I went on holiday recently. Whenever you go on holiday with others some people like to plan everything in detail beforehand and some prefer to get out there and develop their plans as they go along. Both approaches have advantages and challenges. The same goes for the use of Agile on major digital programmes. Getting out there (being agile) may save time but may also mean not checking what the weather will be like or the clothing required, the local customs or the bureaucracy that could be faced on arrival. And the longer the holiday and different climates to be considered the more planning is needed!

Our recent guide on the use of Agile was based on our insights examining digital programmes that applied Agile to large-scale digitally enabled change. We recognised the strengths of Agile in smaller software developments especially where a single viable product is being produced. However, on large-scale programmes with multiple workstreams, complex coordination and wider governance structures these aspects conspire to make it harder to deliver as quickly or as successfully with Agile.

What are the likely challenges?

1. Is it the right approach?

Often, we see Agile initiatives that are kicked off without much consideration of whether it’s the right thing for the programme. Agile is seen as the ‘only show in town’ by exponents. But has the organisation assessed whether Agile really is the most appropriate approach for the nature and scale of change involved? Has the organisation articulated the breadth of scope and complexity of its programme? And has proper consideration been given to alternative approaches?

Often the culture of the organisation and its capability to be agile hasn’t been considered as a barrier. Some organisations in Government are further ahead than others so there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach that works every time. Also, have the lessons from past Agile initiatives been learned? If not, they will likely occur again. Have the overall costs and benefits, risks and opportunities been objectively considered before starting? These are things that can matter at the end if not factored in at the start.

2. Has enough been done up front?

Agile prioritises delivery and failing fast but it’s no excuse for failing to plan properly for major change. For complex transformations, a more strategic analysis and design should be undertaken before the discovery phase. Often it is omitted in the belief that an Agile approach is dynamic and makes it unnecessary. It is essential that early activities such as problem identification, feasibility, options analysis, architecture, milestone planning and costing is undertaken pre-delivery.

For example, have critical dependencies been identified in complex programmes that require integration with other systems, especially legacy systems? Is an overall design established in enough detail to help plan and align the work of multiple Agile teams across a range of releases? And are there clear plans for how data will be handled and integrated, especially the data model and data architecture, as well as data cleansing and migration?

3. Are the risks understood?

Agile exponents tend to be very positive but may not have thought about what could go wrong. An old change management saying is, ‘if it can go wrong, it will’ so, you need to be prepared.

  • Has management clearly set out the risks of Agile in a complex change programme and how it will manage those risks?
  • Is the board aware of the potential risks through an understanding of the technology landscape, its legacy environment and how critical the affected processes are to the business?
  • Has business accountability and ownership of the change and its products been made clear?
  • Is the governance approach able to reconcile Agile and non-Agile components in the complex change initiative being undertaken?
  • Have boards, working groups and individuals been allocated specific responsibilities for managing Agile risks and how the Agile and non-Agile components come together?
  •  Finally, is the organisation proactively managing Agile risks including scrutiny of policies, technical activity, capability, testing, contingency, and assurance arrangements.

Our good practice guide looks at the above challenges and more which organisations face when undertaking large-scale digital change programmes using Agile. Audit and Risk Assurance Committees can pose the questions in the guide to their organisation’s management to help them mitigate against those challenges.

Further reading

Yvonne Gallagher

Yvonne Gallagher

Yvonne is our digital transformation expert, and leads the Digital Insights team. She has over 25 years’ experience in IT, business change, digital services and cyber and information assurance.

Yvonne has been a Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Chief Digital Officer in the private sector as well as holding senior roles in large companies such as the Prudential and Network Rail. She was also CIO in two major government departments.

John Bell

John has worked on a range of NAO reports over the last 10 years covering digital transformation and technology in government, including the Emergency Services Network and Smart Meters.

As a digital specialist, John has 25 years’ experience of delivering IT enabled business change through programmes and projects. He was previously a Gateway Review Leader and Gateway Director in the Office of Government Commerce and held senior programme and project management positions in the Education Department.