Agile, Tragile, Fragile – Busting the Myths Around Agile Approaches in the Public Sector

06 June


Agile is a mindset – a philosophy of work

Agile is the ability to move quickly and easily, in the professional context it has come to be equated with an approach to work that is about rapidly responding to changing customer and stakeholder needs in an environment that puts people first.   In this context, agile is often referred to as a mindset or philosophy with the emphasis on the people and interactions over processes and tools.  The approach has been increasingly adopted by national, regional and local governments around the world to enhance their services and responsiveness to citizens' needs.

Agile practices are characterized by small, cross-functional collaborative teams iteratively working on the highest priority work items and responding to change quickly.  While many of the practices originated in software development, most of them are applicable in any type of knowledge work and many of them apply in the wider realms of physical work.  Today we see agile practices applied in almost every are of work across the private and public sector.

Along with the adoption of agile thinking and practices, there has been a proliferation of “doing agile” rather than ”being agile”.  The practices of agile can and often are applied without the underlying mindset which results in organisations not getting the benefits they expected and a healthy cynicism from the people who have the new ways inflicted on them. 

For example: one of the core practices of most agile teams is a daily synchronisation meeting often called the “daily standup”.  The purpose of this ceremony should be for a group of people who are doing work that is dependant on each other to synchronise how they are going to work together and collaborate over the day.  Sadly this practice is often implemented as a micro-management status report for a manager to monitor progress and allocate tasks, an approach that destroys collaboration and self-organisation.

The emphasis on adoption of practices without the underlying philosophy has resulted in the proliferation of myths about what agile approaches are.


Myth: Agile is only for software development

While agile approaches came out of software development, they can apply equally well to other domains, especially those where there is a need to be responsive to change and where uncertainty is high.

Myth: Agile means no planning

Contrary to this myth, agile does involve planning, but it is done in a different way. In agile, planning is performed per iteration, continually until the completion of the project. This approach allows for more flexibility and adaptability to changing requirements.

Myth: Agile means no documentation

Agile does not eliminate documentation. Instead, it streamlines it to provide what is needed for the work without getting bogged down in minutiae. Agile documents requirements as user stories, with a commitment to elaborate the detail just ahead of when it is needed to implement the piece of work.

Myth: Agile mean no governance

Agile does not imply a lack of governance. Organizations transitioning to Agile may need to modify their governance practices to accommodate Agile principles and generally agile projects are more transparent and visible by their very nature.

Myth: Agile is only for small projects

Agile is not limited to small projects. The main difference between Agile and traditional methodologies is that Agile breaks down large projects into small, manageable deliveries rather than delivering it all at once.

Myth: Agile is a silver bullet that solves all problems

While Agile can help increase project success, visibility, communication, and continuous improvement, it is not a cure-all solution. Its effectiveness depends on correct implementation and alignment with the project's needs.

Myth: Agile is undisciplined

Agile methodologies require a high level of discipline by outlining a clear process and set of rules to be followed. Agile promotes self-organization within these rules.


What is NOT Agile

Agile working is often confused with flexible working, but they are not the same. While both allow for some degree of flexibility, agile working is more about the ability to adapt and respond to changes quickly. It involves a shift in mindset and a focus on individuals and interactions, working software, customer collaboration, and responding to change.

Another concept that is often confused with Agile is Scrum, which is a specific Agile framework used in software development and project management. Scrum is characterized by its use of sprints, self-organizing teams, and specific roles such as the Scrum Master and Product Owner.  However, Scrum is just one of the many methodologies that fall under the Agile umbrella, and Agile itself is a broader philosophy that can be applied to various industries and projects.

Lean is a methodology focused on maximizing customer value while minimizing waste. It aims to create more value for customers with fewer resources. Although Lean shares some similarities with Agile, such as the focus on continuous improvement and customer value, it is not an Agile methodology.

Six Sigma is a data-driven methodology aimed at reducing defects and improving processes. It focuses on identifying and removing the causes of errors and minimizing variability in business processes. While Six Sigma shares some principles with Agile, such as the focus on continuous improvement, it is a separate methodology with its own set of tools and techniques.

Kanban is a visual workflow management system that helps teams manage their work more efficiently. It is often associated with Agile methodologies due to its focus on continuous improvement, flexibility, and collaboration. However, Kanban is not an Agile methodology itself but can be used in conjunction with Agile frameworks like Scrum.


The benefits of agile approaches

Agile methodologies create a structure that allows teams to organize, evaluate, and adapt work processes more easily. Instead of having a single master plan, Agile focuses on achieving many small milestones. Responsibility is shared across the team, rather than being concentrated in a single product manager or executive.

Generally organisations report increased customer satisfaction, reduced time to deliver tangible outcomes, improved employee engagement and greater transparency into the flow of work when they adopt agile approaches.


Agile in the public sector

There are a number of published reports of agile adoption across public sector organisations around the world.  Here are a few:

General Services Administration of the US Government (GSA): The GSA has made significant progress in using Agile methodologies to modernize applications and integrate flexible architecture. Their success story demonstrates the potential of Agile practices in the public sector.

Port of Rotterdam: The Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands adopted Agile development to improve its software development processes and deliver better services to its stakeholders.

Dunedin City Council: The council adopted the Lean Agile Procurement (LAP) approach during the selection of a Contract Lifecycle Management (CLM) solution from Portt. This highly collaborative approach reduced the usual procurement process from three months to three days, ensuring that Portt's solution was the best fit to automate supplier contracting activities, streamline approvals, manage flows, and capture rich data for the council.

Digital Transformation Agency, Australia: The agency applies Agile to streamline public services. One instance is the myGov portal, a one-stop-shop for government services. Using Agile, they've continuously improved the portal based on user feedback, delivering frequent value to users. Another success story is the simplification of obtaining the Australian Business Number for businesses. With Agile methods, the agency broke down this complex process into manageable parts and delivered a user-friendly service.


Challenges to agile adoption in the public sector

Adopting Agile methodologies in the public sector can be challenging due to various factors, such as resistance to change, bureaucratic structures, and unique requirements of government projects. Some common challenges and pitfalls include:

  • Changes to processes, structure, and culture: Agile implementation requires significant adjustments to existing processes, organizational structures, and workplace culture, which can be difficult to achieve in the public sector due to its hierarchical nature and perceived resistance to change.
  • Limited understanding and experience with Agile: Public sector organizations may have limited exposure to Agile methodologies, leading to a lack of understanding and experience among team members and stakeholders. This can impact the success of Agile implementation and lead to misunderstandings and miscommunication.
  • Resistance to change and cultural differences: Public sector organizations may be resistant to change, particularly when adopting new ways of working. This resistance can be driven by various factors, including a lack of understanding of Agile's benefits, concerns about cost and resources, and a preference for traditional approaches.
  • Stakeholder expectations and management: Public sector organizations have a larger set of stakeholders to satisfy and more complex social, political, and economic objectives that may be subject to change. Managing stakeholder expectations and aligning Agile teams with these objectives can be challenging.
  • Lack of documentation: Agile methodologies prioritize working products over comprehensive documentation, which can pose challenges for government teams in ensuring compliance, accountability, auditability, and transparency.

To overcome these challenges, public sector agencies can invest in training and resources for team members and stakeholders, effectively communicate the benefits of Agile, address concerns, and develop a customized Agile methodology that meets the unique needs of the project and the organization's culture.


Is Agile worth it?

Adopting Agile in state and local governments involves a shift in mindset and organizational culture. Agile is not a panacea of preset tools and practices but a mindset of organizational change. As a process of continuous improvement, Agile approaches must themselves evolve over time with doing, testing, and improvement.

The Agile Government Center, an initiative of the National Academy of Public Administration, has developed a set of Agile principles to drive government improvement. The network continues to develop case studies of Agile government in action and acts as a source of assistance to those who want to adopt and implement Agile to provide public goods and services that fully meet customer needs and build public trust.

To successfully implement agile approaches, organizations need to focus on people over processes, build quality in to the work that is done (excellence in delivery),  establish self-organizing teams, identify clear success measures for agile projects, encourage team communication, make documentation important, and organize sessions, forums, and regular reviews of the implementation to adapt the ways of working to the local context.

In conclusion, an agile way of working is a powerful tool for the public sector to respond quickly and effectively to changes. By debunking the myths and understanding the principles and benefits of agile working, public sector agencies can harness the potential to improve their services and meet citizens' needs.



This piece was written by Shane Hastie, SoftEd's Global Delivery Lead, and was originally published in IPANZ's Public Sector Journal.


Over the past 40+ years Shane has been a practitioner and
leader of developers, testers, trainers, project managers, and
business analysts, helping teams to deliver results that align with
overall business objectives. He spent 20+ years as a professional
trainer, coach, and consultant specialising in Agile practices,
business analysis, project management, testing, and methodologies in Australia, New Zealand, and around the world.

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