Putting the Federal Government in the Agile Driver’s Seat

The definition of system features and scope in federal Agile and SAFe development efforts is an inherently governmental responsibility.

Recently, I came across a job posting for a Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) product owner (PO) position with a federal government contracting firm. As someone interested in implementing SAFe within the Federal Government, I reviewed it. I wanted to get a sense for whether the job description adhered to the role as described in SAFe and, perhaps, glean the agency’s level of commitment to implementing the framework. Indeed, the duties described were the same as those prescribed by SAFe, however, my initial excitement at seeing yet another example of SAFe adoption within the Federal Government quickly turned into disappointment. The agency was handing over the definition of features and overall work scope to a contractor. This is a fundamental mistake rooted in traditional federal acquisition biases.

The Lead System Integrator Model

The Federal Government tends to outsource the overwhelming majority of its information technology (IT) and digital systems work to contracting firms. This includes the full life-cycle development and operation & maintenance (O&M) of digital systems as well as most of the program management of those activities. The Department of Defense (DoD) often designates contracting firms as Lead Systems Integrators (LSIs) to manage the integration of large-scale, complex, multi-year, digital systems-of-systems (SoS) implementations. Section 805 of the FY2006 National Defense Authorization Act defines two types of LSIs:

  • LSIs “with system responsibility” – Prime contractors responsible for the technical coordination and managerial execution of a systems development program at the system level. They do not perform technical implementation work at either the system or sub-system levels.
  • LSIs “without system responsibility” – Contractors who perform acquisition functions closely associated with inherently governmental functions.

Federal agencies turned to the LSI model in the late 1990s to compensate for a lack of in-house, technical and project management expertise caused by reductions in force of the federal acquisition workforce (by more than 50 percent between 1994 and 2005) and the rapidly increasing complexity of system solutions. By the mid-2000s, however, issues concerning LSI conflicts of interest (e.g., shaping integrations to promote LSI products), lack of effective governmental oversight over LSIs, lack of government visibility into sub-contractor activities, and the difficulty of replacing entrenched LSIs led to legislative and policy reforms and less affinity for the LSI model within the federal acquisitions community.

Today, many agencies are increasingly assuming the LSI role and instituting modular contracting policies to narrow the scope of large acquisition programs into smaller, more manageable programs and projects that do not necessitate a large LSI role. However, in many parts of the Federal Government, there is still a bias towards limited government involvement in the day-to-day management of contractor activities and capability definition. Typically, this bias exists because of a lack of expertise and/or resources. However, this bias sometimes bleeds into activities that can/are considered inherently governmental. I posit that the product management work performed by SAFe POs and Product Managers (PMs) is inherently governmental.

The Role of Product Owner in Agile

The PO is a member of an Agile software development team. They represent the “face of the customer” who will be using the functionality developed by the team. They bring to the team a deep understanding of customer needs and the business domain/market environment the solution will serve. The PO is primarily responsible for:

  • Defining solution capabilities and features through the development of Agile epics and user stories and their prioritization within the team’s product and iteration backlogs

Backlogs include technical work that supports the development and implementation of new business/mission capabilities and features.   Such technical work mostly revolves around the implementation of physical and software infrastructure (“enablers” in SAFe).  While POs are not expected to understand the technical details, they must be able to take into account the scope of these enablers and collaborate with technical contributors in prioritizing the work.

  • Planning upcoming sprints/iterations
  • Elaborating/amplifying user stories before an iteration, during iteration planning, and during iterations. They provide additional information necessary to implement stories.
  • Supporting user story acceptance testing by participating in the development of user story acceptance criteria and formally accepting user stories when they meet the criteria
  • Participating in team demos and retrospectives

All of these activities are informed by input from project stakeholders, customers, product management, program/project management, and the Agile team itself.

Product Management in SAFe

As a framework founded on Agile principles and Agile-Scrum practices, SAFe includes the Agile PO role but goes further by including the concept of a product management team function that cuts across every level of the SAFe organizational hierarchy: Portfolio, Large Solution, Program, and Team levels. SAFe POs at the team level perform the same activities as POs of non-SAFe Agile teams but also help formulate and articulate to their teams a program vision and a program roadmap. The program vision and program roadmap inform/guide the development of program features and team user stories. The program vision and program roadmap are themselves shaped by solution and portfolio-level concerns (depending on the SAFe configuration implemented). POs in SAFe are at the most tactical end of a strategic product management regime.

Breaking the Iron Triangle

The most fundamental way Agile and SAFe achieve agility is by breaking the Iron Triangle. Instead of attempting to fix schedule, budget, and scope upfront, we fix schedule (timebox) and budget while letting scope “float.” However, both Agile and SAFe prevent project/work scope from floating too far because POs are empowered to define, prioritize, and approve scope.  Moreover, in SAFe, POs and PMs across the SAFe hierarchy enforce scope discipline by:

  • Communicating with development teams regularly and often
  • Defining and articulating SAFe Agile requirements (epics, capabilities, features, user stories, and enablers)
  • Prioritizing SAFe Agile requirements
  • Actively participating as the acceptance authorities of developed functionality vis-a-vis SAFe Agile requirements
  • Working with teams to plan sprints/iterations, releases, and program increments (PI) – Breaking up scope across timeboxes

Agile and SAFe promote and enforce transparency at all levels. Decisions are made in the open with the input and concurrence of all pertinent stakeholders. In properly run Agile teams, there are no surprises: teams commit to a known set of work; the work is tested as it is developed and integrated and test results are made known; and release candidates are demonstrated to work at the end of each iteration and PI. Issues and impediments that jeopardize delivery are exposed every day through Scrums, automated testing, and frequent integration.

Breaking the Iron Triangle is a big departure from the way federal acquisitions currently works. Federal program management oversight culture and practices must change so that government program managers and project stakeholders can begin to take a much more active role in the definition of functional requirements alongside Agile teams. This will take changes in acquisition policy and law, training across government acquisition and functional communities, and leadership committed to championing new approaches to old, recurring problems. Progress in this direction is being made (e.g., 18F, Digital Services, the TechFar, Modular Contracting and a slowly growing willingness to acquire Agile services under Time & Materials (T&M) and Level of Effort (LOE) contracts).

Government Clients as POs and PMs

Appointing contractors to act as SAFe POs and PMs is an indicator that the SAFe implementation/adoption is subverted (an anti-pattern). It is a throwback to the lack of oversight and control experienced under earlier programs run by LSIs. To ensure that real value is created for every taxpayer dollar spent on federal systems development, the Federal Government must be in the driver’s seat. SAFe enables the creation of an ecosystem where technical and management expertise from the private sector works to fulfill requirements continuously defined and prioritized by government stakeholders. This “just in time” approach to scope and requirements definition is the key to achieving agility, lowering costs, and achieving faster, more frequent releases, while improving quality.