Guest blog by Kirsten Naudé, Director of New Ventures, The Children’s Society
Talking about ‘Agile’ in charities is tricky. Especially larger, more traditional ones.
My mind is a bit of a haze on the topic. It’s a sticky subject. Having just read that under one third of agile projects in charities fail because the teams are too geographically dispersed. And that 34% fail through lack of planning – doesn’t fill me with hope.
Especially when more than half of Chief Information Officers in the UK think that agile is just a fad.
Agile Working or Agile Development Methodology?
I mean, what even is ‘agile’? Conversations I’ve had either focus on agile as a flexible approach to remote working or as a methodology that promotes user centredness and iterative service design. Many people also only consider agile’s impact on delivering better services. They don’t think about how it can drive a charity’s cultural transformation.
In light of these challenges, let’s look at what it’s definitely not:
Not traditional project management
Charities, especially larger ones, often work in silos. These are usually age-old structures, inherited from teams who lacked flexibility or willingness to work beyond their original remit. In my work I often hear variants of “Why is that team doing that? It’s our job, not theirs.”
Agile methods destroy silos. They bring job functions together with more focus and purpose. They empower people across an organisation to collaborate, make decisions and adopt more user centred practices.
Not traditional budgeting
Budgeting becomes a challenge when funds are allocated to teams rather than work programmes. This approach reinforces silo mentalities and discourages resource sharing. Even though many leaders understand this they struggle to make it real.
We need a different way of thinking and a different way of doing. That means being aware of the tendency to revert to the norm and a willingness to take risks.
Nor is it working from home or working without structure
I was speaking recently to a friend of mine in the civil service. I suggested that sometimes people think agile working means working from home rather than being in the office. That’s just one of a long list of reasons why we need to better understand what agile means.
Nor is it an unstructured project without clear processes and stages. This notion, in fact, puts the term in danger of becoming a maligned buzzword associated with disgruntled finance staff muttering ‘it seems very difficult to budget for’.
Its a user centred development methodology
My civil servant friend wisely replied “agile isn’t infinitely flexible or unstructured. Agile is user centric.” He believes charities are under-performing because they aren’t learning about their beneficiaries or iterating their services enough.
Dan Sutch, Director at CAST, explains further: “Agile approaches really push a focus on user value (or user behaviour). Within the charity sector this focus is a way to ensure that user needs and experiences are at the forefront of service delivery.”
For example, if your charity supports vulnerable people then agile methods will help you empathise more deeply with their wants and needs.
Agile methods change how people think and behave
It’s very interesting to see how even the most traditional thinking staff react when they start trying out agile methods. They think in a much more integrated and flexible way. They gather user stories. They do user testing. And most interestingly of all they do all this even though it isn’t usually a part of their job. They engage and enjoy it; exactly what’s required to achieve business transformation.
It’s not all about Agile
During my research, I came across a brilliant quote from Jim Bowes, CEO of digital agency Manifesto. It reminds us that new methods like Agile aren’t the biggest determinants of project success: “In my experience it’s not any specific methodology that causes the success or failure of charity projects. 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 deliver the project.”