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Turning 'agile' from a buzzword to a boon takes hard work

May. 30, 2014 - 04:05PM   |  
By JORDON SIMS   |   Comments
Jordon Sims is director of organization relations and programs for the Project Management Institute. He formerly served as an active-duty submarine officer in the U.S. Navy, and he has held numerous positions within the Pentagon, Capitol Hill (appropriations), and Energy Department.
Jordon Sims is director of organization relations and programs for the Project Management Institute. He formerly served as an active-duty submarine officer in the U.S. Navy, and he has held numerous positions within the Pentagon, Capitol Hill (appropriations), and Energy Department. ()

“Agile” is the prevalent theme in government project management as of late. By definition, the concept of agility refers to an ability to be nimble, move quickly or easily, or to think, come to conclusions, and react swiftly. The question then remains: how does the federal government become more agile with the projects and programs it manages, both large and small? There is a process for managing agile projects by individuals; however, the clear distinction of an overall agile organization at the agency level and how to achieve it is often overlooked.

If one simply searches for “agile in government,” there is no end to the search returns listing a variety of resources from the importance of agility in federal management, agility in government services, endless contractors/vendors with agility in their title, and every plausible opinion from the outside looking in on how to make federal project and program management more agile altogether. At first glance, one would think the federal government is drowning in easily accessible agile resources. Unfortunately, the concept of organizational agility cannot be purchased off the shelf, from a vendor/contractor peddling “agile”, and the government will never be able to simply legislate, regulate, dashboard, or report itself to more agility in its projects, programs, and portfolio. Rather, agile success is achieved by focusing on relatively difficult, yet fundamental stepping stones critical to the development of the necessary organizational culture. Leading research has shown that the key ingredients for organizations to achieve a truly effective level of agility are the ability to effectively manage change, incorporate effective risk management,and standardize project, program, and portfolio management practices.

These specific building blocks paving the way to organization agility, whether it be in information technology or any other area of focus for goods and/or services delivered by the government via projects and programs are rarely discussed in the aforementioned long list of those capitalizing on the prevalent buzz word “agile.” The proof is in the data. PMI Pulse of the Profession research has shown a direct correlation of these focus areas to achieving recognizable high levels of agility as follows:

■ 92 percent of organizations with highly effective change management practices identify themselves as also having a great deal of agility.

■ 90 percent of organizations reporting a strong risk management approach rooted in leading best practices identify themselves as also possessing high levels of agility.

■ Organizations with standardized practices across departments/divisions are three-times as likely to identify themselves with a high level of agility.

The benefit of the simple concept of standardized practices across departments and divisions cannot be understated. With never-ending establishment of silos and stovepipes for Project/Program management offices, standardized practices within one agency are an uncommon sight to behold, let alone across multiple agencies with similar initiatives being undertaken. In addition to that impediment, the standardization of practices is often considered counter-intuitive when first associated with being agile. Standardization itself leads people down a thought path of rigidity and inability to react or respond, when the opposite is actually the case. The ability to leverage best practices and standardize them as pre-planned responses to the expected, allows resources and effort to be focused on the unique and unexpected as it presents itself. Keep in mind, 75 percent of project managers and executives surveyed, across the globe and all industries both public and private, identified the ability to quickly react to strategic opportunities as they arise as the principle indicator of achieving agile success.

If a federal agency is bogged down wrestling with the mundane that more likely than not has been encountered and addressed many times over by sister divisions, departments, or agencies as a whole. How are they going to be able to seize the opportunity when the unique and ideal strategic opportunity for major impact presents itself? To do so would truly be agile.

The ability to leverage manage projects and programs at the portfolio level compliments the standardized approach by providing the correct level of alignment with strategy/policy, prioritization, and ultimately benefits realization of this fundamental focus.

We can drive project managers to resources including PMI’s Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP)® certification and collection of agile information, but the federal government at the agency level needs to simply pause and push aside all of these statistics, facts, figures, recipe cards, and anything else prescribing the “silver bullet” for achieving an agile status which can be credible distractor. Proper methods and culture in place that manage change, risk, and standardization at the enterprise level lead to the benefit being realized. That benefit is a truly agile organization that can seize the moment in a timelier manner when strategic opportunities arise.

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