Like it or not, you’re working in an agile world
For some, agile might seem like a scary and complicated way of working, for others it’s a new set of terms and principles to learn. Still others might see it as an annoying buzzword.
If it’s not executed well all of these things can be true.
And yet… if you’re working in government today you will be increasingly required to understand agile ways of working, thinking and organising. At ThinkPlace we have not only led successful agile transformations across many sectors we’ve also created and provided high-level training for hundreds of public sector leaders in how to do it.
Working in an agile way doesn’t have to be a huge disruption. But it does require you to learn a few new ways of approaching challenges. Partnering with a trusted expert can make that transition much smoother, ensuring you are soon reaping the benefits of a more efficient, more responsive way of creating change. In the meantime, we’ve prepared a bit of a primer to get you started.
Understanding these terms won’t be enough for you to run a perfect agile process. But it will help you understand why some of these roles and rituals exist and why you might want to begin or progress your journey towards embedding them in how you and your organisation work.
What is agile?
Agile emerged in 2001, when a group of software designers decided they needed a better way of managing projects in a fast-changing world. Off the back of the concept that no plan survives first contact with implementation, the Agile Manifesto was born. This approach values individuals and interactions over processes and tools and prioritises responding to change over merely following a plan.
The Agile signatories argued traditional (or waterfall) processes exposed clients to unnecessary risk of product failure. This is because they hierarchically created an often-untested design and then charged others with building it, requiring slavish adherence to a pre-determined intended outcome. The product was then launched upon the world and either succeeded or - more often - failed because of weaknesses that could easily have been identified and fixed if the process allowed for it.
Agile was about rewriting the rules of project management so that the people delivering the project had much more flexibility to adapt as conditions shifted, assumptions were proven incorrect and expectations moved. It is also an attempt to hardwire a more collaborative, more open and more transparent process which was much more conducive to human centered and co-design principles.
How do agile teams work?
An agile team generally contains a mix of skills and experience. It’s often said that the team should contain all of the necessary capabilities to design and create the intended output (so that team members are working constantly on the project and not across multiple business streams).
While we support the idea of a broad skill base we like to blend traditional agile with a co-design mindset. Each team in an agile business transformation needs to accumulate a range of technical abilities, commissioning authority, design facilitation and - importantly - lived experience of the system and the potential change.
Once formed, agile teams stay closely aligned to the core task. They meet regularly, have ongoing connectivity and 360 degree visibility and have an agreed investment in the scrum - a shared system of rituals and processes - and the roadmap, a schedule for how the overall project will be divided up, timetabled and executed.
Scrums and agile feature a number of specific roles, each with particular responsibilities for ensuring the process runs smoothly and productively.
Each team features a product owner, the person responsible for ensuring the process sticks to agreed objectives and deadlines. Their job is to be an ambassador for the overall organisation, the desired outcome and key stakeholder interests.
The scrum master has a different job. They are a conduit between the product owner and the rest of the team. Scrum masters add to and manage the rolling backlog of outstanding work, assigning team members and resources to progress specific tasks. They also provide transparency and visibility by coordinating sprints (how future work is organised) and retros (how progress is reviewed).
The rest of the team members work on specific allocated tasks in a highly-flexible and collaborative way. Team members are encouraged to combine and recombine in different ways so that teams do not become stale and predictable in the way they divide up tasks.
Sprints are not just about going fast, they are how we break up and ‘chunk’ work in an agile transformation process. First we break the overall task into definable goals. A team takes on a goal on behalf of the product owner and sets a defined time (sometimes called a timebox) to complete a design that answers the challenge. Each sprint should be based around a goal that is specific, realistic and measurable. A sprint generally lasts 2-4 weeks. Sprints keep teams focused and on task driving real outcomes at the end of each period.
Retros (or retrospectives) are opportunities built into each sprint for team members to gather, assess progress, identify blockers or other issues, identify things that are working well or not working well and clarify any misunderstandings or imperfect understandings. They are a cornerstone of the agile commitment to open communication and absolute transparency of operations. They keep everybody on the same page.
At prearranged times in the sprint, usually at the end, the team presents back progress in meetings known as showcases for relevant stakeholders either external or internal). This allows those who need it to have an ongoing sense of how the project is tracking and how execution of the original objective is course correcting and changing to maximise the chance of success. It’s a great opportunity to share the bigger picture and keep the sprint outputs in context of what the teams are setting out to achieve.
These are just some of the ideas that you’ll be exposed to as you work your way through an agile transformation process. If you’d like to get a clearer understanding of how such a process can help guide your specific project or organisation please click here to arrange a time to chat.