InformationWeek Editor John Foley and I hosted an "Agile Government" panel at the InformationWeek 500 conference Tuesday. We ran out of chairs and packed the room with a surprising number of attendees for a government topic at a largely-private-sector event.
The first question: Isn't "Agile Government" an oxymoron? Well, no. I've worked for and with large private sector organizations, and one of the things I've observed is that there's equal paralysis-by-analysis in large corporations as there is in government. It's just more obvious to the "shareholders" when you're in government, since the stakeholders are also the customers and since government is subject to transparency laws.
Agility is really about the steps you take to ensure that the organization--be it government, private-sector, IT, or otherwise--doesn't get stuck in the ditch. I've been fortunate to work with an excellent team of vendors and co-workers to execute on high-dollar, on-time government IT projects. Based on that, as well as research that I did for InformationWeek Analytics, and some attendee feedback, here are the six steps that we discussed at the event for how good government organizations manage to keep projects and important initiatives moving along. Corporations might find that some of this resonates with them, too.
Seek Staff Engagement. Projects are executed by people. People drag their feet when they're not motivated. The key is to seek intrinsic motivation. I like to tell the story of when I was in the private sector, where when I worked my butt off, I got a bonus, which was good extrinsic motivation, to be sure, but where was my intrinsic motivation? Hint: it wasn't that the boss got to build a new beach house. But when I moved to government, staff and I had conversations about how we do meaningful work every day to keep citizens safe, to keep them informed, and to make government more efficient so that we can have a better community. That's the stuff that makes you want to get up in the morning! And that's where government, or at least good government, has the advantage, hands-down over many private sector businesses. But business isn't at a loss here, either. There's science behind ways to tap into folks' intrinsic motivation. (I keep recommending Dan Pink's book Drive.)
Get Granular. Former federal CIO Vivek Kundra wrote that programs designed to deliver their initial functionality after years of planning are "inevitably doomed." He's right. Projects need to be broken into manageable deliverables. But perhaps just as importantly, reporting and adjusting also needs to be broken up into manageable bite-sized chunks. One important lesson that governments can learn from the business world is the notion of quarterly reporting. Nobody, and I mean nobody, can take their eye off of the ball for an entire year and expect things to go well. Dashboards, plans, task lists, and so on should be updated on at least a quarterly basis. I believe that even performance reviews should be updated on a quarterly basis.
In some cases, for particularly important issues or projects, daily updates are needed. But in the emerging tradition of Agile project management, these can be 15 minute updates--15 minutes frees you up to actually go do the work instead of meet. And frankly, I've always found that if you stand, rather than sit, these meetings tend to end on time.
Leverage Hawthorne. Many of folks at the session had no idea what the Hawthorne Effect is. It's pretty simple: The very act of measuring performance tends to positively affect performance. I'm not saying go all Big Brother on your employees, but do identify key performance metrics and reporting that really matter to the need for speed. For example, I've used a quarterly project dashboard at most of the organizations that I've worked with, where the projects show up as green for on-time, yellow for minor setbacks, and red for significant delay. Key performance indicators that I've seen used and then adopted myself include ratio of planned activities to completed activities within the quarter. It's amazing how folks will change their behavior once everyone sees the results of their behavior.