Here is a way you might build a IT system: The users tell you what they want, and you build what they asked for. Sometimes you get it right, especially if you have good communication with end users and an iterative approach. Sometimes you get it wrong, especially if you have no communication with end users and a year-long waterfall project.
Here’s another way to build an IT system: You observe the users and figure out what they need.
Steve Jobs had it right when he famously said “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” For those of us without Steve’s almost infallible intuition about what people want, actually watching users will provide much more information and give you a much higher chance of building something that actually helps real users.
The U.S. Department of Defence has long been fighting a valiant rear-guard action in defense of Waterfall project methodologies. However, the times they are a-changing.
A colleague just pointed out the revolution hidden in section 804 of the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010:
SEC. 804. IMPLEMENTATION OF NEW ACQUISITION PROCESS FOR INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY SYSTEMS. (a) NEW ACQUISITION PROCESS REQUIRED
The Secretary of Defense shall develop and implement a new acquisition process for information technology systems….
(2) be designed to include—
(A) early and continual involvement of the user;
(B) multiple, rapidly executed increments or releases of capability;
(C) early, successive prototyping to support an evolutionary approach; and
(D) a modular, open-systems approach.
That sounds a lot like agile to me. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in real life once U.S. government eventually starts working again.