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How Government Agencies Can Implement Agile Project Management Methods

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
July 5, 2016

The headline sounds like click-bait, but there are incremental steps that agencies can take in creating an agile project management culture. As more agencies realize the limitations of traditional project management, some offices are using agile project management methods to deliver projects successfully. Agile project management has been widely accepted in many government IT offices. Other agency offices, such as procurement or facilities, have also adopted agile project management.

Adopting agile project management requires cultural change. This change includes the acceptance of incrementally arriving at a solution through a steady stream of iterations heavily based on continual customer feedback. This cultural change is why some practitioners will argue that implementing agile management requires fully establishing all of the agile management practices together.

The all-or-nothing agile management advocates have a point. There are examples of unsuccessful attempts to combine agile project management methods with traditional project management methods. However, there seem just as many examples of successfully combining agile project management and traditional project management. In my particular case of bringing project management to federal HR and training, I use three essential agile tools to supplement traditional project management methods. These tools are easy to explain, easy to implement and can help prepare the culture for fully implementing agile project management.

User Stories

User stories are how agile practitioners gather requirements for an application or project product. It’s as easy to implement as having a stack of note cards and gathering the project customers into a meeting room. Then, the customers tell the project manager what features they want in the final product. The customers phrase their requests in this structure: “As a [role], I want a/an [something] so that I can [realize a benefit].” For example, “as a training facilitator, I want a registration list sorted by job role so that I can group participants into the appropriate training groups.”

The advantage of user stories is that it is an effective way to collect and organize the many feature requests that customers will have. Doing user stories in a collaborative setting also helps customers merge duplicate features and determine what features are necessary versus features that are nice to have.

Feature Triangle

Once the project manager has a stack of user stories, the next step is to categorize the user stories into features that are the most necessary to the least necessary. In traditional project management, there are the “triple constraints” which is often depicted as a triangle. One side of the triangle is the budget, the second side is time and the third side is scope (the features expected of the project product). The triangle illustrates the constraints that project managers must balance to complete the project. Usually, one of the constraints must be sacrificed to achieve the other two constraints. Often that means the project is delivered late, over the budget or without all of the desired features. Usually the project product is of no value to the customers.

In the feature triangle, it is assumed there will not be enough time and money for all features. The idea is to start with the most-needed feature first, then the second most-needed feature, and so on. That way, if the project budget is cut or the needs to be stopped early, the customers still have value from the project product completed to that point.

Information Radiators

The other name for information radiators gives a better definition of their purpose: big visual charts. Agile project management has information radiators that describe what tasks must be done, what tasks have been completed, expected completion dates and other project status information. The charts are designed to be easily understood by the project team, customers and stakeholders.

A fundamental information radiator is a Kanban chart. In its simplest form, a Kanban chart has three columns with these headings: “To Be Done,” “Doing,” and “Done.” Tasks are placed into one of the three columns depending on whether the task is waiting to be worked on, is being worked on or is completed. A similar information radiator, the burndown chart, shows how much work is to be done versus the time that is left.

Why Start with These Three Tools?

A project creates something within a set amount of time and within a budget. Whether it is a traditional project or agile project, tasks are the heart of the project. These three tools determine what tasks are needed, in what order of priority and how the project is doing overall. Whether it is an information technology project or policy project, these three tools can help deliver a great product.


Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Maryland (College Park) and the University of Louisville. He also works as a federal employee for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of his employers. He can be reached at http://about.me/bbrantley.

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