Thursday, 2 May 2019

Mythbusting "Agility"

Discussing agility in charities, especially larger, more traditional charities is tricky. My mind is a bit of a haze on this topic. It’s a sticky subject. 

Having just read that under one third of agile projects in charities are failing because the teams are too geographically dispersed, while 34% have failed because the teams didn't plan before getting started or didn't plan sufficiently as the project developed – doesn’t fill me with hope. 

Especially when you have more than half of Chief Information Officers in the UK thinking that the agile methodology is just a fad.

Agile Working or Agile Development Methodology?

I mean, what even, is agility? Conversations I’ve had about agility either focus on flexible, remote working or on a methodology that promotes iterative working. And most of them just focus on agility in the IT space, not on greater business transformation.

Non-Traditional Project Management

In light of these challenges, let’s pull the strands apart and examine more closely:
Charities, especially larger ones, struggle with working in silos. These are often age-old structures, derived from teams with particular remits that aren’t allowed or don’t want to work outside of their job. My work across different charities has led me to often hear “why is that team doing that, it’s not their job, it’s ours”. 

Agile, by its very nature, is an alternative to traditional project management that brings job functions together with more focus and purpose. It empowers people across the organisation to collaborate, make decisions and develop everything from the customer’s point of view.

Non-Traditional Budgeting

Budgeting becomes a challenge when all budgets are allocated to teams rather than to plans or programmes of work, which utilise virtual teams to achieve outcomes. Budgeting in this way reinforces the silos and it then becomes tricky to share resource. Budgeting in this way requires a different way of thinking and although I feel many senior leaders ‘get it’, there’s a real struggle to make it real, to make it happen. To bite the bullet. Reverting back to the way things have always been done, is safe. Agility requires a bit of risk taking.

Definitions are important

Perhaps it is important to define to the organisation the principles behind agility – what it looks like in practice – and what it is not. Agile is about evolution and collaborative experimentation. It’s about trust. When it is explained and communicated, tangible examples of how it works and how it could work in context should be provided. Every time. People need to see behind ‘the jargon curtain’ to a simple approach that works.
It’s also about user stories being at the centre of the adoption of agile. 

Nor is it "working from home" or working without structure...

I was recently speaking to a friend of mine in the civil service. I mentioned that people think agile working only means working from home rather than being in an office – and taking advantage of that fact! This example sits on the long list of reasons why it’s important to understand what agility means. Agility is not an unstructured project without a beginning and end. This notion, in fact, puts the term in danger of becoming a maligned buzzword in financial circles, because of the connotations that ‘make it seem very difficult to budget for’.  

My friend wisely replied to my statement by saying “agile isn’t flexible or unstructured. Agile in user centric.” He said that he feels charities are falling apart because they are not learning about their customers and iterating on their offer.

It's user-centred

Dan Sutch, director at CAST, highlights how agile can work well for charities:  “One thing that agile approaches really push is the focus on user-value (or user behaviour). Within the charity sector it is vital that this focus is pushed/reinforced as it’s so crucial to ensure their expertise is presented in ways that actually get used.” So if your charity supports vulnerable people, for instance, agile could be a useful way to put yourself in your audience’s shoes by understanding what they want and need.

Agile changes how people think and behave

It’s very interesting to see how even the most traditional-thinking staff from all parts of charities react when they start to take this agile philosophy on board. Suddenly they start to think in a much more integrated and flexible way. They gather user stories. They do user acceptance testing. And most interestingly of all they do all this even though it isn’t an official part of their job, which is exactly the kind of engagement that is required to achieving business transformation.

In the end it's about leadership

In all my research, I came across a brilliant quote from Jim Bowes, CEO of digital agency Manifesto. I think this sums up nicely what I have been trying to get at – but failing possibly to articulate. Jim does it really well: “In my experience it’s not any specific methodology that causes the success or failure of projects within charities – it’s much more likely to be whether a good vision has been set, that clearly relates to organisational goals and whether the right team is in place to realise the project.”

Haze dissipated.

Kirsten is a guest authour on the Tech For Good Hub, where this post was originally published.

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