Written by Mason Chaudhry
on May 17, 2023

In 2023, Business Agility in the Public Sector is being driven by modern practices and technology built in Agile Operating Models, and it focuses on delivering value to internal and external customers. While most Public Sector enterprises are transitioning to these newer management models and have implemented initiatives to address people, process and technology changes, many are still contending with gaps found in Agile practices that leave leaders struggling to address Portfolio, Program and Project-level challenges faced by teams.

While Capital “A” Agile practices and rigorous conformity to frameworks such as SAFe or DaD might work for start-up organizations or certain Silicon Valley enterprises, the reality is that Public Sector and even large commercial enterprises still require some semblance of governance, risk, communication and management practices. These practices dubbed the 4 Ps, include traditional Portfolio, Program, Project and Product Management. Many enterprises are seeking tailored approaches to Agile and Product Management that blend best practices found within traditional management domains.

Portfolio Concerns Leaders Face When Going Down the Agile Path

So, what are some of the issues found in Public Sector enterprises as they shift to Agile operating models and Product focuses? Why aren’t Agile frameworks one-size-fits-all? Let’s take a look at some of the challenges below by starting with Portfolio concerns leaders face down the Agile path:

  • Balancing Long-term Strategic Goals with Short-term Priorities: Agile methodologies typically emphasize delivering value in shorter cycles, which can sometimes create a tension between addressing immediate customer needs and pursuing long-term strategic objectives. It can be challenging to strike a balance between the two and ensure that the portfolio aligns with the overall business strategy.
  • Capacity Planning and Resource Allocation: Agile teams work in iterations, and their capacity may vary from one iteration to another. Managing resources across multiple Projects or initiatives can become complex, especially when there are dependencies between teams or when priorities change frequently. It requires careful coordination and planning to allocate resources effectively and optimize their utilization.
  • Governance and Decision Making: Agile frameworks promote self-organizing teams and decentralized decision-making. However, Portfolio Management often requires centralized governance and decision making to ensure alignment with organizational goals and manage risks. Finding the right balance between autonomy and control can be a challenge, as it involves defining decision-making processes that enable Agility while maintaining oversight.
  • Prioritization and Trade-offs: Agile teams typically work on a backlog of user stories or features, and prioritization is crucial to deliver value incrementally. In Portfolio Management, there may be multiple initiatives competing for limited resources and attention. Determining the priority of different Projects or features and making trade-offs becomes essential but can be challenging when Stakeholders have diverse perspectives and priorities.
  • Communication and Transparency: Agile methodologies emphasize collaboration and frequent communication within teams. However, in Portfolio Management, there is a need to communicate progress, priorities and changes across different Stakeholders, including executives, business units and external partners. Ensuring transparency and effective communication can be challenging, especially when there are numerous Projects or initiatives running concurrently.
  • Agile Scaling and Coordination: Agile Portfolio Management involves coordinating and aligning multiple Agile teams and their activities. Scaling Agile practices across teams and ensuring consistent implementation of Agile principles can be difficult, particularly in larger organizations or when teams are distributed across different locations or time zones. Establishing mechanisms for cross-team collaboration and maintaining a shared understanding of the portfolio objectives becomes crucial.

Agile and Product Challenges at the Manager and Practitioner Levels

Managers and practitioners in Public Sector enterprises contend with many of the challenges listed above that executives and leaders face.

  • Scope Management: Agile methodologies prioritize flexibility and responding to changing requirements. This can make it challenging to define and manage Project scope, especially in situations where Stakeholders have fixed expectations and scope changes are frequent. Balancing the need for Agility with maintaining Project boundaries and managing scope creep becomes crucial.
  • Stakeholder Engagement: Agile approaches emphasize frequent collaboration and involvement of Stakeholders throughout the Project lifecycle. However, in traditional Project and Program Management, Stakeholders often have limited involvement until key milestones or reviews. Shifting to an Agile operating model may require a change in Stakeholder engagement practices and ensuring ongoing communication and involvement, which can be challenging to establish and maintain.
  • Integration and Dependencies: Agile Projects often work in smaller increments, focusing on delivering value iteratively. However, in a Program or Portfolio context, there may be dependencies and integration points between different Projects or initiatives. Managing and coordinating these dependencies becomes more complex, as it requires aligning schedules, priorities and deliverables across Agile teams and potentially with non-Agile teams.
  • Project and Program Governance: Agile methodologies promote self-organizing teams and decentralized decision-making, which can be at odds with traditional Project and Program governance structures. Ensuring appropriate oversight, control and decision-making processes within an Agile operating model can be challenging. It may involve redefining governance structures, roles and responsibilities to balance autonomy with the need for coordination and alignment.
  • Planning and Estimation: Agile Project Management relies on iterative planning and estimating work based on team capacity and velocity. Traditional Project and Program Management often requires detailed upfront planning and estimation. Transitioning to an Agile operating model may require a shift in mindset and practices, which can be challenging for Stakeholders accustomed to traditional planning approaches.
  • Managing Constraints: Agile methodologies prioritize delivering value within fixed timeframes and budgets. However, in certain industries or organizations, there may be strict constraints on time, cost or quality that need to be managed. Balancing Agile principles with these constraints can be challenging, requiring careful trade-offs and effective management of Stakeholder expectations.
  • Change Management: Implementing an Agile operating model often involves a significant cultural shift within the organization. It requires changes in mindset, roles, processes and ways of working. Managing this organizational change and ensuring buy-in from Stakeholders can be challenging, as resistance to change and the need for Change Management activities may arise.

Addressing these challenges requires a combination of adapting Agile practices to suit the Project and Program Management context, providing appropriate training and support to teams and Stakeholders, and fostering a culture that embraces Agility and continuous improvement. It is essential to recognize that the Agile operating model may need to be tailored and customized based on the specific needs and characteristics of the Projects and Programs being managed.

Traditional Project, Program and Portfolio Management practices continue to be valuable and relevant even in an Agile Operating Model. While Agile methodologies emphasize flexibility, collaboration and iterative delivery, they can benefit from the structure and discipline offered by traditional management practices. Traditional Project Management techniques provide a solid foundation for defining Project goals, establishing clear scope and developing realistic schedules and budgets. Program Management practices enable effective coordination and alignment of multiple Agile Projects within a larger organizational context, ensuring strategic objectives are met.

Similarly, Portfolio Management helps prioritize investments, balance resource allocation and align initiatives with business goals. These traditional practices complement the Agile Operating Model by providing a framework for strategic planning, risk management, Stakeholder engagement and monitoring and control. They facilitate effective communication, foster accountability and ensure that Agile projects are aligned with the overall business strategy. By combining the best aspects of both traditional and Agile approaches, organizations can maximize the benefits of Agility while maintaining the necessary structure and governance to deliver successful outcomes.

In the last part of my Business Agility in the Public Sector blog, I will take a “Sportscaster’s” view of how the 4 Ps can be leveraged to improve the delivery of Products and services and provide some essentials that your organization should look at when determining the best intersection of traditional and Agile practices.