Article: How to use Agile thinking in the whole organization

Sept. 19, 2011

Scrum and other agile methods are more and more popular in software development. By not having to focus on the future far away you are focusing on the near future and are able to change direction much quicker if you need. Can this thinking be used in other parts of the organization to more adapt to the volatile economy?

Software development projects in many organizations have changed a lot during the last years. A lot of the development projects used to use a Project Management Software that supported normal project management, also called Waterfall Model.

What was discovered during a lot of the projects run, though, was that the outcome was not always what was needed when the project was delivered. Another thing was that some projects went way out of budget and some weren’t even delivered since they became too expensive or were so delayed that they were no longer needed.

So, what is so good and different about the agile way of thinking?

The biggest difference between agile thinking and traditional thinking is that you mostly think about the near future. In an agile project you split the project into different phases, also called sprints. You know what you think that the outcome of the whole project will be from the beginning but you only focus on one sprint at a time. After every sprint you should be able to deliver something to the client. What is delivered is what the client thought was most important before the sprint.

Sprints can be a time frame that you decide on, usually between one and six weeks. What is important is that you should not disturb the team working in the sprint to be able to deliver something to you. So, if you want to see result demonstrations often you should opt for shorter sprints. However, it is also important to understand that there is an administrative overhead for every sprint, including preparation for demonstration of the result. This is also something that takes time so you should try to make them long enough not to have too much time taken for that.

With this background, can we find ways to use agile thinking in other parts of the organization?

In today’s volatile economy it is very important for organizations to be more flexible. This does not mean, however, that you need to be so flexible that you don’t need long term goals. You always have to know in what direction you are going, but it might be good to verify the goals during the management meetings to be able to do changes to them every now and then.

If we have a look in departments doing research projects, agile thinking is great. Imagine you want a small research done on what different activities you can do for a company event. You give the requirements, like 4 hours of conference for 50 people, 4 hours of dinner and combine the whole day with some fun activities. The person who should do this can then easily create a small project, possibly using the same Project Management Software as the development teams, and have short time goals to work against. You as a client will have a presentation on different alternatives to look forward to.

For larger research projects, this is of course even better since you are able to change focus over time and also terminate the project easier and still have had result outcome over time.
The IT department would benefit a lot from agile thinking. Imagine a project where you would centralize all servers for a large organization. This might be a 2-year project. If you have to think about everything before the two years there are much more efficient options after these 2 years.

By dividing the whole project into different areas, choosing to do the most important area first, you don’t have to plan for everything at once. After a few months you might actually realize that you are able to do some things totally different from what you would have thought otherwise.
Since the users will be able to see good changes over time this will also help promoting the project. If the company will need to save money during some time the project will still have delivered some result even though it might be paused for a while.

The examples above are just small examples on how to think “out of the box” in an agile way for different areas in the organization. Agile projects can this way be as small as 1 day to be able to support even the smallest projects. Of course you will not do all the activities that you do for a development team but you will still be able to benefit a lot from the agile thinking. Also, organizing the work in a Project Management Software will help you to look back on what has actually been done as well as supporting your activities during the project.