Ask the Agile Pros: Help! Is Agile Only for Software Teams?

Hey Agile Pros— 

We’ve been hearing a lot about Agile in the news, and it sounds like it could solve a lot of the problems our organization is facing right now. However, all of the advice about Agile is for software development teams. Can we be Agile if we’re not a software group?

Sincerely,
Definitely Not a Computer Geek 

Well, Not a Computer Geek, you’re in luck! Agile might have been started by software developers, but the principles behind it can definitely be used to help non tech teams!

The “Agile movement” as we know it today was created by a group of 17 software developers in 2001 to help with issues in their industry. They were frustrated by the way software was being built — at the time it could take decades to launch a single product because, to grossly oversimplify, planning and documentation were deemed more important than actually building a product. These developers were looking for a way to make the process of software development something that could adapt to change more easily, thus making it possible to build higher quality products more quickly.

So, this group of developers went on a retreat to Snowbird, Utah, and wrote “The Agile Manifesto” where they laid out the values they thought most important for a better way to make software. (Yes, the buzzword that plagues your business meetings comes from a ski trip a bunch of computer nerds took. Sorry.)

It’s almost a universal truth that getting a bunch of dudes together to write a “Manifesto” will have a problematic outcome. Fortunately in this case, the main problems are just that they chose a name that makes it hard to communicate what they’re really talking about and they didn’t originally see the application of their principles to industries other than their own.

At its core, Agile is all about integrating feedback and rapid iteration into your workflow, and that can (and should!) be done in so many areas beside software development. When looked at from the highest level, Agile is simply a way about thinking about how we do work. If you’re in an environment where you work together with other people, you can absolutely use Agile to make your work better. Any process or team can become more Agile, and probably more effective, simply by asking how can we get feedback from the right people and then using that feedback to adjust your priorities for future work.

Now, there are specific Agile practices, such as “pair programming” or “test-driven development”, that really don’t apply outside of software development. However, every industry will have things it does that don’t directly apply to another industry.

Agile Outside of Software Development

As an example, our nonprofit, The New Bohemian Innovation Collaborative (NewBoCo), runs on Agile. While we do a lot of tech education work and even have a few software developers building products for startups on staff, the majority of our work isn’t technical at all. Most of us have no background in software whatsoever! We use Agile principles, however, because we have ambitious goals, and it helps us focus our work to make those goals become a reality.

Agile actually works really well in nonprofits because most nonprofits are mission oriented. This means that all the employees are working toward a common goal, and they know very clearly what that goal is. There are a lot of ways a nonprofit could use Agile to make their work toward this common goal more effective. For example, at NewBoCo we:

  • Break down what is needed to make our mission a reality into small, manageable tasks.
  • Prioritize those tasks by what will add the most value.
  • Make those tasks visible to all team members by having quick, daily meetings about progress and display tasks where all team members can view them (either physically or digitally).
  • Get feedback from key stakeholders and employees frequently and consistently. For us, this means doing retro meetings both with our staff and outside partners regularly where we very candidly discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly about what we’re doing.
  • Adjust our work based on the feedback we receive and metrics we track before small problems turn into big catastrophes or good ideas turn into missed opportunities.

Any group that’s united around a common, ambitious goal can benefit from using these Agile principles. This means Agile actually works really well in most nonprofits because nonprofits are mission oriented. Of course, nonprofits aren’t the only organizations that have clear missions.

For example, we teach Agile to all of the startups in NewBoCo’s flagship program, the Iowa Startup Accelerator. These startups might not have a clear mission statement yet, but they do have a common goal uniting their team: survival. We help our startups use Agile practices to figure out what their product should be and how and who they should sell it to. And how to not run their business into the ground while doing so. They don’t have to be building software for Agile to make a significant impact on their survival.

We’ve even used Agile principles to make a difference in education! In June of 2017, we partnered with Iowa BIG, an innovative, initiative-based high school, to host AgileEDU — a two-day professional development conference for educators and educational policy advocates where they explored:

  • Letting students self-organize their learning
  • Using visual accountability structures
  • Immersing students in reflective feedback
  • The lessons learned from other schools and districts around the world that have integrated Agile

After all, students and teachers (and parents!) are all working toward the same goal: helping students learn. Organizations like Agile Classrooms have found that adding Agile into education not only makes learning more fun, but that it also enriches and deepens a student’s learning.

Quite simply, if you have a group of people working toward a common goal, Agile can help get you there. You don’t have to be a nonprofit, a startup, a school, and most definitely not a software development team to use Agile principles to make your work better and more effective. The main ideas behind Agile existed long before those 17 software developers took that fateful ski trip. While software developers were the ones to popularize this movement, given that a guiding principle behind Agile is iteration, it’s time to move past thinking it’s just for dev teams.

Sincerly,
The Agile Pros


If your business, software team or not, is ready to learn more about how you can use Agile to your competitive advantage, we’re here to help. You can shoot our Agile Coach, Nate Adams, an email at nate@newbo.co or join us for a tour to learn more.