An Agile Framework for Research and DevelopmentFebruary 16, 2022
Designing Agile Practices Around Core Values
Our framework has similarities to scrum, Kanban, and the dynamic systems development method. However, significant changes and small adjustments make this process unique.
The Significant Changes
Most agile practices use consistent iteration lengths of 2–4 weeks. When working on a 30- or 45-day prototype, this period represents an unacceptable timeline for feedback. Compressed project lengths make capacity measures, like story points, relatively useless (it takes about three iterations to calculate velocity). We solved this issue by creating variable-length iterations, called orbits. An orbit lasts 2–5 business days and is goal-focused. The team agrees to the length at each orbit start, based on the goal. Setting a short orbit helps the team right-size goals while variable orbit sizes enable the team to swarm around the true objective without adding filler to round out capacity. When reflecting on our core values, varying length iterations consistently helped our teams create momentum, prioritize ruthlessly, and emphasize positioning.
The other significant adjustment was around roles. Prototype idea generators and subject matter experts often have other commitments preventing them from working as a product owner. We formalized the roles of innovators and sponsors for unique contributions to the prototype vision.
- The innovator has the idea or vision of what a fully developed product can be.
- Market and service line sponsors have insights into proposals and clients that could benefit from the prototype outcome in the near term.
- The product owner defines an achievable prototype scope that marries these insights.
Splitting these responsibilities across technical, business, and functional experts generates a healthy friction. Introducing and sharing multiple vantage points promotes broader education around the problem and how the prototype fits into that narrative.
The Small Adjustments
Although, like with other agile frameworks, teams perform daily stand-ups, iteration reviews, and practice continuous improvement through retrospectives, these ceremonies underwent minor adjustments to account for our context. For example, we have a single formal retrospective at about the 1/3 mark of the prototype and a post-mortem retrospective at its conclusion. This timeline ensures improvement and reflection while preserving momentum and reducing overhead. Figure 2 shows how these ceremonies fit in the framework.
In one year, 16 prototypes reached completion using the newly-developed framework. While not every prototype receives further funding for product development, each furnishes enough information for an educated decision regarding further investment. All prototypes have achieved that objective, with a representative proof of concept delivered on time to support decision-making.
Several of the most successful prototypes had significant pivots or concluded with a scope outside of the initial plan, outlining the need for constant positioning based on discoveries and overall agility. Understanding a problem and proving the capacity to solve it in these timeframes has implications for the government’s acquisition and proposal process and can increase confidence in how the government approaches complex problems.
While existing methods might not fit perfectly in every context, adaptations and custom frameworks can bring agility to non-traditional use cases.