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What Vince Lombardi Can Teach Us About Agile

If you’re a diehard Vince Lombardi fan, then you know about the power sweep.

This bread-and-butter play is legendary, but not for the reasons one may think. It isn’t flashy or complicated. It’s a simple play that Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers executed routinely and ruthlessly.

“It didn’t have to be flashy” because it was a time-tested solution, said Dave Zvenyach, Director of Acquisition Management for the General Services Administration’s 18F.

Zvenyach and his team at 18F are taking cues from Lombardi’s playbook and applying them to a common, but sometimes misunderstood, term in government: agile. Similar to the Packers’ pre-Lombardi days, the government was failing miserably, but in the digital services space. Agencies struggled to make their data accessible on any device, and creating machine-readable and open data was not always the default standard.

“A few years ago, the U.S. government was about 1-10-1 when it came to digital services,” Zvenyach said during GovLoop’s Government Innovator’s Virtual Summit on Wednesday.

Improving the government’s delivery of digital services has been an iterative process over the past few years, and 18F is helping to lead that charge. One of its not-so-secret weapons for rolling out digital services is the agile sweep. Here are the guiding principles:

1. Use agile processes.

2. Modular construction. Think of digital services as being a series of different components.

3. Use open source.

4. Prototype before going to market.

The agile sweep promotes vendor competition because there are more components that companies can bid on, Zvenyach said. Agencies don’t have to give all the business to one vendor, and they can use agile techniques to routinely evaluate multiple vendors. The results: reduced agency and vendor risks and reduced risks of failure. There are better results in the short term because the focus is on executing quick wins that deliver user capabilities. There’s also greater flexibility in the long term.

Marrying agile with business process management (BPM) platforms further empowers agencies to accomplish quick wins for short- and long-term projects, said Lizzie Epstein, Director of Applications Platform Marketing at Appian. BPM tools help agencies automate, measure and improve business processes.

“BPM is really about bringing people together” and helping the business side and IT work together, Epstein said during the summit.

Channel Your Inner Agile

For govies who are familiar with agile but aren’t sure how to implement it, Tim Nolan, Senior Applications Manager for Colin County in Texas, offered practical advice for getting started. A good resource for anyone looking to embrace agile processes is the Agile Manifesto.

At its core, agile is about individuals and interaction. It’s about working software over comprehensive documentation, and customer collaboration over contract negotiations. There are still requirements and measurable outcomes. In fact, agile offers greater transparency into what team members are working on each day, what they have accomplished and what work hasn’t been completed. Courage is key, said Nolan, who also presented at the virtual summit. (View his entire presentation here.)

“This is new,” he said. “You have to have a little courage to even convince your management, or elected official or whoever you’re working with that this needs to be done.”

Agile doesn’t have to be intimidating. There are actually small things you can implement today that will have big payoffs tomorrow. Daily standups, or scrums, is one example. These daily meetings should be no longer than 15 minutes, and it allows time for team members to briefly describe what they did yesterday, what they are working on today and what challenges they may be facing.

Nolan offered words of wisdom for embracing agile:

  • Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good.
  • It’s always about improving. There is always the next sprint. This is where courage comes in.
  • Provide clear and concise direction.
  • Daily praise and gratification are a byproduct of agile. You complete work daily and get to see progress.
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