Are you frustrated by how much time it takes to purchase and configure large COTS (Commercial-Off-the-Shelf) software packages?  A COTS package is better than build-from-scratch for many large government and business projects, but it’s still a huge amount of work, especially when legacy systems must be integrated with the new package.  You’d love to use Agile methods, but they just don’t seem to fit what you’re doing.

There’s a good reason that methods such as Scrum don’t work well in the early stages of COTS adoption projects. Agile methods are designed for projects with high uncertainty (lots of unknowns) and a fairly low cost of change.  New software development typically does have a low cost of change.  You can build a small feature, try it out, and then change it in response to what you’ve learned.  But when you’re purchasing a large off-the-shelf software package, it’s very expensive to change after the choice has been made.  Typically there are other important decisions made early in the project which also have a high cost of change.

Luckily, there is another method which is a better fit for COTS projects. The Rapid Learning Cycles Framework*, a cousin of agile software development, manages the work to speed up those expensive decisions while still getting the speed of agile methods.

In the Rapid Learning Cycles Framework, the team starts by listing the big decisions they must make.  They identify questions which must be answered in order to make those decisions with high confidence, and they organize and prioritize their questions. Then the team looks for answers and makes decisions in a series of small, quick learning cycles.   The team coordinates and shares their knowledge on a regular schedule, enabling them to immediately capitalize on each new piece of knowledge.  This regular schedule can easily be aligned with agile iterations or sprints, forming a natural integration point between teams.

If you’ve been wondering how to apply agile to large, slow COTS-based projects, Rapid Learning Cycles may be right for you.

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*The Rapid Learning Cycles framework description is based upon the Rapid Learning Cycles Kickoff Event Materials with Speaker Notes by Katherine Radeka © 2015 Whittier Consulting Group, Inc. Used by Permission.