Integrating systems and Agile delivery approaches to succeed at pace

By Andrew Cook, Johnny Gilbert

Complex programme delivery used to be a black box of opaque processes, costs, and risk. Now, organisations are tailoring systems approaches and integrating them into Agile methods to enable faster, more flexible delivery whilst maintaining design rigour.

Systems approaches are a mindset and approach for understanding a problem holistically and within its environmental context. They recognise interconnectedness and seek to explore patterns of change and emergent behaviour that result. By doing so, systems approaches aim to get to the root of a problem or behaviour to better identify valid, effective interventions or solutions.

In practice, complex programme delivery uses systems thinking and engineering cycles to respond to organisational issues. Solutions can be right-sized to problem complexity and value, and frequent communication between product users and product builders enables rapid identification and resolution of issues. The approach is tailored according to organisational requirements rather than textbook formulas.

The benefits are numerous: Stakeholders gain confidence in delivery methods while receiving value early on; systems practitioners maintain momentum by focusing on strategic areas; reviews and decision-making are fully integrated into organisational governance, saving significant time; and more.

Delivering complex programmes at pace

Systems thinking and engineering have traditionally been used to deliver large programmes such as the Hubble Space Telescope, because they manage complexity with rigorous processes.

However, senior leaders want to receive benefits faster, which requires Agile delivery. Agile aims to deliver early value and manage uncertainty through early, efficient, and continuous delivery of value on regular and predictable timescales (for further benefits of Agile see The evolution of the agile organisation). An example being Cisco, achieving 40 percent defect reduction and 14 percent defect removal efficiency increase within their Subscription Billing Platform after adopting an Agile approach.

Making a binary choice between an assurance-led or pace-led programme is no longer necessary. Integrating systems methodologies with Agile methods creates the leadership confidence and organisational capabilities needed to accelerate delivery of complex and adaptable programmes e.g., our work on Virgin Hyperloop allowed requirements to be delivered 30 percent faster. Combining these two approaches enables disciplined Agile delivery, achieving planned value while reducing process waste and increasing team efficiency.

Leaning into changing requirements

Organisational teams want to optimise both delivery phases and results. The good news is that they can prioritise either systems or Agile approaches as necessary.

For example, discovery phases and hardware-focussed products benefit from being systems-led, as teams use rigour in defining requirements and designing solutions. Product construction and release phases or software-focussed outputs benefit from being Agile-led, enabling teams to react effectively to necessary change.

We’ve used this approach whilst working on Virgin Hyperloop and across multiple defence and security clients. Virgin Hyperloop uses battery-powered pods that glide through tubes in a near-vacuum environment, reaching speeds of up to 670 mph As a brand-new transportation method, the Virgin Hyperloop team needed to use systems rigour for complex engineering processes but also be able to adapt processes to changing requirements.

Using rigorous engineering processes can also be pivotal in developing and maintaining exceptional Agile delivery environments. Examples include Tesla’s work to unlock vehicle efficiencies, and the UK’s Royal Air Force Tempest programme exhibiting how evolving typically classically engineered cars and aircrafts can be made Agile with software updates and configuration changes e.g., Tempest operators will be able to configure the aircraft for different payloads, thus allowing the aircraft to adopt surveillance and combat roles.

Delivering value delivery at pace and scale

Teams use Agile delivery to deliver rapid and ongoing value to users and at the necessary pace and scale. Systems-led techniques inform Agile delivery by determining which product elements are required and which would deliver early value, enabling teams to prioritise which pieces to build first and thus ensuring rigour at the heart of an Agile approach.

About the authors

Andrew Cook PA systems engineering expert
Johnny Gilbert Defence and security expert Johnny works with clients to deliver operational improvements across the Defence and Security sector

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