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Making the Ministry of
Defence more Agile

Client Conversations
Agile working is by no means limited to the private sector. Continuing our series examining transformation, Mivy James sits down with the MoD’s Adrian Bailey to talk process, product and pace.
Making the Ministry of Defence more Agile Icon 2The cranes which adorn Bristol’s skyline are testament to a city on the up. Frequently named as one of the best places to live in the UK, this small yet buzzing city is cosmopolitan, creative, family friendly – and also home to the largest Ministry of Defence (MoD) site in the country.
 
MoD Abbey Wood is located a short hop from the city centre – the nearby station was constructed specifically to help transport the thousands of staff who work there – and serves as the procurement hub for the Royal Navy, the British Army and the Royal Air Force. Since March last year it has also been the base of Adrian Bailey, the latest stopping point in a MoD career which started even before he left school.
 
“I’ve been at the MoD forever – I even did my student year off here as a student engineer, proving I was rubbish in a machine shop,” he recalls. Such self-depreciation is something of a running thread – no Sir Humphrey he – but it belies his steely determination to make a difference.
 
Bailey works for Information Systems & Services, which provides the procurement and support functions for integrated information and communication services across the Armed Forces, the MoD and to overseas bases, operations and ships. As Head of Intelligence Systems, he is responsible for a £2bn portfolio of complex information services and heads up more than 100 staff at sites across the UK. Alongside colleagues in other teams, their role is to help manage and oversee the vast range of complex projects, products and enterprise systems required by the armed forces to operate effectively.
 
And to do this Bailey relies on Agile ways of working. 
 
 

Going Agile

The Agile approach is rooted in many factors but prime among them is the need for greater organisational pace in order to respond to a rapidly changing business environment. With Agile, gone are governance systems where decisions are made at the top and then filter down the hierarchy. Instead, under an Agile approach a network of teams operate as one, using data to accelerate decision making in short development cycles called “sprints” and in theory operate faster and more effectively as a result. Bailey, it transpires, was an early convert to this way of working.
 
“There was no damascene highway moment,” he explains. “I came across it through what was then the Office of Government Commerce because I was a reviewer doing high-risk reviews of projects and this was one of the things we came across. Some of the basic themes then are still true now – Agile is very easy to start and very easy to fall over and not do any more.”
 
"The introduction of Agile has to be gentle. Simply going ‘right, today we’re going Agile’ is not going to work"

Adrian Bailey, Head of Intelligence Systems, Minstry of Defence (MoD)

 
The fact that there is no clear pathway to an Agile operating model is particularly acute for a more mature organisation – such as the MoD – as the cultural change required to support this type of delivery goes far beyond development teams and even the IT department. Bailey agrees that it’s a challenge.
 
“When I first started learning about Agile one of the biggest issues that been trumpeted was the risk of trying to go too far, too fast,” he says. “You can come up against the inertia of an organisation and you can get knocked back quite quickly. I’ve spent my life delivering complex systems – including air systems and a complete aircraft – but now I’ve ended up in IT and there is not as much stopping us from being quick. It was almost the fact that I had come from an old school environment, immersed myself in information services, and then took a stand that I wasn’t going to do it the same way that started this process.”
 
 

‘Just get on with it’

Certainly, Bailey is not one for hanging about – “it was a case of ‘let’s go for it’ and if it doesn’t quite work we would figure it out” – but he admits to a sense of frustration that not everyone shares this approach.
 
Making the Ministry of Defence more Agile Icon 1“When something doesn’t work quite as well as planned, the response is to invariably clamp down on it and “force you to get it right next time”,” he reveals. “This can produce a contrary set of behaviours and makes people more risk averse. People in our delivery teams are a bit careful and don’t plunge into doing. They also take their time writing everything down – people feel that they have to invest in this because this is how they feel they are measured.”
 
However, he is quick to pay tribute to his staff for their willingness to embrace this new way of working.  “Agile is behaviour,” he points out. “Agile is a mindset. MoD is a classic conundrum whereby it loves process but it doesn’t always like sticking to it. So you end up with independent project teams which find a way that works and you inject energy and you make things happen. If the process gets in the way you can kind of find a way around it.”
 
He is also clear that there is little point in going in all guns blazing. Far better, he believes, to engineer a soft landing. “The introduction of Agile has to be gentle,” he says. “Simply going ‘right, today we’re going Agile’ is not going to work. But it’s not about being nervous – ‘just get on with it’ is in many ways my motto. Doing is more important than writing it down and planning. And in any case you wouldn’t want to do everything via Agile – you want an element of stability – but as soon as you start breaking things down, the scope and scale starts to diminish.”
 
And do people feel threatened? “Funnily enough, no. In the last 12 months there has not been anything other than some people feeling a bit nervous and asking for training. The other side is getting enough critical mass of all the multi disciplines.” Interestingly, he adds that their younger recruits – “our Millennials” – tend to see Agile as common sense. “For them, it’s a case of ‘why wouldn’t you do this?’ So, it’s not a hard sell.”
 
 

Getting the governance right

One of the key dangers to a successful Agile transition is the governance. From failing to communicate the urgency and mission of the transformation, to deploying Agile alongside other change programmes to a widening disconnect between management and their teams, there are plenty of potential hurdles to scale – and Bailey readily agrees.
 
“It’s about getting the balance of working within that broad framework of running programmes soundly and understanding how change can be governed properly”

Adrian Bailey, Head of Intelligence Systems, Ministry of Defence (MoD)

 
“It’s about getting the balance of working within that broad framework of running programmes soundly and understanding how change can be governed properly,” he says. “This is especially when you factor in interaction with my own organisation’s headquarters at Corsham, as well as the people who hold our purse-strings in Joint Forces Command.”
 
And Bailey’s customers across the armed forces, too, are a vital consideration. “They haven’t always got what they wanted but they didn’t get what they wanted when they wanted and couldn’t get it changed either,” he concedes. “What the MoD calls ‘Initial Operating Capability’ is what I would call 95%. Getting them to agree to 40% of something on the basis they can get it running, they can start to change their business, and then it will be continuous evolution and a set of deliveries is a real challenge.”
 
Bailey, however, firmly believes that the biggest challenge lies in how IT is bracketed within the department. “The thing that really dominates all else is that unlike every other government department our IT budget lies in the equipment programme,” and this, he says, makes speed and agility far harder to achieve.
 
“It’s in the same pot as ships and planes because Defence has got that delegation from the Treasury to spend a lot of money but unfortunately they put the IT in with it. So IT is treated like the equipment programme which means it has to follow a lengthy acquisition process, which was put in place to satisfy the Treasury that the MoD is managing its equipment programme correctly.”
 
 

Horizon scanning

Bailey, who expects to be in his current post until 2022 – “I was given four years, it’s not fixed but that’s the aim” – is rightly continuing the move to Agile in an iterative way, which is itself one of the key principles of this way of working. The fact that he and his team haven’t set themselves a major milestone by which date they need to have declared themselves to be Agile, and because it’s more of a continuous improvement exercise, is also likely helping with stakeholder engagement.
 
While not one for complacency, he is cautiously optimistic about the progress made, and progress still to come. “The fields have been ploughed, some areas are growing and working ok, and there is some evidence that this is a good thing to do and so now is the time to go large and really start getting these things to sprout,” he concludes.
 
“A corner has definitely been turned though. I’m far more positive than I was just a few years ago.”
 
 
 
About the author
Mivy James is Head of Consulting for National Security, BAE Systems
 
Further Reading:
  • Going Digital is one thing, Transformation is quite another. Mivy James explains why genuine transformation requires far more than just digitising outdated processes
  • From silos to solutions. How can organisations tackle the age old problem of silos? Holly Armitage maps the sometimes torturous route towards joined-up collaboration
  • Wanted: Data engineers. How can companies consistently turn data insights into business value? Simple, says BAE’s Chris Sawyer, hire more data engineers
  • Why it’s time to take control of your data. Data is important for any organisation but managing it, and providing a single point of reference, is easier said than done. But all is not lost – Al Turnbull explains how Master Data Management can help