Bridging the Gap: Adapting Agile Product Management for National Defence

A look at the challenges and opportunities with using Agile software practices when partnering with National Defence.
Tanya Sam
Tanya Sam
August 11th, 2023

At Harled, we take immense pride in our team's mission to create solutions that make a meaningful impact in the world. Our collaboration with Canada's Department of National Defence revolves around crafting a suite of products that bring significant value to the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). This includes our standout initiative, Dispatch - an operational tool that streamlines the workflows of Air Crew. We also develop products that foster collaboration and innovation within the RCAF by improving communication and empowering change.

In the new Harled Product Blog series, we're diving into the intricate process of applying product management principles in a non-traditional setting, with a special focus on our unique partnership with the Royal Canadian Air Force. This first edition examines our journey with agile.

Understanding the Defence Landscape

In the world of national defence, we're up against a culture and practice that is known for bureaucracy, regulations and a preference for conventional, waterfall practices. In aircraft procurement, for example, the standard approach involves long term planning, hefty budgets and patient, cautious observation – iteration is not the norm. As a result, projects in this governmental context bring a unique set of challenges that truly set them apart from civilian endeavours. Decision-making is shaped by boundaries and hierarchical structures, and the environment tends to have a limited emphasis on technology. With these factors in the mix, the result is an environment where adaptability and responsiveness aren't just nice-to-haves; they're absolute necessities.

This is where agile product management steps into the spotlight and disrupts the status quo. The core principles of agile include flexibility, iterative development, and a strong focus on customer needs and manifest as methodologies like Scrum and Kanban for the software development lifecycle. This approach enables organizations to be more responsive to customer feedback, prioritize features effectively, and create products that align with evolving customer needs. This fits well into an organization like the military where the environment is dynamic and mission-critical and requires a deep, empathetic understanding of user needs.

Implementing Agile in Defence

Our journey to agility has been a dynamic one, marked by experimentation and continuous improvement to better manage our entire product development process. Delivering value to the Royal Canadian Air Force is our team's daily mission and we needed to find the right structure to do that effectively.

We initiated our Agile journey with a Kanban approach, which helped us visualize our workflow and manage tasks effectively day-to-day. However, as we dove deeper into the complex landscape of our clients' needs, we realized the need for a more holistic and structured approach that could handle multiple initiatives in parallel while maintaining agility and shifted to using Scrum.

Our team began using sprints for work management. Sprints are time-bound work cycles that provide a focused approach to product development. In our case, they last for two weeks and play a crucial role in our mission. Here's why we adopted sprinting:

  1. Predictable Delivery: Sprints enable us to break down large tasks into smaller, estimable increments, creating a more predictable and sustainable approach to delivering value. This predictability is vital in an environment where mission-critical demands require adherence to timelines.
  2. Enhanced Alignment: Sprints ensure that our Product and Development teams are closely aligned on what needs to be worked on and why. This alignment is crucial for building a shared sense of goals and empathy for users, to deliver top tier work.
  3. Accountability: By committing to delivering specific features within a sprint, we hold ourselves accountable to meeting deadlines. This accountability fosters a culture of responsibility and excellence.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

Navigating Uncertainty

One of the significant challenges we've encountered in software development for non-traditional settings is dealing with uncertainty. Non-traditional environments that lack existing software solutions have no blueprint to follow, making the unexpected a constant companion. However, we've found that the iterative nature of agile methodologies provides us with a valuable compass in uncharted territory. Our team learns new information about the vast domain we serve through every single sprint. We break projects into bite-sized, manageable chunks for each sprint, learning how our users interact with them quickly.

One of the major workflows we've modernized through Dispatch is mission planning, previously a heavily manual process. Today, over 56,000 missions have been effectively orchestrated and executed using modern technology. Mission planning itself is a complex logistical process involving various actions and approvals required across different RCAF roles. Furthermore, units and wings across Canada vary in how this process is done. Therefore, to create a solution that works for everyone, we release and iterate based on what we learn. This empirical, which is at the core of scrum, allows us to deliver within two weeks, get quick feedback, and plan updates for the next cycle. Agile helps us stay adaptable and responsive to evolving user needs and requirements.

To keep our team in sync and our process optimized, we conduct traditional scrum meetings, including sprint retrospectives. These retrospectives go beyond story points, and help us dive into our domain learnings and how our solutions directly impact RCAF users.

Building Effective Communication

Explaining our sprint structure and release cycle to our users initially presented some challenges, mainly due to the varying levels of familiarity with technology and software development processes that exist. As Dispatch gained widespread adoption across the RCAF since its inception, we've naturally received an influx of user feedback from different communities. This growth came with numerous feature requests along with a certain degree of confusion about our development process. To address this, we took action to integrate a robust product marketing and user support framework directly into our sprints. This translated to clear sprint release announcements and informative campaigns that not only outlined what we were delivering but also provided insights into why we were doing it and how our iterative cycles operated. Embracing agile through our sprint structure has given us clear timelines for delivering work and has greatly improved our transparency and accountability with our users. The positive response from RCAF members we've received since our new process began confirms that we're on the right track!


Despite our spotlight on the unique complexities of agile software product development in defence, our partnership with the RCAF has taught us that there is certainly a common thread between building impactful software and orchestrating a military operation: they both require meticulous planning, coordination, and execution to optimize predictability and minimize risk. By embracing agile, we've been able to support critical missions through a spirit of adaptability and iteration.

Stay tuned for more insights in our Harled Product Blog series, as we continue to explore our approach to product management in the defence sector.

Interested in joining a mission-driven team committed to improving Canada? If so, please take a moment to look at our open positions!.

About the author

Tanya Sam

Tanya is the Head of Product for Harled and leads offering management, product management and design.