Government Contractor

Stan Soloway on Why Agile Is Not “One Size Fits All”

Beware the Tyranny of the “One Size Fits All” Syndrome

Stan Soloway

September 28, 2016 column in Washington Technology:

Every time a new policy proposal, strategy or idea comes down the pike, no matter how appealing, we have to remind ourselves that few ideas are THE idea, that as smart as the new idea might be, it almost certainly won’t apply in all cases.

Indeed, one constant and core tenet of the acquisition reform movement and efforts to enhance federal technology procurement and performance has been to incentivize more creativity and flexibility.

Military specifications? Sensible in some cases, but not in all.

So in one of the first acquisition reforms of the 1990s, Secretary of Defense William Perry directed a move away from “milspecs” in order to increase accessibility to proven commercial solutions and speed up the development of new systems.

Software development certifications? Great idea; but there’s more than one, so “or equivalent” language emerged in place of mandates tied solely to any individual certification. The list goes on.

Unfortunately, specific, mandatory certifications and specifications, many of them government-unique, have actually been making a worrisome comeback in recent years, even as the government ostensibly seeks to broaden its competitive aperture. From cost accounting to capability maturity models, from contract type to acquisition strategies, we see too many procurements that send a clear message: Those who haven’t done it our way, or are not doing it a certain way, need not apply. And that isn’t good for the government customer or the taxpayer.

An interesting take on this dichotomy was raised recently in a piece titled “The Tyranny of Agile.” In it, Jennifer Pahlka, the head of Code for America, a leading apostle of agile software development and one of the architects of the Digital Services Playbook, warns against assuming that one size fits all in the software development space.

Lest there be any misconception, Pahlka is most certainly not abandoning her belief in agile or the failures of waterfall methodologies. What she, and others, are concerned about however, is what she calls “the tyranny of misapplied doctrine.” As she says, “agile is one useful doctrine, not THE doctrine.”

Along the same lines, I was privileged recently to participate in the American Public Health Systems Association’s IT Solutions Management Conference. The theme of our panel was “The Role of the Systems Integrator in a Post ‘Big Bang’ Era.” Make no mistake. That role is changing. The advent of more modular, agile strategies has a number of significant impacts on how and where an integrator engages.

But there also appeared to be a consensus that even in an agile environment, the “integrator,” whoever that might be, remains critical.

While agile is clearly the principal methodology of choice, experience with it on complex government systems and business processes remains limited. There are intricate, interwoven networks and co-dependencies throughout the system, and how they are knit together and integrated requires an internal or external entity with the domain and technical expertise, the authority and the accountability needed to drive scaled impact.

Agile techniques certainly bring great value to large complex programs; the challenge is how to apply them properly within an overall modernization strategy that has many, sometimes disparate components. As my co-panelist, a former state CIO, put it, we are in a transition phase during which the application of agile on a broad systemic scale remains a work in progress.

This too resonated with the audience, most of whom were state, local and federal health IT and systems professionals and are on the front lines of this transition. Nonetheless, it does not appear to be universally held.

From public statements, actual procurements, and even some policy proposals, there are tendencies in some quarters to issue narrow methodological mandates, rather than allowing the user’s needs and outcome objectives to guide the overall strategy. And those tendencies are often accompanied by a false presumption that agile itself is the sole province of one community of companies. That a systems integrator, for example, is de facto incapable of implementing an agile methodology or managing in an agile environment.

And so we return to the point we started with: The tendency, on multiple fronts, to conflate issues, to assume an all or nothing posture, when, in fact, what we need is an effective blend.

Better and smarter design and implementation of federal IT programs is a goal everyone should share; as is the recognition that traditional modes, including almost exclusive reliance on waterfall development, need to change.

But it’s too easy, as Pahlka warns, to apply “the wrong context or to misapply methods such as efforts to go ‘all agile’.” After all, an agile methodology doesn’t obviate the need for configuration management, systems engineering or integration; it just changes its character and context.

Milspecs; certifications on contract; misapplied tech mandates. In these and other areas, we continue to fall prey to the one size fits all syndrome. But one size rarely fits all and the assumption that it does is an often destructive oversimplification in a world where little is nearly that simple.

Death of a Salesman, or Death of a Company?

I have been having conversations with numerous employees and other company leadership about the meaning of individual excellence versus organizational excellence. The reason is because when I was growing up, it was not uncommon for our parents to work for one company for most of their lives. In those days, the company was considered a part of the family, where people stayed and continued to support because the company cared about them, and took responsibility for them by providing benefits, job security, training, commitment and promotional growth. Ultimately our parents stayed because they were providing their customers the same thing the company was giving to them, good feelings and sense of ownership. Unless something significantly changed, the company was rewarded by customer loyalty because of the outstanding service they received and the good feelings inspired by the attention of the employees — attention that arose from the organizational and individual excellence provided.

Times have changed, particularly in the government services market. Loyalty to the company is all but gone. The customer no longer sees the company for what it was and is, a key part of the service its employees provide, which includes an understanding of customer needs, corporate knowledge and uninterrupted support. Instead, the company has become a warehouse, where people who meet minimal expectations, who possess minimal qualifications, and work for minimal dollars are waiting for the next company to win their customer’s work. The customer has set the standard, but in so doing, they have destroyed the company as we once knew it, as well as the reason a company exists — to hire and attract people who can dedicate their time to the goals of the company and create individual excellence, and ultimately, organizational excellence.

For years federal government customers awarded contracts based on a firm’s past performance or what the organization brought (people, management, historical performance, innovation, etc.) to meet the stated goals and expectations, assuming a reasonable price. In today’s environment, the customer does not value what the company brings. Instead, it values the incumbent workforce, regardless of how employees will be treated once they are forced to switch companies (i.e., reduction of salary, benefits, tenure and no promotional opportunity). What happened to the meaning and importance of organizational excellence versus individual excellence in the federal market?

In his best-selling book, In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters says “there is no such thing as excellent organizations, only those that believe in continuous improvement.” In my view, excellence starts with the organization, but it must include individual excellence, which is a culture that is built from the top down in an atmosphere where continuous improvement and the quality of performance are the cornerstones of the organization. Peters notes:

“The pursuit of excellence, in any form can be considered an ambitious and often challenging undertaking. It implies the ability to perform at a consistently high level, which must depend on the ability to master the fundamental tasks you are doing, provide quality solutions using best practices, and measure performance. This accentuates the importance and value of a culture of continuous improvement in people, processes and the organization.”

Companies recognize that organizational excellence is challenging because of the consistent level of commitment, cooperation and alignment required of so many people. But to get organizational excellence, you need individuals who are dedicated to the company and have a shared vision that provides the focus required to help “make it happen.” Without a strong individual commitment to this shared vision, there is little hope for a company to create a strong and prosperous future that contributes to the organizational success. At the same time, Peters says:

“The pursuit of individual excellence without regard for its impact on team or organizational performance and other parts of the organization should be discouraged. This is one of the trade-offs employees make when they join a company. They give up some of their freedom to do exactly what they wish, and the company agrees to cooperate with them in the pursuit of shared goals. This does not rule out the pursuit of individual excellence, but it does mean we must define individual excellence in the context of organizational performance.”

Moving people to the next company does not guarantee organizational excellence. Most employees want a career where they have consistency in employment, the opportunity to provide quality results, growth in responsibility, and a culture of organizational commitment. Instead, in today’s environment, individuals are continually starting over, resulting in indifference and despondent attitudes due to lack of consistency and future growth.

Our federal customers’ measure of success is the number of incumbent employees placed on the contract, not the commitment, knowledge, loyalty and excellence these employee obtained because they were a part of a company who has proven organizational excellence. But to destroy the excellence our companies have built for years diminishes the value the individual brings and ultimately, what the company brings. The bottom line is that our customers’ disregard for the organizational aspect the company brings will limit the level of commitment and excellence the individual needs. Worse yet, the company will have no purpose, no vision, and no incentive to continue, since personal and organizational growth is not an option.

We have come a long way from where our parents were, but unfortunately it is the wrong way. Without the dedication of the company to the individual, individual excellence will not be achieved. Without the dedication of the employee to the company, organizational excellence will not be achieved and the company may not survive. By changing our customers’ view and bringing to their attention that individual excellence alone will not meet their needs, companies can succeed. Aristotle is quoted as saying: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.” It’s that simple, clear, concise and applicable at all levels of excellent organizations. Our customers need to understand this.

This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Service Contractor, a publication of the Professional Services Council.