Four ways to adopt agile working in non-technology environments

30 August 2018 6 min. read
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Agile working is rapidly gaining popularity across Europe. The innovative way of working enables organisations to work more effectively, anticipate changing trends more quickly, and enhance the business-IT alignment, while giving employees more autonomy in their work. Agile is proliferating in the tech environment, and gradually the methodology’s uptake is also gaining ground in non-tech environments. Tim Horsthuis, a Consultant at BlinkLane Consulting, reflects on how non-tech teams can best go about adopting agile working. 

The Agile manifesto 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. 

To date, a lot has been said and written about the successful adaptation of agile within the technical (and product) development domain. However, agile can also be beneficial for teams that don’t work in a technical environment. There are dozens of examples of non-tech teams successfully adopting an agile mindset. These teams have found that employing an agile mindset and using agile practices helps their teams get more done, make their customers happier, and makes their teams more collaborative. Nonetheless, practice shows that despite all the knowledge, methods (Scrum, SAFe, etc) and expertise around, non-tech teams struggle with applying the agile way of working. 

Four ways to adopt agile in non-tech teams 

1. Set clear goals and objectives
Every team needs a common goal, otherwise a team risks becoming 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 a team understands the goals and objectives and regularly tracks progress on goals. One easy way to set clear goals is to set milestones for the team, these are practical team goals. Share these results with stakeholders and customers so they stay involved with developments.

Four ways to adopt agile in non-tech teams

2. 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 most common. Choose a set period of time and set clear goals on what a team aims to achieve. 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 to smaller chunks so they can deliver them in the set timeframe. Introducing Retrospectives at the end of each sprint allows a team to reflect on their way of working, enabling them to 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 – creating transparency and trust. This can include teamwork, tools and processes.

3. Self-organise in multidisciplinary teams
Self-organisation is a core practice within the agile way of working. In self-organisation the strategy and objectives of the organisation are translated to goals on a team-level. The team can decide for themselves how to reach this goal. It requires the team to make their own decisions, 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-organising teams also require that its members are multi-skilled. If team members are too specialised they will eventually be confronted with obstacles: 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 from one team member to another.

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 prioritise 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 perform such activities in an iterative way.

“Adopting an agile mindset can be very beneficial for teams that are not working in (software) product development.”

If the work is predictable and repetitive and teams have a standard process flow from start to finish, the team can use Kanban to visualise the work and limit their work in progress (WIP). Setting WIP limits helps the team focus on the tasks at hand and makes 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 prioritise the projects and use the sprint to commit to work on the projects in short sprints of work. 

An agile mindset

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. For teams to adopt an agile mindset, get people to self-organise 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 visualise the work. Lastly, don’t get bogged down by ceremony and bureaucracy of agile working, take one step at a time. 

Related: Integral approach and embedding change are key for agile success.