One of the things we hear about a lot from charities now is how they’re working in a more agile way. Usually it’s from stories about how digital departments in charities like Cancer Research have used agile software development methodologies to be much more responsive with campaigns.
This is all well and good. In fact, very good. But I believe agile could also be doing a lot more to bring about the widespread business transformation that digital departments say they want to achieve.
For one thing, it can really break down barriers. Digital leads often complain that true transformation in their charities is not possible because they are hindered by an age-old culture of silos. Yet agile methodology is a way that digital can now take responsibility for its own destiny and start to change this culture organisation-wide. Agile, by its very nature, is an alternative to traditional project management that brings job functions together with more focus and purpose. It empowers people across the organisation to collaborate, make team decisions and develop everything from the customer’s point of view.
As we’ve seen through other research in recent years, it’s very interesting to see how even the most traditional-thinking staff from all parts of charities react when they start to take this agile philosophy on board. Suddenly they start to think in a much more integrated and flexible way. They gather user stories. They do user acceptance testing. And most interestingly of all they do all this even though it isn’t an official part of their job, which is exactly the kind of engagement that digital departments are trying to achieve when they talk about transformation.
There are many other ways digital can encourage the wider organisation towards change through agile. In the past charities have been guilty of allowing programmes that are delivering very little value to run on for years. This is often because those initiatives were a big investment and the donor money that was poured in needs to be justified somehow. Agile thinking can save money and put a stop to that practice by demonstrating that it’s good to kill ineffective products, because with agile you’re only thinking of the customer and what works.
Having said all this, agile is not the answer to everything. Digital departments do need to be careful about the way it is implemented and manage the culture-change in partnership with HR to get the most benefit out of it. Most of all, they need to be careful about how they communicate it to the various audiences they need to influence. Finance departments, for example, can be wary of agile development because with no set ‘beginning and end’ to a project it can seem very difficult to budget for. In fact, agile is in danger of becoming a maligned buzzword in financial circles.
\The best advice for overcoming this kind of perception is to always keep your objectives clear and consistent. As we’ve discussed, agile is all about evolution and collaborative experimentation. That’s fine, but if you make the mistake of also evolving your ultimate objectives in the process, it can be a recipe for financial disaster and a complete loss of control over spend. In other words – always keep your eye on the main business goal, and don’t let people get carried away with experimenting just for the sake of it.
John Simcock is director of charities and third sector at Eduserv, a not-for-profit provider of IT, digital and web development services