A question of agility
The Government has admitted that in the past, Whitehall departments worked in isolation and often procured expensive bespoke ICT systems and solutions to meet their own requirements. As a result, departments were tied in to inflexible and costly ICT solutions which created a fragmented ICT estate that is now impeding the very efficiencies government wants to create through sharing and re-use.
As Andrew Moore explains in his latest business paper, A Question of Agility, two examples of such projects are the failed £12.4bn National Programme for IT (NPfIT), designed to reform how the NHS in England uses information to improve services and patient care, and Firecontrol, a £469m project to replace the control room functions of 46 local Fire and Rescue Services in England with a network of nine regional control centres using a national computer system. Firecontrol was flawed from the outset, another example of what happens when you try to impose a mandatory system on users who are reluctant to change the way they operate.
Such IT project disasters are not new. A study by Oxford University found that one in six IT projects ends up 'out of control', routinely costing investors and taxpayers billions of pounds in excess spending and destroyed benefits, sinking entire companies and the careers of many top managers.
Having been on the receiving end of too many 'Black Swan' projects - defined as where rare, unexpected events of huge proportions occurred - the Government hopes new Agile project management and delivery methods will improve its capability to deliver successful projects. The hope is that by 2014 there will be a reduction in the average departmental ICT enabled change delivery timescales of 20 percent. The first project to use an Agile approach is Universal Credit, a flagship system designed to make work pay for those currently on benefits.
One of the key characteristics that make a project 'agile' is close collaboration between the business or customer and the project team. This allows the team to understand the details of potentially changing requirements and create and validate an evolving solution accordingly.
As Andrew discusses in his article, Agile's 'build fast, try it' approach actually mirrors work that DAV has conducted using cognitive research methods. Cognitive thinking, typically necessary in complex situations where there is no previous 'best practice' to adopt, enables one to 'probe' the situation, 'sense' what's happening where and why, and then 'respond' accordingly. The fast feedback loops that result promote a 'low-risk, safe-to-fail environment', an approach that is extremely applicable to the Universal Credit project.
From DAV's specialist perspective, there are some important lessons for project managers to learn from Agile methodologies, because adopting an Agile approach is not in itself a guarantee of success. Just like any other methodology, it is the people factor that determines whether you get the outcome you want.
As Andrew points out, a good project manager does not try to attack all problems the same way; instead, he or she will analyse the situation, figure out what problems should be dealt with and then prioritise them before taking the appropriate action. Good project managers will choose specific techniques or methodologies to address specific problems.
Although there is no suggestion that all Black Swans have migrated - there will always be some cases where projects are built too quickly, with ineffective change control and poor quality leadership - there is a hope that lessons have been learned over the last 20 years and that the success-rate in IT-supported business projects will continue to rise steadily. For the government, and for many others trying to make their projects a success, fast feedback loops and the adoption of a low-risk, safe-to-fail environment, all wrapped up in a high quality leadership framework, is the agile way forward.
To download the full business paper please click on the adjacent link
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