research papers and credible sources.

InfoQ: IT projects in the public sector are often quite large (which you call mega project mania in your book). Wouldn't it be easier to break them into smaller projects, in stead of trying to manage such big projects? Why isn't this done more often in the public sector?

Brian: I explore the concept of ‘mega project mania’ in the book – this is when a large organisation (and the private sector has a lot to learn here also) decides to solve all of its problems by one single ‘Big bang’ project. The roots of this tendency are often a combination of the procurement people wanting to show off how they have ‘saved money’ by buying ‘at scale’ and, to be quite frank, senior management wanting to put off the evil day of implementation as long as possible – preferably until after they have left their jobs and have passed the problem onto the next manager…  We have seen this in action in the UK Government (see the news on the Universal Credit Programme)

InfoQ: You describe 9 agile leadership behaviors that help the public sector to adopt agile. What made you decide to chose these behaviors, and why did you describe them as behaviors?

Brian: Senior leaders have told me that that they wanted a set of Agile principles at strategic level – not just the Agile Manifesto principles which come from the team perspective.  They wanted leadership behaviours, not processes.

InfoQ: Many large organizations are process driven. Wasn’t it surprising that these leaders asked for behaviors instead of processes? Why do they focus on behavior?

Brian: A key argument of my book is that behaviours should drive process, and leadership is about behaviours, first and foremost. Therefore too much focus on ‘process maturity’ can make culture change more difficult, and inhibit the adoption of Agile.

InfoQ: Reading the book I get a picture that existing budgetting processes in the government can hamper the adoption of agile. Are there solutions for budgetting that could make the public sector more flexible, and which would support agile project management?

Brian: The UK Government Cabinet Office have been grappling with this for more than a year, and have just announced a “Digital Procurement Framework” will be set up later this year to allow departments to buy Agile development services in an incremental fashion – we shall see how this works out…

InfoQ: As I read it in your book, agile project management will have to work within governmental policies and has to comply to governmental procedures for project management. Are there solutions available to do this in a faster and more efficient way?

Brian: At the recent “Scrum Gathering” conference in Las Vegas I made the case that not only had government to change, but also the ‘Scrum’ method needed to address some issues also. The chief problem with Scrum is that it is silent on the problems that a Product Owner has to address in managing stakeholders.  The text of the talk and slides are here: Scrum and e-Government in the UK and USA.

InfoQ: Which Scrum changes do you propose for managing stakeholders?


Brian: Scrum is intended as a process for running a small team developing a product. I believe that it is fit for this purpose, but that many organisations need to run large projects, they also have many stakeholders and they need to instigate organisational change alongside a new product. These three factors can stretch Scrum to a breaking point. Three changes are therefore needed. First, the use of a ‘wrapper’ such as DSDM can help place the team within the context of organisational change. Second, a more sophisticated approach to aligning multiple product owners may be needed, for example by adopting the APM’s “Co-Directing Change” guidance. Thirdly, recognising the need to incorporate business change experts into the project. The Managing Successful Programmes (MSP) guidance can help there.

InfoQ: The book decribes how Scrum and DSDM is used in governmental agile projects. Can you give examples of some specific DSDM practices that have shown to be valuable?

Brian: Scrum gives a great framework from the team perspective, and DSDM tackles issues of architecture, implementation planning and organisational governance. Many people are discussing the need for using ‘wrappers’ such as DSDM around team-centred methods like Scrum.

InfoQ: Similar question for Scrum: Which Scrum practices can help governments to become more agile?

Brian: Scrum breaks down the barriers between geeky developers and non-technical business people so that they can work together to make practical products together – this is great!  It gets away from the problems of ‘Big Design Up Front’.  A great case study that you can use to convince CxOs and other business people on this is one I presented in Zurich earlier this year here: The agile approach saves the FBI Sentinel project.

InfoQ: The book lists 6 barriers to agile success, where are these barriers based upon?

Brian: Project management in public services has a checkered history. Some large projects succeed, but far too many are late, have massive cost overruns, and many are canceled or produce no benefits.

In this final part of the book (chapters 17-22), I examine these “barriers to agile success” and discuss how to overcome them:

  • Addiction to process: such as following a method such as Scrum without understanding why…
  • Mega-project mania: discussed above – who wants to manage a series of small projects – big projects look good on the CV…
  • The lure of Big Design Up-Front: It just seems so logical to write down all of one’s requirements before starting to develop a solution…
  • Traditional procurement and Contracts: Governments (both in USA and UK) have to follow procurement processes that exacerbate the tendency to big projects – we need “Agile procurement”...
  • Can we legislate for agile? The US Department of Defense has to struggle with legislation from Congress that appears anti-Agile…
  • Traditional Audit Approaches: Which assume that a detailed plan must be drawn up and then progress will be ‘audited’ against that plan.  Do we want to reward good development, or just praise people who are lucky enough to get their guesstimates correct at the start of a project?

InfoQ: Addiction to proceses can be a barrier for government agencies, for instance when they have invested heavily in process management for years. What can they do to become less addicted?

Brian: They need to follow the leadership behaviours in my book, not slavishly follow processes…

InfoQ readers can use the following links to receive 50% off offer on Brian’s book on Agile Project Management for Government:

About the Author

Brian Wernham has more than 30 years’ experience in adaptive change program leadership.  He is an independent consultant and works in both the public sector and the private sector.  He has extensive international experience in the USA, UK, Canada, Hong Kong, Germany and offshore development in Bangalore.

By the time that the term ‘agile’ was first coined, Brian had already been successfully leading iterative, adaptive projects for over 10 years on both sides of the Atlantic.  He works as a hands-on program director and has real-world implementation expertise together with a comprehensive understanding of the related international research.  He has consulted for major strategic international organizations such as Deloitte, PwC, Gartner Group, the National Audit Office in London and Seer Technologies in North Carolina. His comprehensive public sector experience includes the Department for International Development, the World Bank, the United Nations (Geneva), and local government authorities. You can subscribe to his blog and follow him on twitter: @BrianUkulele

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