Sunday, October 7, 2012

How do we strengthen our agile approach when the Federal Government keeps changing what we're doing?

Dear CMMI Appraiser,

Just found your blog.  We’re a Virginia-based contractor to the Federal Government and a “Waterfall” lifecycle company. For the past two years we’ve been switching some of our projects over to agile methods like Scrum, but so far we haven’t been able to scale it beyond the smallest projects. Part of the problem is that our government clients keep trying to change what we’re doing so it looks more "waterfall."  How would you deal with this? ~ Pete McC.

Pete, welcome to Ask the CMMI Appraiser. It’s good to have new readers. Thanks for your question.

The way this CMMI Appraiser sees it, you're fighting a two-headed monster.  And it's an ugly one, at that.

The first head of the monster that you face in adopting Scrum, or any of the agile methods, is internal. While you are off trying to be a Scrum team, your company’s leaders are off trying to be a Waterfall team.  In fact, I bet if I were to look through all of your departments, not just software engineering, but accounting, marketing and sales, operations, I would find that your CEO, CIO and COO are off living in a Waterfall world.  That's one reason Scrum projects can’t scale and why you might feel you're not getting much traction. 

The second head of the monster is external. By trying to change what you are doing, the Federal Government is actively, but probably un-knowingly, weakening your agile values. And if it’s a struggle between the Federal Government and agile, we all know who is going to win!

Both of these challenges are fixable, Pete.  But neither is going to get solved this year. The problem is bigger than you and I. I recommend that you start working on techniques you can use to strengthen Agile, and build a process integration layer to get your agile teams to talk to the business leaders. The CMMI is the perfect tool for that.

By using CMMI as a framework (as opposed to slavishly adhering to practices) you’ll be in a position to deal with BOTH heads of the monster. Consider:

First, the CMMI provides a framework for your agile teams to talk to the business leaders, helping them understand how well agile methods are working for THEM, and to communicate important information to other stakeholders like middle management, customers, and accounting. And when you're ready to test it - go ahead and have a CMMI Appraisal.

Yes, I said it.  CMMI Appraisals can be very beneficial for Agile organizations - assuming the Lead Appraiser you're working with gets it - not necessarily an easy task!

Second, the practices that CMMI makes available to you include those that help bring greater clarity and strength to the Scrum ceremonies themselves (the “Specific Practices” in the CMMI), and those that help strengthen the understanding, adoption, and continuous improvement of the Agile values and behaviors (the “Generic Practices” in the CMMI).  So, the way to make agile survive and flourish in the Federal Government is to make it stronger. And the way to make agile stronger is with CMMI.

Don't CHANGE it - make it better!

Now that you found us, keep checking this blog for updates, Pete.  I will be posting much more on the topic of using the CMMI to strengthen agile, so that you will be in a better position to defeat the two-headed monster once and for all.

Like this blog? Forward to your nearest engineering or software exec!

Jeff Dalton is a Certified SCAMPI Lead Appraiser, Certified CMMI Instructor, author, and consultant with years of real-world experience with the CMMI in all types of organizations. Jeff has taught thousands of students in CMMI trainings and has received an aggregate satisfaction score of 4.97 out of 5 from his students.

Visit for more information about running a successful CMMI program.

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