FWD50 2017: Government’s going agile, and so can you

November 6, 20175 Minute Read

If you’ve ever quickly dismissed the idea of working for the feds because it seemed way too slow and bureaucratic, think again. At the FWD50 conference in Ottawa, many of the attendees are public sector employees tasked with guiding digital transformation projects through a more agile government. It’s a meeting of great minds working together to bring tech into brighter focus to better Canadian government, and there was no shortage of tech possibilities brought to the table.

Day one of this conversation on digital transformation focused on workshops all about moving to a digital government, including sessions on becoming agile, data science in government, moving from technologist to digital enabler, and beyond. At FWD50, these conversations take on a government scale but echo strongly for ITDMs throughout the country.

The Canadian government has seen so many failed projects that it’s been forced to change its game—under top-down guidance from the Senate and Treasury Board. But it all goes beyond just software and information technology. To transform, everyone needs to participate. Just like government employees, it’s time to get out of the trenches of technology delivery in your workplace and help your business do better. Here are some key insights for ITDMs from the collaborative discussions that took place at FWD50 day one:

1. Know your customer

When you think of digital transformation and the adoption of agile methodologies, the government probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. In reality, the two are fuelled in part by the government’s core mandate to create value and a better life for Canadians. The problem is that the current state of affairs is no longer sustainable.

The Canadian government supports the IT requirements of various departments through its Shared Services model, but remembering who the actual client is can get a little messy. Is it the department, or the tax-paying public? Agile is all about focus, and a government moving toward digital transformation needs leadership that remembers the who and the why.

2. Admit that you don’t know everything

The current state of government projects has everyone making assumptions. And you know what happens when you assume, right?

Today, the practice is to create reams and reams of documents up front, collecting information that outlines what’s known, what’s unknown but can be known, and an acknowledgement of the things that “we don’t know that we don’t know.” Well, this is where a vendor comes in, and why the government runs into challenges. It takes two to three years to publish these assumptive documents—heck, you’re writing books—that go to tender and uncover requirements and architectures. You’ve spent a pile of money already, and you’re still just making assumptions about what’ll happen during implementation.

Embrace the chaos of not knowing everything. The honesty will set your team up for greater success, unhindered by delusions of absolute control. Speaking of which…

3. Accept that you’re no longer in control

So, the RFP goes out and the contract is awarded to a vendor. RFPs are indicative, and the awarded contract is full of numbers. That’s when we run into what we didn’t know we didn’t know.

Any complex project—IT or otherwise—isn’t getting validated until after the contract is awarded to the vendor. More often than not, we realize what we really want is a capability that didn’t exactly occur to us during the three years we were writing assumptive documentation. Now, we’re no longer in a position to negotiate. At this point, the vendor is managing your world—and you’re just living in it.

The current process is designed to reduce risk, but everyone’s secretly sweating it out, because not having validation is the riskiest approach of all. And that’s the problem the government is trying to solve with agile.

4. Know that culture shock is real

Ironically, agile runs contrary to the massive undertaking of digital transformation. Agile’s about small change, and the opportunity to evolve—not rapidly transform—into a more agile organization. It gives you adaptability.

Agile isn’t something you can buy. It’s a culture shift and a mindset. It’s simple, but it’s not easy to implement in just any large organization. The culture change has to happen before you can have better collaboration, and that can take a long time.

But what starts sooner is implementation. So instead of taking a long journey into a vendor contract, you should start to validate things as soon as possible. This kind of culture shift is more difficult.

5. What red tape?

Without a doubt, there are still constraints in agile government. It still needs to be auditable—and building that feature in isn’t a trivial thing to do. The shift is to stop throwing that up as a barrier; agile sees it as a problem to be solved.

Another thing to understand about agile is that it isn’t prescriptive. It’s not about replacing one way of doing things with another, singular way of doing things. That actually defeats the purpose. If you roll out a prescriptive process, it won’t lead to outcomes you want. What agile is about is making sure people have the tools they need and letting them do the work they know how to do while keeping the outcome in mind.

6. It’s OK to say “oops”

The current mindset is to go big—but don’t make mistakes. Iteration is core to agile, and that’s where you find the problems. It’s another big culture shift: To be transparent, your coworkers will need to speak up if they see that something has gone wrong so everyone can course-correct.

When a project’s done in little pieces, it puts the validation up front and better mitigates risk. It lets you make a mistake, realize it quickly, and talk about how to get back on track. In a complex environment, it doesn’t make sense to try to predict everything. There’s a lot to be said for positivity, but not when it gets in the way of reality.

Agile is disciplined, but it’s a structure that acknowledges that things are going to change. Are you ready to dabble in the art of the possible? Follow along with Tektonika as we dive into days two and three of FWD50 next week and uncover what ITDMs can learn from the government’s focus on digital transformation.

Featured image courtesy of Eva Blue.

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