Exploring Parallel Development in the Context of Agile Acquisition

Analytical Support to the Air Superiority 2030 Enterprise Capability Collaboration Team

by Jeffrey A. Drezner, Michael Simpson

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Research Question

  1. Can a parallel development approach in an agile acquisition environment help more rapidly transition new technologies and concepts to the fleet?

In providing analytical support to the U.S. Air Force's Air Superiority 2030 Enterprise Capability Collaboration Team, RAND researchers explore how a parallel development approach in an agile acquisition environment can help more rapidly transition new technologies and concepts to the fleet. Parallel development is an approach that intentionally decouples the technological development and management of core elements of a weapon system — for example, decoupling the development of software architecture from applications that will run in that software environment. In this report, researchers identify five enablers of parallel development, and each enabler's underlying management actions, and draw lessons from ten historical development programs. The program review suggests that all five of the identified enablers must work together to successfully apply parallel development in an agile acquisition context. The framework presented is intended to be a first step in defining and understanding parallel development, and the authors offer next steps for further research.

Key Findings

Parallel Development Can Be Useful in an Agile Acquisition Context but Is Not Always the Appropriate Approach

  • Our review of historical program developments resulted in identifying five enablers of parallel development: effective assessment of technological risk and maturity; effective management of system integration risk; planned incremental approach to fielding capabilities; tight alignment of requirements, acquisition, and budget stakeholders; and strong contingency planning.
  • The single most important issue for successful parallel development is performing and acting on an honest assessment of technological risk and maturity. This requires an independent, unbiased assessment of that risk, including system integration risk. Only technologies that are mature and well understood should be incorporated into the design of new systems.
  • Parallel development is more successful when applied incrementally, focusing on introducing one major new subsystem at a time. A block upgrade strategy can enable this, focusing on an element of either a mission system or the platform, but not both in the same increment.
  • While parallel development allows increased focus on a narrower set of issues, it also increases the importance and risk of system integration. Because the decoupled subsystems are designed and developed separately, integration risk may increase.
  • Parallel development has the potential to reduce the time from technology development to the fielding of new capabilities, but it is not a panacea for the persistent acquisition challenges that affect complex system development. It must be carefully and wisely applied, and it may not always be an appropriate development approach.


  • To successfully apply parallel development in an agile acquisition environment, program planners must accurately assess technological risk and maturity in key subsystems, explicitly manage system integration, and fully understand technological risk. Furthermore, the roles and responsibilities of and within the government and contractor teams must be laid out, with particular emphasis on integration and test functions.
  • A successful parallel development approach requires all five of the identified enablers to be implemented. It is the synergistic effect of these enablers working together that leads to successful application of parallel development in any one case.
  • Future research efforts should review additional programs to identify other important enablers, such as open systems and open architectures; determine how many of the management actions enabling parallel development need to be present to ensure successful application; provide more depth to the analysis by diving deeper into the details of each program; and derive the characteristics of a program and environmental factors that define when a parallel development approach would be appropriate.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two

    Enablers of Parallel Development in an Agile Acquisition Environment

  • Chapter Three

    Implementation Considerations

  • Chapter Four


Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by the Director, Operational Capability Requirements, Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements, Headquarters U.S. Air Force and conducted by the Force Modernization and Employment Program within RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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