Grant Thornton’s Dawn Platt Shines Light on Agile

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Dawn Platt, Principal, Public Sector (Image: Grant Thornton)

MeriTalk recently connected with Dawn Platt, principal, public sector, Grant Thornton, to discuss what’s ahead for agencies taking an Agile approach to implementing modernization initiatives.

A George Washington University and Virginia Tech grad, Dawn joined the firm in 2004 and has over 18 years of experience in both private and public sectors. She leads organizational transformations and IT modernizations to help her clients achieve their strategic objectives, improve their performance, and reduce their risk.

MeriTalk: How do you define Agile and what do agencies need to do to make it work?

Dawn: Agile is an iterative approach to software delivery that builds and deploys software incrementally, incorporating continuous customer feedback, instead of trying to deliver it all at once. Agile breaks a project into small units of functionality called user stories, prioritizing them, and delivering them in short cycles called iterations. Based on our experience, and that of so many others, some critical success factors for agencies transforming to Agile include:

  • Getting leadership buy in and commitment of resources to support the transformation
  • Educating and coaching members of the team and stakeholders
  • Establishing minimum standards through an Agile Center of Excellence
  • Adopting meaningful performance measures to help teams continuously improve
  • Creating an environment of collaboration between program managers and contractors
  • Facilitating continuous feedback from customers
  • Empowering teams, rather than just providing management direction
  • Implementing DevOps along with Agile to support continuous delivery to customers
  • Ensuring procurement practices are tailored to program needs

While they are transforming, agencies need to embrace the Agile mindset and organize teams for Agile product management success. Grant Thornton helps agencies by providing Agile advisory services. Working as servant leaders, we help organizations adopt Agile thinking, organize teams for success, and implement IT development strategies that reduce risks, deliver value, and accelerate return on investment; we work with teams to continuously innovate and improve to deliver value. We incorporate leading practices for Agile program management and governance, ideation, Inspect and Adapt (I&A) metrics, backlog management, estimating, release planning, and digital services development.

Considering the new MGT Act, how can Agile help reshape government IT outcomes as we push to modernize?

The Modernizing Government Technology Act (MGT) gives agencies more resources to modernize, helping to enable moving to the cloud, implementing shared services, and improving their cyber defenses. At this early stage, agencies are trying to understand what it is going to take to modernize. Grant Thornton approaches IT modernization using our three-step Journey Map–Assessment, Planning, and Deployment. By incorporating Agile approaches in all three phases, we help organizations identify the critical business functions that provide the most value and then pinpoint the corresponding areas and systems that need to be modernized. Doing this helps organizations effectively prioritize modernization efforts, and thus planning and utilizing agency funds appropriately. Such an Agile approach helps agencies achieve their goals faster while creating a modernization roadmap that can deliver the greatest ROI.

FITARA requires agencies to move to an Agile delivery approach–how are agencies performing and what are the lessons learned?

The Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) was enacted to clarify executive responsibilities and establish accountability for the acquisition and management of these resources. Effective implementation of FITARA should lead to an increase in the number of successful Federal technology programs and innovation. To improve success of IT programs, FITARA focuses on incremental development and deployment, obtaining continual customer feedback. Such an approach reduces investment risk, delivers capabilities sooner, and facilitates the adoption of emerging technologies. We see Agile as the enabling methodology for incremental development that can deliver on the goals of FITARA. Our approach to implementing Agile is customized for every agency and every department based on specific needs.

Agencies have been working hard to ensure compliance with FITARA, but the GAO has reported that less than half of investments at five agencies selected had planned to deliver capabilities in 12-month, incremental cycles. Common challenges agencies face include:

  • Long legacy of existing programs whose budget justifications have been based on Waterfall planning
  • Lack of appropriate training
  • Organizational silos
  • Culture transformation

These challenges can all be addressed with methodical and skilled Agile transformation and enablement.

What are the key advantages of Agile development and which agencies are leading the way?

Agile delivery techniques are being used to address IT project challenges and deliver usable functionality and value in a modular, adaptive fashion. Most technology organizations see adoption of Agile processes as an essential way to effectively deliver working software, incrementally. Adoption of Agile leads to:

  • Better customer focus
  • Increased predictability and reduced risk
  • Accelerated time to market
  • Better adjustment to changing priorities
  • Alignment of IT and business priorities
  • Increased transparency

We are seeing agencies like the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), the General Service Administration (GSA), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) effectively adopting and maturing their Agile practices. At Grant Thornton, we leverage lessons learned from supporting transformation efforts at some of these agencies to inform our efforts at others. We have created an Agile Center of Excellence within Grant Thornton to promote a collaborative environment for practitioners at various Federal agencies to share lessons learned, best practices, project challenges/solutions, and learn about current trends.

Does Agile require a new culture in agencies’ IT organizations?

Yes! A culture shift is needed for agencies to successfully adopt Agile; it’s not just a change in software development life cycle processes. Agile is based on Lean, which focuses on such tenets as: the customer first, continuous improvement, minimizing waste, building quality, and developing people to improve performance. Organizational change can face resistance. We recognize that every agency is different and you need to understand the existing culture, tailor the approach, and proceed with transformation thoughtfully. It is important to tailor industry-leading Agile practices and performance improvements to work within your environment to rapidly deliver IT solutions that deliver business value to stakeholders. We recommend the development of practices for Agile implementation by undertaking the following approach:

  • Identify problems worth solving
  • Define and coach adoption of minimally viable solutions
  • Validate solution effectiveness through measurement
  • Experiment to learn, pivot, and optimize solutions
  • Scale solutions that are proven fit for use

Our coaching process is designed to optimize utilization of resources, to establish sufficient runway to validate coaching solutions and enable short feedback loops, and iterate to enable delivery of business value.

What are your three recommendations for agencies considering a move to Agile?

Agile transformation is a mind-set change that affects the very culture of an agency. There are three key approaches that help with this transition:

  1. Invest in organizational change and help people “think Agile.” You need to educate leaders, teams, and key stakeholders to adopt Agile practices, Agile thinking, and productively plan and execute Agile initiatives. This can be done via establishment of an Agile Center of Excellence that drives this change across the organization and its people.
  2. Establish minimum standards and foundational practices. You should define roles and responsibilities, governance, performance metrics, processes, and define “Ready” and “Done.”
  3. Start small and find out what works for your agency. Try implementing Agile on a project that is well defined, with a committed, high-performing team. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, learn from them by leveraging Inspect & Adapt metrics and make course corrections. Success is contagious.