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Agile in the BC Public Service

Public servants are seeking ways to better deliver services that meet citizen expectations in a complex, fast-changing world. This means abandoning traditional approaches, which often assume we can:

  • predict the outcomes of our work over long periods of time,
  • manage complexity with increasingly large and complex projects, and
  • understand people’s needs without talking to them.

It also means re-training and gaining competency in new mindset and methods that enable us to navigate change and new opportunities. With an “Agile” approach, teams can to respond to unpredictable change through:

  • starting small on a well defined problem,
  • building, or iterating on, direct feedback from users on prototypes or early versions of real products; and
  • taking an incremental approach to delivery that reduces the risk we manage at any given time.

If applied appropriately, Agile practices usually yield better results for citizens through faster and more efficient service delivery. This, according to the Corporate HR Plan, is why the BC Public Service is investing in learning how to apply Agile methods, where traditional approaches are not meeting citizen expectations.

The Exchange Lab is one place where public servants learn to be Agile. The lab incubates and accelerates learning through the experience of delivering high quality services. "The Flywheel that drives momentum at the BCDevExchange." While we build real products, the higher value deliverable is the talent and team that becomes equipped to continue service improvement, while taking on new important challenges.

From Bridges to Software to Public Service

Agile has its roots in Lean manufacturing and became popular in the software industry. Traditional project management made sense for engineering projects, but challenges surfaced for software development. In particular, traditional or waterfall project management limits our ability to adapt to changing requrements because of structures that force alignment to long term plans.

Additonally, when we create isolated and specialized teams in project structures, we require cascading hand-offs which challenge communication and collaboration. This limits innovation, slows delivery of value, and degrades the quality of our products.

In 2015, the BC Developers’ Exchange started experimenting with Agile product teams. We tested the Agile Delivery Process. We also learned it takes more than just process improvement: we needed to adjust our mindsets and build a supportive community to enable results.

The result? There are over 20 product teams who have delivered high quality products in an Agile way and many within a year. Additionally, organizations that have graduated teams from the Lab are now embarking on broader Agile adoption and are creating more teams.

The demand for support from across the Public Service to become more Agile is increasing. While the Exchange Lab uses Agile-Scrum methodologies, there is interest in applying Agile values and principles more broadly. There is a growing community of people supporting each other to learn how to apply scrum and other methods.

There is a way to do this with ill-effect.

Agile is considered “new” to many, but it has been used in the technology industry since at least the 1990s. It has surged in popularity among public services across Canada and more broadly. This means there are many flavours of adoption, and not all are successful.

Expecting a new team or organization to simply adopt Agile methodologies is like asking an African Safari guide to lead Scuba divers on a reef tour. There are some core competencies that need to be adopted before this can happen.

Agile is also not a solve-all approach. It is specifically relevant when solving problems in a complex environment. Sometimes waterfall is the right method. Sometimes Lean Six-Sigma will add rocket-fuel to your delivery. We reference the Cynefin Framework to help understand when it is appropriate to apply probe-sense-respond (Agile) practices: Intro to the Cynefin Framework from Cognitive Edge on Youtube

Further, service delivery in complex circumstances, regardless of methodology, is still difficult. Agile teams require the right conditions to succeed. Learn about why you should re-think governance when you adopt Agile.

Tips to get started:

Check out digital principles in development for the BC Public Service including: "BC's Draft Digital Principles Slide"

About Working in the Open

There are many benefits to sharing information openly. See the government of Canada’s Guide for Publishing Open Source Code


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