Agile: A New Frontier for Defence


The Defence environment is changing faster than ever before, yet defence programmes continue to move in the opposite direction, becoming more complex, costly, and time consuming. Defence programme managers must become more agile, able to respond better to changing threats and technologies, and to ultimately deliver front line capability quicker and cheaper.

Speed vs. Complexity – the challenge for defence programmes

We have come to take it for granted that a technological edge in the battlefield can have a disproportionate effect on the outcome. Numerically small but well-equipped forces can be deployed and achieve military objectives with low casualty rates, thanks to cutting edge technology embedded in the latest equipment.  But this superiority relies on staying ahead in a relentless technological race.  In this race, speed of adoption and deployment is a critical success factor. As the pace of change of technology becomes ever more rapid, and innovation brings unpredictability and disruption, staying ahead becomes more challenging. 

At the same time, the threats faced by the Armed Forces are evolving faster than before and cannot be predicted with any certainty. In the days of the cold war, future threats could be assessed with some degree of confidence 10-15 years ahead. Now, predicting threats and potential opponents more than 3-4 years ahead has become a hazardous business.

A final issue is the squeeze on funding. More and more defence programmes are cost-capped from the outset, making the trade-off of capability against cost a more central part of optimising the programme.  As risks are weighed, the desire for more certainty on cost can result in more uncertainty on the inclusion of technological features, as costs and performance change during development.  This places a premium on a project management approach that can add and subtract features and flex the design as a matter of course.

Yet, despite these trends, defence programmes, like most mega projects continue to become more complex, costly, and time-consuming. Why is this and what can be done about it?


The solution may lie in the use of “Agile”.  These methodologies and approaches have matured in the fast-moving world of software development and have emerged into wider project applications. Under Agile, development is time boxed and cost-capped, and features are traded, allowing the solution to quickly adapt in response to technical progress and evolving needs. Agile methodologies are fast and effective, and appear well suited to address the issues described above. In Defence, there is a desire to spread the use of Agile, both through the adoption of formal methodologies, as well as Agile principles and ways of working.

Agile vs. Traditional Approach with Iron Triangle Constraints
Agile vs. Traditional Approach with Iron Triangle Constraints

The complication – Agile in a Waterfall world

The complication for its use in Defence is that an Agile approach relies strongly on delegated decision making, with empowered teams who set and manage their priorities as the work progresses. This does not sit comfortably with the traditional command and control approach used for controlling major defence programmes. 

Is Agile the right choice for Defence programmes?

In setting strategies for new programmes, the Ministry of Defence faces the question of whether to apply Agile and what this means in the context of a defence programme. Is Agile only relevant for software and of limited value in the world of physical engineering programmes? Or is it an approach that could provide a real step-change in Defence programme performance?

For MI-GSO | PCUBED, the answer is clear; we believe that Agile can bring huge benefits to Defence programmes, providing that it is implemented carefully. 

Learning from other sectors – ensure your approach to implementing Agile is comprehensive and integrated

Our experience in other industry sectors demonstrates that Agile can be used to successfully deliver major programmes, away from its roots in software development.  We have worked with companies in automotive, financial services, energy and other sectors where Agile has helped transform performance. Where it has worked, timescales have been radically cut and costs greatly reduced.

In all these cases, we’ve found that the deciding factor in successful Agile projects has been whether the implementation of Agile was both comprehensive and integrated.

Agile components in a comprehensive approach

Components of an Agile Journey
Components of an Agile Journey

To be comprehensive, all the components required for Agile need to be in place or developed. All require attention. An illustration of the typical components of a successful Agile journey is shown in the diagram (right). Although the processes and tools often get attention first, aspects such as culture and strategy can be greater determinants of success. Agile is often a grass-roots movement that bubbles up from the project teams; in order to succeed, it needs organisation and leadership at the highest levels, including appropriate governance and operating models. 

Integration of Agile in a Waterfall world – a Hybrid Strategy

In addition, the adoption of Agile needs to be integrated into the wider organisation structures. The MoD has, like many other organisations, a wider Waterfall structure and context. For example, meeting the requirements of the HMT Approvals process, and NAO (National Audit Office) auditing requirements mean that a rigorous framework of control is needed.

In addition, Agile may be more appropriate for some programmes than others. So, Agile projects may exist within Waterfall programmes, and Agile programmes may be part of Waterfall portfolios. Even through the development lifecycle, the most appropriate approach may change; Agile concept and assessment phases may be followed by Waterfall manufacturing phases. 

This mix of approaches is often referred to as “bi-modal”, hybrid or adaptive.  A good hybrid strategy will enable controlled integration of all projects. Unless there is a robust strategy in place, overall performance is likely to be poor.

In the worst cases, the organisation can become dysfunctional, splitting into two factions, each speaking a different language and having a different culture. The best performing programmes come from meeting this challenge head-on; setting criteria for deciding which programmes should adopt Agile, and those which should not, and by working harmoniously between the two systems, using common touch-points and interactions.

These typically map the programmes and the overlaps, showing where Agile methods will apply and where traditional Waterfall approaches will be better suited, as illustrated in the diagram below.

Typical Adaptive Integration Roadmap
Typical Adaptive Integration Roadmap

In summary, Agile can and will enable Defence programmes to make a step change in speed and cost reduction, but such a change will not come easily. A comprehensive approach to implementation is needed, taking into account wider issues such as cultural change.

In addition, a hybrid strategy that systematically integrates Agile into existing and wider traditional structures is needed. With these in place, the full power of Agile can be harnessed, resulting in a more certain lead in the technology race and an Armed Forces equipped with the means to face down threats, no matter how unpredictable.

Tim Squire, a former Naval Constructor and defence engineer, he has spent his career leading delivery of projects and programmes, successfully delivering major equipment acquisitions and support solutions, including hybrid programmes of equipment, IT, and organizational change.  He has also advised on, and designed and implemented portfolio, programme, and project management approaches and systems, involving hybrids of Agile and Waterfall management approaches.

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