Every morning several teams gather together under the watchful eye of various scrum masters at our head office. Updates and debates soon follow, as software development teams talk of their progress and any stumbling blocks they encounter with the projects they are working on. Any problems are addressed and quickly rectified and any progress is swiftly implemented for the benefit of the organisation.
It’s a scene that is perhaps more common place within the top private sector companies. Yet we’re helping the public sector to break the mould as we move into our fourth year of working in a way which is seen by many in the software development industry as the pinnacle of software development practices.
Agile software development was introduced at Ordnance Survey in 2009 when bosses decided that a cultural shift in project delivery was needed. Similar to all successful organisations we strived to achieve software, products and programmes that were relevant to both the organisation and the market place, while at the same time avoiding the potentially extensive costs of getting it wrong, or having to rectify unseen problems.
Bob Goodrich, our Director of Information Systems, said the change was essential. “At the time we had put a lot of resource and money into developing an online ordering system called GOOSE,” he said. “It wasn’t working and we decided to go down another path. I had worked with Agile before and was keen to see it brought in.”
The SCRUM version of the Agile Model was adopted which immediately saw innovative new ways of working. In essence, if done properly Agile does exactly what it says on the tin. It allows the organisation to become more agile in how it works, more flexible in delivery, and actually empowers staff to take swift action to overcome any problems as they arise.
Morning “Scrum” meetings began as teams came together to set daily work loads and understand problems. And teams broke their projects down into tangible and achievable “sprints” rather than seeing a project as one long race.
“All of a sudden by breaking the projects into sprints, or smaller development phases within projects, we were identifying and fixing problems as we went rather than having a much bigger expensive problem to fix at the end,” said Bob. “IT code was being written, tested and fixed within a sprint of two to four weeks”.
The phrase ‘technical debt’ is one perhaps familiar to those in the IT trade and one that can increase the blood pressure of those involved. It is the term used for the amount of money it costs to fix the problems at the end of a project.
“Now, because we exit each sprint addressing and fixing the problems we encounter, we aim to leave them without any significant technical debt,” said Bob. “So the potential savings to Ordnance Survey have been extensive, although hard to quantify”.
Big improvements have been made to the core IT infrastructure of the organisation using Agile, and Agile ways of working have even been used to develop an internal “Cloud”. The Cloud has given the organisation a new storage capability, removing some of the cost and resource involved in buying infrastructures.
“Agile works at Ordnance Survey because we have our own in-house IT development capability and we are a relatively small organisation,” said Bob. “Managing larger teams with external suppliers can be more challenging”.
“You also need to stay incredibly disciplined and structured for it to be successful.”
There are currently seven teams working in an Agile way, delivering IT software. They work very closely with the product owners and stakeholders from other elements of the organisation who share the vision of cross-business collaboration within an Agile framework.
“We are continuing to educate and train our staff to work with Agile,” said Bob. “I want to see all IS projects now being delivered in this way here. The benefits to the organisation are substantial and it is important that public sector organisations are adopting the best private sector practices to be successful and provide the most effective services.”