On Pondering, and then Walking Away From, Agile-fall

A few weeks ago at CivicActions we were just getting warmed up and ready to dive into proposal writing for what looked like a fantastic opportunity – a progressive government agency, one we’d worked a bit with in the past, was looking for bids to lead several years of honest-to-goodness innovation in how they connected with their constituents online. We assembled a dream team of partner organizations to join us on the bid, we mapped out initial approach, and together we noted our preliminary questions about the RFP.

And then, just as the magic was really starting to happen, or something like that, the agency made it clear that (dum dum dummm!) agile processes need not apply. No, seriously, Agilistas, kindly check your iterative mechanisms at the door and furnish us with a detailed project plan, schedule, and cost breakdown.

We sat with this dictum for a day or so, weighing our options, and then decided that we really weren’t in a position to do anything very well given this requirement. We notified our collaborators on the proposal that we were regretfully withdrawing our priming bid.

One of the partners wrote back immediately to say something along the lines of “I get it, but why not work in some fashion that satisfies the Agency’s waterfall planning requirement, but still leaves room for agile processes in the way that specific tasks are implemented?” And thus began an interesting conversation within our own ranks along the lines of “why not a little ‘agile-fall’ combination here and there?”.

Our sales wing answered first: the long and short of it is that we’re set up and oriented to do agile work. Projects that are conceived in an agile and open fashion (where stakeholders are committed to iterative work, user interaction, and continuous testing and feedback) are consequently set up for us to 1) win the job and 2) deliver great work. Projects that aren’t set up this way, and certainly not all projects particularly need be, are neither. Agile and open is what we do best.

But the conversation quickly moved past the logistics of aligning our strengths with the right sales leads. What of “agile-fall”? We’ve tried it in the past to limited effect, but was our implementation to blame? Could a hybrid agile-fall approach work well?

We quickly drafted a very broad-strokes theorem that proved, in a certain respect, a fundamental flaw in “agile-fall”:

  • The basic strengths of agile are in the ways that it helps the client and development teams together understand (and then orient energies and resources toward) elements of highest value to the user base and stakeholders. Agile does this through successive series of releases, testing, re-prioritization, and then authorization of the next increment of work.
  • This fundamental part of agile DNA — release/feedback/increment — is shut down completely by any imperative for a top-to-bottom plan, schedule, or budget that is established before work begins and then restricts opportunities for both feedback and change.
  • In other words, in hybrid “agile-fall” approaches which demand a binding project plan, “agile” loses right off the bat, and never gets to employ the features that make it successful in any meaningful way. If the strategy and approach aren’t agile, the tactical approach can’t be.

And, frankly, this is where our team ended up, in the end. A waterfall approach is predicated on a separation of “design/strategy” from “implementation”, and we feel we’ve had much more success when these areas are considered together, holistically. A detailed project plan binds a team to requirements that can’t be responded to in an agile fashion when they don’t work. And, in our experience, the project becomes increasingly strewn with UX and design landmines, and with weighty technical dependencies, the costs of which are difficult to even assess in a timely fashion. The agile approach values nimble planning over documentation, and generally views efficiency as the key to end value.

But are we missing the boat? Is there a middle way? (Should we have proceeded with our bid??). We’d be interested to hear from teams who feel they’ve made this hybrid approach work well. Feel free to share your stories below. In the meantime, our eyes are peeled for agile work for this dream team we’ve got in the wings.

2017-03-31T06:19:56+00:00 Categories: Agile|

About the Author:

Steve Curtis joined CivicActions in 2011 as an Agile Project Manager. He loves work that helps empower others, both the project teams with whom he works, and the audiences whom their technology serves, and his strong organizational sensibility informs each step of these engagements.

Based in Brooklyn, NY, and managing project teams and clients across North America and Europe, Steve has been a leader in bringing the full focus and impact of CivicActions’ diverse and distributed team to the projects we engage. As Project Manager, he helped roll out CivicActions’ first explicitly content and UX driven development projects for the Center for Rural Affairs and ReThink Media. He also led CivicActions’ Acquia partnerships in releasing open source software on two very high-visibility Federal websites. His other work at CivicActions includes managing the launch of new sites for ASPCA, Greenpeace UK, Tesla Motors, Save the Children, Transportation Alternatives/BikeNYC, Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, and many others.

Prior to joining our team, Steve worked in New York City on issues of sustainable agriculture and urban accessibility to healthy, affordable food. He served as a consultant to Just Food, and managed web development at the Park Slope Food Coop (the nation’s oldest food cooperative, now at 16,000 working members) where his team launched a new Drupal site in 2012.

Steve received a B.A. in Music from Carleton College, and an M.A. in Ethnomusicology from Cornell University. He’s long been interested in arts and education, and lived for over two years in Nepal, working as a scholar and teacher. As a musician, he presently maintains recording and touring schedules with the bands Hem and Little Silver, and all of this keeps him puttering around NYC on his bike at a pretty good clip.