Overview of the US Dept of Defense Agile case study

There’s a paper out there called “Status of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Implementation of the Sentinel Project”. The Sentinel project, which was launched after the tragic events of September 11. The FBI realised that they possessed a wealth of information but lacked the ability to connect the dots effectively.

The Agile intervention

With a projected timeline of several years and a budget of $500 million, the project got underway. Many years in, they had already spent $450 million and they couldn’t show anything. Nothing really worked there. They had 500 people working on it essentially wasting taxpayers’ money. So, in the US, you basically have to appear before Congress and answer questions about what’s going on there.

Faced with mounting pressure from taxpayers and government entities, the FBI decided to adopt an Agile approach to salvage the Sentinel project. They reduced their development team from 500 to just 50 individuals.  Another paper, “The interim report on the Federal Bureau of Investigations implementation of the Sentinel project”, documents what happened next. They rented the basement of the Watergate building, put those 50 people in there in a war-room kind of set up. A colocation, which is an overall a good practice. This shift aimed to prioritise collaboration and communication, two fundamental principles of Agile development.

Connecting data points

The first step in the Agile intervention was to consult various agencies involved in the project and identify the most critical data points that needed to be connected. Each agency needed to identify their top priority was and whether it aligned with the overall project objective. The development team basically said: “Okay, let’s ignore everything and let’s just implement that”.

By focusing solely on the essential requirements, the development team was able to rapidly implement a functioning solution within a month or two. It was just a small fraction of the overall objective of the Sentinel project, but it was there and it was working.

Impressive results

What makes this case study truly remarkable is the government’s embrace of Agile principles and methodologies. The publicly available documentation on the Sentinel project demonstrates a deep understanding of the benefits of Agile. I don’t think we associate the government with agility. But when you look at this paper, especially the follow-up one from 2012, they mention ‘Agile’ on 11 pages out of 40, which was surprising.

The government – including the military – recognised they’d been wasting so much money of software projects. And so they changed their software development processes to more Agile methodologies as well.

About Effective Agile

Ralph Jocham is a Change Agent in Scrum // Agile // Coaching // Evidence Based Management and also a Professional Scrum Trainer based in Europe.

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