June 29, 2018 Focus area: Digital Transformation, Scaling Agile

Agile for non-tech teams

The Agile methodology was originally created for (software) development teams. It was developed to encourage development teams to work better, deliver faster with higher quality in complex and dynamic environments. A lot has been said and written about the successful adaptation of Agile within the technical (and product) development domain. However, this methodology can also be beneficial for teams that don’t work in a technical environment. There are examples of non-tech teams successfully adopting an Agile mindset (1). These teams have found that employing an Agile mindset and using Agile practices helps their teams get more done, make their customers happier, and make their teams more collaborative. Nonetheless, we often see non-tech teams that don’t develop products struggle with applying the Agile methodology. Let’s take a look how these teams can apply an Agile mindset without getting stuck and bogged down by ceremony and bureaucracy.

 

What is Agile?

When people talk about working Agile, they generally refer to the Scrum and Kanban methods that are widely used in organizations. It is a misunderstanding to think that applying one or more of these techniques makes an organization Agile by definition. If you and your team want to adopt an Agile mindset, look at the values of the Agile manifesto and see how they can be interpreted for your team.

1.         Individuals and interactions over processes and tools. Get people to talk to each other about what they are doing.

2.         Working solutions over comprehensive documentation. Deliver real value to your customers instead of documenting how you are going to deliver value.

3.         Customer collaboration over contract negotiation. Involve your customer in your processes and share your performance. Keep checking if they are happy with the end result.

4.         Responding to change over following a plan. Be flexible! Things change, deal with it.


4 ways to adopt Agile in non-tech teams

Many tech- and development teams follow the practices of an Agile method like Scrum or SAFe closely. It can be difficult to successfully apply these methods in teams that are not developing new products. However, an Agile mindset can also be applied to non-tech teams to help them satisfy the needs of the customer, responding to change and deliver faster. Let’s take a look at how non-tech teams can employ some of the Agile practices effectively.

1.         Start working in sprints

A sprint is a predetermined timeframe within which the team completes sets of tasks. The length of time depends on the needs of the team, but 2 to 4 weeks is pretty typical. Choose a set period of time and set clear goals on what you want to achieve with the team. Allow the team to determine how to get there. Use the sprint to focus on getting that result. Working in sprints forces the team to break down complex problems down to smaller chunks so they can deliver them in the set timeframe. If you introduce Retrospectives at the end of each sprint the team can reflect on their way of working and continuously become better in what they do. With a Retrospective the whole team comes together, openly discusses the past sprint and looks for ways for improvement. This can include teamwork, tools and processes. This creates transparency and trust.

2. Self-organize in multidisciplinary teams

Self-organization is a core practice within the Agile methodology, it requires the team to actively experiment, learn from failures and continuously adapt. And if done correctly, it can lead to motivated people because they gain mastery, autonomy and purpose. This in turn will drive productivity.

Self-organizing teams also requires that its members are multi skilled. If a team is too specialized it will eventually be confronted with problems: The team cannot cope with the sudden unavailability of team members, specialists become overburdened and the team is unlikely to share knowledge and responsibilities. Therefore, invest in knowledge sharing so the team can ensure the continuity of knowledge and share work to one team member to another.

3.         Set clear goals and objectives

Every team needs a common goal, otherwise it becomes a group of individuals with their own agenda. Setting clear goals and objectives is important because they bring people together and encourage them to communicate problems and results. Make sure the team understands the goals and objectives and regularly track the progress on the goals together with the team. One easy way to set clear goals is to set milestones for the team, these are practical team goals. Share these results with your stakeholders and customers so they stay involved with how you are doing.

4.         Choose how to do the work

When people think of Agile, they often think of Scrum. However, not all activities are meant to be picked up in an iterative way. For example, it can feel forced if a Backoffice team tries to prioritize their daily operational activities and commit to them in a 2-week sprint. Operational work doesn’t translate to backlogs and poker planning sessions and it is hard to do these kinds of things in an iterative way.

If the work is predictable and repetitive and teams have a standard process flow from start to finish, the team can use Kanban to visualize the work and limit their work in progress (WIP). Setting WIP limits helps the team focus on the tasks at hand and make sure they don’t pick up more work than they can handle. Use the Retrospectives in the sprint to let the team reflect on their day-to-day activities of the last sprint and work with the team on a way to improve this.

If the team is doing work on projects or solutions where they are not sure what the end result is going to be, then the team can tackle these problems using a more iterative approach like Scrum. With the Scrum method the team can prioritize the projects and use the sprint to commit to work on the projects in short sprints of work.


Conclusion

Adopting an Agile mindset can be very beneficial for teams that are not working in (software) product development. It helps them to satisfy the needs of the customer, responding to change and working faster.

If you want teams to adopt an Agile mindset, get people to self-organize and talk to each other about what they are doing. Set clear team goals and objectives so that the team has a common understanding of what the end result should be. Start working in sprints and look back after each sprint to see how the team can improve. And don’t try to do everything in Scrum teams. If the work is repetitive and predictable it is better to use Kanban to visualize the work.

I understand that these practices are not always easy to implement. But just take it one step at a time. Use Agile to start using Agile and don’t get bogged down by ceremony and bureaucracy. Understand the values behind the Agile methodology and use these values to adopt an Agile mindset in your team.