Last month at an innovation conference in Sacramento, a government executive sat on stage and qualified a reference to “agile” with “dare I say it,” implying the term has sometimes been overused, confusing or misapplied in the public sector.
There is growing evidence the term ‘agile’ is facing backlash, or at least that the glorification of it as a prescriptive formula is casting a shadow on its potential to have positive impact in government. The value of agile fundamentals like rapid iteration and user-centered design remain undisputed, but semantics can make it difficult to embrace a word that has acquired so much baggage.
Exacerbating this problem is the vast number of projects, vendors, and agencies that claim to be using agile, but aren’t — to the extent that the U.S. Department of Defense recently published guidance to help program executives detect “agile BS” and ensure projects are truly benefiting from the real thing.
In a December Medium post, Agile without ‘agile’, British economist James Plunkett makes the case for drawing value from agile methodologies without being distracted by the term — instead focusing on “irreducible principles” such as defining solutions based on user needs, building solutions quickly and simply at first, and using real-world testing.
“One of the challenges of agile is the word ‘agile’. Even now, the word puts some people off. They get, understandably, skeptical about the jargon, dismissing otherwise helpful insights as yet another digital fad,” said Plunkett in his post. “Meanwhile, other people end up embracing nothing but the jargon, without the substance underneath. They start standing up for their meetings and think this will deliver better outcomes for their customers or users.”
Federal Computer Week columnist Steve Kelman expands on Plunkett’s theme: “Above all, we need to translate agile rhetoric into agile action. That is a responsibility for both government folks and vendors, but government folks are in the best position to effectuate such a change because their signals and their behaviors will signal to the vendor community what is valued and frowned on,” he said in his recent column, “Agile without the baggage“.
Government is slow to change and lags behind the corporate world in the adoption of modern digital strategies and user-focused culture. This makes our choice of terms and definitions more important than ever as the public sector works to be more open, iterative, and collaborative with the adoption of agile . . . or whatever you call it.