I’ve been Coaching Scrum for government agencies in Canberra (Australia) for quite a few years now. It’s an ideal framework for managing projects and programs of work because Ministers can change their minds about policy or suddenly announce new ones and it enables systems that support the machinery of government need to adapt to new technologies, new stakeholder needs. I’m finding, though, that while many agencies have attempted Scrum in the past, unfortunately many have had mixed success and sometimes failure.
What does it take, then, to produce results when using Scrum in a highly regulated, hierarchical, and often risk-averse culture like a government organisation? Here’s my top 5 tips:
1. Adopt all of Scrum, not just the bits you like
Scrum is an end-to-end process. Each and every key meeting and activities has been refined by its creators over the last decade. They work best when implemented as a whole methodology. When only parts are used, you are unlikely to get any real benefits/realisation. Since Scrum is based on a Deming Cycle, its key meetings help to identify issues and help the project and team to improve. If key meetings aren’t working well, rather than discard them, identify the key meetings that aren’t [apparently] of value, identify what’s the root cause, and act upon it to improve the Scrum’s efficiency.
2. Continuous planning is needed, not just upfront
The ANAO  suggest that estimates of project costs and timeframes at early stages of project planning are likely to be inherently uncertain. Scrum helps managers, Product Owners and the team undertake detailed planning on a continuous basis that builds on earlier planning to remove ambiguity and produce clarity around tasks, deliverables and outcomes. This confirms project requirements are sufficient to guide a project to deliver planned outcomes that are of value to the project now and avoids, therefore, wasted planning effort and issues associated with the risk of unrealised expectations amongst stakeholders. To be successful, though, adequate time has to be made for planning at the beginning of the Sprint, as well as mid-way through to review with the whole Backlog with the team prior to the commencement of the next Sprint. Ultimately, planning for projects is the same as in hiking or even warfare: when the terrain differs from the map, believe in the terrain.
3. Governance is key to enabling removal of impediments
There’s only so much the team can influence. Good governance ensures that those on a project board or committee have been selected because, should the project hit a bump in delivery, these individuals can act to help move the project along. This can encompass anything from procurement of servers for integration testing through to influencing other teams to assisting in providing requirements in a timely way. One important factor to consider is how involved the project’s owner is in contributing to the order of items in the Product Backlog and informing the Product Owner of his needs and priorities. When the project owner is informed, they’re empowered to act on behalf of the project so that it achieves its goals and delivers on its return on investment (ROI).
4. The Scrum process produces transparency and accountability, not reporting
Most projects are used to creating reports of current activities to increase transparency about what is going on in the project — current goals, milestones and risks. Scrum’s process itself produces transparency with its key meetings, like the daily standup, to its use visualisation techniques such as a Kanban Board. One of the keys to successful use of Scrum is to recognise that simple artefacts that come out of the process can be immediately used for reporting rather than adding the requirement to produce additional reporting artefacts such as project schedules. Even if the project operates in a PRINCE2 environment, there are many equivalences that can be drawn between PRINCE2 reporting artefacts and key elements that are produced by Scrum. I find that the synergies between the Scrum and reporting work best when both cycles are 4-weeks in length — so when a Sprint Goal has been defined, the previous Sprint’s milestones are reported along with the next Sprint’s goals.
5. Your team doesn’t know what they don’t know — its why a coach matters
It’s very difficult for most teams to be accurate in their introspection and identify what it is truly doing wrong and what factors will contribute to improvement and success. Scrum coaching goes beyond training. It’s designed to take the guessing game out of why, for example, a team might fail to achieve their Sprint Goal, or why certain Waterfall-style behaviours might actually impede the success of a Sprint. Overall, a coach helps teams to learn, improve, become more efficient, and helps to reduce the risks associated with the team’s behaviour impacting adversely its ability to deliver. One key factor in choosing a Scrum Coach, however, is finding one that understands the needs, accountability, and processes of government, and can frame Scrum in a way that aligns with this vital perspective.
It takes both a sound knowledge of Scrum and an applied understanding of how to use it in order to reap the benefits that this agile methodology has to offer. These 5 tips only represent a fraction of what’s required for successful adoption. For more information, request a copy of our whitepaper — Agile Adoption in Government.
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1. Australian National Audit Office (2010) Better Practice Guide. Planning and Approval – an Executive Perspective.