Dual-Track Agile: Parallel Discovery and Delivery with the Ministry of Justice

1st October 2020

In this article, Service Designer Andrew Millar shares the lessons learned when using a Dual-track agile methodology while working with the Prisoner Escort and Custody Services programme in the Ministry of Justice. This has led to the design of the ‘Book a Secure Move’ service, which facilitates the safe and secure movement of people in custody within the criminal justice system.

Dual-track agile is a methodology where members of a cross-functional team work on parallel development tracks: discovery and delivery. The discovery track focuses on building the right thing, while the delivery track focuses on building the thing right

Agile product development consists of iterative cycles of regular delivery, in which the team leverages qualitative and quantitative data to learn about their users. Dual-track agile extends the process to include discovery, running parallel to delivery – in which the basic framework of what is needed can inform the future roadmap, but the details are not defined until they are close to being delivered. 

This entire process is collaborative and cyclical, involving key team members working together throughout to ensure they are delivering desirable, viable, feasible solutions.

Build the right thing

The purpose of discovery is to understand business requirements and user needs in order to ensure that what is being delivered is viable for the business, technically feasible to deliver, and desirable for intended users. In some cases this will mean that nothing is taken forward to build – saving the organization from wasting resources, while also protecting them from any potential reputational damage.

Risks and assumptions are identified alongside the development of hypotheses. These can be challenged throughout the discovery phase in order for the proposed solution to be iterated based on evidence derived from research. 

While discovery research tends to produce more qualitative evidence, one of the benefits of dual-track agile is that you can take advantage of quantitative evidence from products and features that have been released to users as part of the delivery track.

Although agile handles iterative development well, if discovery is all done up front before the development begins, requirements can change and evolve as new functionality is released. If you delve into detailed requirements at too early a stage, time can be wasted as user requirements change once they start to see the ‘real’ functionality and a lot of design and analysis work is wasted.  

Build the thing right

The purpose of delivery is to develop an achievable solution for piloting with real users in their environment, measuring impact and iterating on evidence and feedback measured throughout. After initially running a pilot with a restricted amount of users, rollout can be extended to include more users as confidence builds in what you have delivered, as any problems can be identified and addressed through feedback.

Dual-track agile should ensure that stories / user needs are not developed until the major questions and requirements are answered before development begins. Answers are provided ‘just in time’ for development which should mean less change during the sprint and more accurate estimates.

Benefits of dual-track agile

1. Continuous learning – qualitative and quantitative

While working on Book a Secure Move, the two tracks provided opportunities for both quantitative and qualitative feedback, in which metrics tie back to the vision of our service. 

During discovery we observed users’ behaviours to understand their motivations, while during delivery we collected feedback and data to understand what users were actually doing with our products. We used the two simultaneously to promote continuous learning throughout the process – helping stakeholders and the team make informed design decisions throughout the process.

2. Better outcomes, less waste

Due to the continuous learning throughout the process, our team was better equipped to respond to needs and requirements in each iteration. We could also be bolder when exploring ideas as the risk of delivering something that fails is greatly mitigated throughout the process, ensuring that we were only delivering high quality products to users. 

3. Better planning

Because of less change during the sprint, we found that it became easier to estimate velocity and therefore have a more accurate view of what can be delivered and when. Changes can then be defined closer to real time, rather than wasting time updating documentation for the future, which may never actually get delivered.

Challenges and how to overcome them

1. Resisting waterfall 

Due to the nature of having two parallel tracks, it’s easy for the process to devolve into ‘waterfall’, where people isolate themselves from the problem they are helping solve and users who will be benefiting from the solution. 

While working on Book a Secure Move, we brought the problems and experience to life for team members who couldn’t frequently attend research. I would often use story mapping in order to promote a shared understanding across the discovery and delivery tracks of the problems the team are working towards solving. Investing this time upfront helps save time in the long run by promoting a shared understanding within the team.

This encouraged team members to take ownership of problems, by empowering them to take part in shaping a solution. Research and design is a team sport – providing opportunities for team members to understand problems and users by involving them earlier in the process gives them a stake in the outcome. 

2. Tracks become siloed

Complex services can have multiple delivery tracks working on different streams of work. It’s important for team members across tracks to know what each other is doing and to collaborate where appropriate. 

The Book a Secure Move team would have regular demos across the tracks providing opportunities for team members to share what they are working on and the top level findings of what they have learned each sprint. 

Key team members in the team would also adopt the ‘helicopter role’ persona, in which they span tracks, traversing from high level overview, down to detailed solutions within the journey.

3. Conflict and creative tensions 

Often in any creative process, tension can arise within the team when agreeing what to do. Therefore it’s important to make sure that decisions can be made based on a strong understanding of users and their needs, along with the goals of the business. 

While working on Book a Secure Move, I would facilitate workshops in which team members would evaluate and appraise hypotheses for what we thought would happen against what we observed in research sessions along with behaviour in the live service. This helped the discovery team focus on evidence and find consensus on what should be delivered.

Conclusion

Dual-track agile is ideal for teams that are frustrated with releasing products and features that fail with users, or teams trying to deliver good products at pace. 

In utilising the dual-track agile methodology, we benefited from:

  • Continuous learning – through a wealth of learning opportunities through qualitative feedback and quantitative data to make evidence-based decisions
  • Better outcomes, less waste – through better understanding of our users we only delivered products that were desirable, viable and feasible, while also being bolder when exploring ideas
  • Better planning – with a more accurate view of what can be delivered and when, while no longer wasting time updating documentation for features that never actually get delivered

Talent Consulting’s agile mindset means we deliver more than just well managed projects. Get in touch to find out how we can help you build your next digital product.

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