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How Agile project management practices can save the government contracting industry by allowing agencies to stay ahead of their problems

We can feel it every time we respond to a 200 page RFP or insist contracts can accommodate every possible future scenario. Public procurement has gone stale. The government contracting industry has become so laden with formality, rules, and expectations that the potential for innovation and creative problem solving are suffocated under piles and piles of talk. Lack of communication has allowed agencies and contracting firms to suffer, and overly detailed requirements restrict contractors from being able to creatively solve problems.  

This is where the idea of Agile comes from. Well actually, Agile was born in the world of software development, but its core tenants are translatable. And translating them to suit the procurement industry is just what is needed to transform and modernize government technology.

With all the fuss surrounding Agile, we thought it prudent to offer you this breakdown of Agile’s potential.

  • What is Agile
  • How Agile can be used in procurement

By first explaining what Agile is and then translating it to the world of public procurement we hope to give you the tools you need to institute this model in your procurement practices and maybe find a way out from under all the dead weight.

Quick, agile business decisions and the ability to pivot in an ever-changing market is key to the success of your firm.

What is Agile

As we said before, Agile was initially used as a business model for software development companies who found their industry becoming burdened by the same stale business interactions that public procurement is feeling. The model is based around 4 core values and 12 principles described in the Agile Manifesto, which is worth reviewing to understand the philosophy.

The 4 core values are:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  4. Responding to change over following a plan

As you can see, the values are structured in such a way as to value a new model of doing businesses (on the left) over an old model way of doing business (on the right). This is also not to say those old ways are no longer valuable, but rather the new ways are more important in agile. It’s all about relearning how to operate in order to keep up with the ever-evolving market economy.

There are also 12 principles demarcated in the Agile manifesto; however, we’ve found that all 12 aren’t particularly useful for public procurement purposes, so we’ve narrowed it down to just 5. These 5 principles stand out from the rest in situations that involve securing goods and services:

  1. Welcome changing requirements, even in late development.
  2. Deliver working software (solutions) frequently (weeks rather than months)
  3. Close, daily cooperation between business people and developers
  4. Projects are built around motivated individuals, who should be trusted
  5. Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential

Some of these dogmas translate easily to a procurement based language, others it can be tricky to see how they fit into our separate industry. Not to fear; we’re going to outline how these all fit into the world of public procurement. You just needed the material first, now comes the building.

How Agile can be used in procurement

Now, since Agile wasn’t originally designed as a business model for public procurement, it’s going to take a little bit of reworking to get the same core values and principles to sound right in this context. Let’s go step by step to see just how these Agile tenants can be used in a government contracting context.

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Core Values

Individuals and Interactions Over Processes and Tools

This should resonate with a lot of procurement agents reading this. Many industry professionals have begun to bemoan the seemingly endless processes and formalities that seem to have infested the public procurement industry. What this value is getting across is that, while the process of procurement is important, it’s exponentially more important to focus on getting innovative and competent people working on problems and projects and communicating effectively.

Working Software Over Comprehensive Documentation

This value probably needs the most translation. A better wording for a procurement context would probably be “Working Solutions Over Endless Requirements”. The point of this value is to say that the outcome is more important than the safety nets we’ve drawn for ourselves. It’s thought that a never-ending list of specifications and requirements make our needs and orders more specific and therefore better fitted, but this isn’t the case. What this really does is waste valuable time drowning contractors in requirements and processes rather than communicating situations and coming up with creative solutions to problems. It’s important to make known what you’re looking for, but it’s also important to let other experts and industry peers help you determine what it is you need.

Customer Collaboration Over Contract Negotiation

This value could probably be shortened to simply “Collaboration Over Contracts”. Business relationships are similar to the ones we build in our daily lives, and we don’t use contracts for those. Yes, contracts have their place, but let’s be honest, they’re pretty inefficient ways of managing business relationships because that’s just not how humans work. It’s more important to foster strong working relationships through constant communication and collaboration to maintain a strong partnership than it is to create an odious contract that can stifle progress and innovation.

Responding to Change Over Following a Plan

Along the same vein, plans are great, but sometimes they have to go out the window. The nature of modern technology (and modern business) is that the only constant is change, and it happens in a hurry. A good business plan today isn’t necessarily the best business plan tomorrow (or when it finally comes time to implement). This is where it becomes important to get smart, trustworthy people working on procurement projects; people you can rely on to adapt and make smart decisions. Have a plan, yes, but if things change trust that these people you’ve put in this position have the experience, innovation, and agility to make the best decision for your firm or agency.

Well, there are laws, but it’s important to not get bogged down in the sometimes burdensome norms of GovCon when your bottom line is at stake.

Core Principles

Welcome changing requirements, even late in the development

Similar to the 4th value, this principle is encouraging procurement agents to be ready for, and even encourage, change even when it might seem to be at its most inconvenient. Change is a reality of the market, and understanding that is going to mean greater success for your procurement endeavors.

Deliver working software (solutions) frequently (weeks rather than months)

Building on the last principle, an ever-changing market is going to require ever-changing updates and solutions to new problems. With this being said, working with contractors about what they need is going to mean constant collaboration and constant problem-solving.

Close, daily cooperation between business people and developers

This would be better understood in a procurement context as “close, daily cooperation between contracting agencies and contracted firms”. Remember that constant collaboration we just talked about? This is where it’s put into practice. Writing up a contract and then checking out of the post-award process just isn’t going to cut it. Constantly coming back and discussing the needs and goals of your stakeholders as they pertain to the requirements of your contract is the best way to succeed in agile development efforts.

Projects are built around motivated individuals, who should be trusted

Getting the right people working on projects that you can trust to do what’s in the best interest of the organization is incredibly important. The nature of our industry and the modern market is such that you’re going to want a creative and innovative team at the head of your procurement projects. A smaller, expert team is better positioned to make quick, agile changes to business plans that can save your business and propel your goals further.

Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential

This principle hits home for a lot of procurement professionals. It seems like the more public procurement holds tight to its rigid formality and rules, the more unnecessary work there is for the procurement agents on the ground. First, unnecessary work is wasted time. Second, the lighter the load for your procurement agents the easier it becomes to quickly switch gears if the market shifts.

Overall, if you forget every single one of these core values and principles, it’s important to remember what Agile is all about, and that’s innovation, creativity, and problem-solving. The point of the whole mess is to get back to why we have a procurement industry in the first place. Contractors and agencies, when left alone, can’t reach their potential. They need help. They need to contract. Working together means mutual benefit for all parties, and in the formality and rigidity that’s infested the industry, we’ve lost that. We can’t see the forest through the trees.

Remember to focus on the goals, the outcomes, not the processes. Rethink how we do procurement by remembering why we do it in the first place, and you’ll see marked improvements in your firm’s performance.

For more tips and resources to succeed in public procurement be sure to check out the other blog postings and podcasts at Public Spend Forum.

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