Lighting the path to agility in defence procurement 

By Alison Whitehouse

In April 2024, the Government announced that UK defence spending would increase to 2.5 percent of GDP by 2030. Accompanying that message was the announcement that a new Defence Innovation Agency had been created to bring together the UK’s current fragmented defence innovation landscape into a single responsible organisation.

The pronouncement outlined an intention to “make defence procurement faster, smarter, and more joined up” with a new Integrated Procurement Model launched by the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD) in February. This is intended to “see new technologies being used by the armed forces earlier in the process, rather than waiting for a ‘perfect’ product.”

The current military-geopolitical climate in Europe has, of course, made this imperative more crucial than ever.

This has led to a recognition that there is a need for a more agile UK defence procurement to help speed up innovation, with it being stipulated in the Defence Command Plan, and increasingly by the MOD as a preferred, even compulsory, methodology for their industry partners.

The fact remains, however, that embedding true agility in defence procurement is an ongoing challenge. Modern weapon systems and defence platforms are incredibly complex and defence programmes can take several years to bear fruit. Building true agility into that process will require multiple new ways of thinking, developing, and contracting if the announced uplift in UK defence spending is to realise its true potential.

What is meant by greater agility – failing early to learn early

The MOD’s desire to sprint to a 60 percent solution, spirally develop to 80 percent, and not get hung up on achieving that final 20 percent (the perfect product that would prove disproportionately expensive and time consuming) requires a bold adoption of agile principles. Not least of these is the preparedness to fail early, and to learn lessons early that can be carried forward. In other words, to learn continuously before an entire programme budget is already spent.

Most obviously, the concept of ‘failing early to learn early’ can only exist within a culture that allows it, but there are other measures that can facilitate such an approach. For example, empowering the ability to innovate within a programme can be enhanced by lowering the R&D barriers to entry and reducing the levels of governance in the early stages of a programme to speed up the initial R&D stages.

Middle management is key to unlocking agility

For agility to be baked into a programme or organisation, however, the key requisite remains the culture: a fundamental truth that is easy to state but challenging to implement.

Our research states that 80 percent of transformational effort goes into the cultural shift required to embrace change and seek continuous improvement. Delivering agility is a true top-to-bottom endeavour, and one area that appears to be particularly key to making agility ‘not sticky but stick’ is middle management. A commitment from senior management to systemic change is central to success. Even if senior leadership teams have bought into the need to do things differently, and technical staff on the ground have identified new practices that could deliver greater agility, middle management is the vital domain that connects the two.

Perhaps for this reason, middle management can be one of the most challenging areas of an organisation to unlock in terms of facilitating agility. Decades of past behaviours and practices must effectively be rewired by making conscious and tangible decisions to engage with this population and change certain practices, and sometimes an organisation will first have to slow down before it can go faster. This can give new structures and processes the time to be effectively defined and systematically rolled out, allowing them to fully take and bed down, while reducing the risk of them sowing confusion or never really landing properly.

For example, organisations should identify ‘halo leaders’ within this middle management population, those who are widely respected and supported, that can be challenged to adopt agile practices and methodologies and to share their successes and lessons learnt.

Keeping the customer close

Another vital prerequisite for ensuring true agility in defence procurement is to ‘keep the customer in the room’.

Compared to its industry partners, traditional organisations, like the MOD – used to dealing with timeframes, milestones, and deliverables – may still be on a learning curve about agility within a programmatic context. Delivering it requires the customer to be taken on a journey in which it is a constant, collaborative participant. Opportunities to do things differently – to move outside established practices or embrace new paths to a desired outcome – can most effectively be seized if the customer is actually in the room rather than just have their voice represented.

There are, of course, perceived risks to inviting the customer into every conversation; after all, more than one major UK defence project has run into trouble as successive requirements have been added to it. However, the net effect of transparency – and a preparedness not to shy away from open, perhaps difficult conversations around prioritisation – can ultimately deliver the desired outcome.

Concentrating on the outcome

Implementing agility can be made easier by regarding it not as ‘another complex methodology to be rolled out’, but as a simpler set of processes and behaviours designed to create flexibility: a mindset that delivers the ability to respond and be adaptive.

In this way, rather than remaining as some ethereal concept that no one can fully grasp, agility can be defined by what it produces: persistent capabilities rather than platforms or systems alone; and programmes with desired outcomes for the customer. Outcomes that might not necessarily have been envisaged when those programmes first began.

Change as usual, not business as usual

Delivering projects using agile practices will never be a simple task. It requires uncertainty and risk to be embraced rather than shied away from, and to accept ‘change as usual’ instead of ‘business as usual’. As in the battlespace, communication and partnership are key. Moreover, embedding agility within a major defence contract requires a step change from the traditional procurement practices of the past.

However, there are practical measures that can mitigate that difficult journey, allowing contractor and client to ultimately deliver more than just a platform or a system, but an outcome that can incrementally adapt to a requirement that constantly evolves.

About the authors

Alison Whitehouse PA product and organisational agility expert

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