I was one of about two hundred government and industry attendees of last Tuesday’s DoD Agile Development Conference in Alexandria, VA. I hate to admit it, but I was more than a little sleep deprived as I walked into the conference room for the opening keynote. I was therefore dreading more than usual the thought of another long speech by some high level functionary who used the word “agile” as an adjective. I was so wrong.The keynote was given by Beth McGrath, the Deputy Chief Management Officer and Performance Improvement Officer of the Department of Defense. She gave a compelling presentation that was obviously an expression of a deep, practical understanding of the current problem space related to IT acquisition and development, and a clear vision of the path to an Agile (yeah, the noun) future. A video of her presentation and the accompanying PowerPoint should be up soon on the conference site, so I’m not going to try to transcribe it here. Instead, I’m going to riff a bit from the sketch notes I captured: Change is hard, whether it’s personal, professional or organizational. But trying to overcome the inertia of the entrenched DoD acquisition system and then change its course is a task of mythic proportions on par with Hercules and the stables. Pass the shovel. So I was happy to see her begin the presentation by laying out the need for change. In short, the current system wastes money, takes too long to deliver initial capabilities and fails to deliver solutions that meet current stakeholder requirements.
Today, it takes over five years between the time a requirement is specified and an initial capability is delivered to the stakeholders. Even in a best case scenario, where the project is delivered on time and within budget (never happens), the technology is three generations behind the current state-of-the-art. If that wasn’t bad enough, the people who specified the requirements are long gone because of rotations and those who currently serve those roles may have very different needs. As a result, we’ve seen multi-billion dollar initiatives fail. As bad as the waste of taxpayer time and money, there is also the opportunity cost of what we could have done instead. And that’s where Agile comes in.Ms. McGrath laid out a plan to transform the DoD IT Acquisition paradigm to focus on lighter technologies, rapid prototyping and multiple deliveries in shorter time frames. The intention is to use Agile methodology to deliver initial capabilities in 12-18 months, rather than the current 5-8 years. Clearly this will require a sea change for the current establishment, including acquisition, accreditation and program management personnel. Her call is to change the culture from the current risk-phobic culture of no, to a culture of yes . . . with a mindset that mitigates risk by enabling rather than obstructing, and solves problems creatively rather than succumbing to bureaucratic inertia. Although there wasn’t time at the end for many questions, it was probably just as well that I didn’t get a chance to ask the one I wanted to know: “Does Beth McGrath have a Facebook Fan Page?”