4 characteristics of being truly “Agile”

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Agile is a well-established way of working in some organisations, yet still very novel within others. 

This article offers a few thoughts on what you can do to be more agile and raises some questions which will help reveal deeper considerations.

Collaborative teamwork

Agile ways of working are reliant on effective teamwork. Teams which are happy to challenge, support, question and hold each other to account are built on an ability to have open and honest conversations about their own performance and a purposeful desire to improve. This clearly requires a particular style of working and demands that those in a leadership position encourage, support and role model accordingly. Teams are empowered to make the necessary decisions to get things done. The absence of numerous layers of hierarchy prevents an otherwise familiar slowing-down in team momentum as decisions are awaited. 

To help create this way of working team members engage in regular contact (physically and/or virtually). This high-relationship way of working enables rich discussion for creativity, problem-solving and deepening understanding; elements needed for the team to deliver something which is genuinely useful to the target audience. Agile teams are typically small in number and multi-skilled; encouraging a depth and intensity to team relationship.

How would I describe the functioning of my team? What’s holding us back? If I could make one change to improve team working, what would it be? 

Prioritise…and make decisions!

Many organisations suffer from biting off more than they can chew. Bottlenecks in resource availability and an expanding number of initiatives further compound the problem of knowing what we should be working on right now and why. Sometimes less is more. Prioritising what an organisation, division or team ought to be focussing on is crucial. Criteria such as reducing risk, regulatory necessity, strategic need and/or value to client/customer/users can all play a part when figuring out what’s most pressing. This demands decisions which enable focus on what’s most important. The clarity which then comes is refreshing; team members understand what they need to be focussing on and why it’s important. Likewise, leaders understand what is ‘in play’ and how it will contribute.

Am I spinning too many plates? Realistically, what proportion of current commitments are actually achievable? What needs starting, continuing or stopping?

Work in short cycles

Many agile approaches advocate working in fixed blocks of time (known as sprints or timeboxes). These are purposely kept short (e.g. a couple of weeks) as things change and ideas emerge; planning in detail too far ahead can be wasteful. By working in short cycles, the team benefits from regular feedback given by the target audience. The team presents what they’ve achieved and require honest responses. This frequent and ‘built-in’ feedback loop serves to inform all those involved and steers the development of any further work. This loop, often known as the Deming cycle (plan, do, check, act), enables a solution to ‘evolve’ over time until something sufficiently useful or useable emerges. By working in this way we can get things out to our target audience quickly and potentially with further and regular improvements and additions from that point onward.

Do we have any initiatives which are currently considered ‘too big to fail?’ How frequently are we getting feedback from our target audience(s)? What would it be like to work in short cycles?

Be transparent

Let’s keep things simple. If an initiative isn’t going well then this needs to be surfaced and discussed. Agile practices promote a ‘warts and all' approach that invokes openness and authentic dialogue. Surely a worthwhile conversation is one in which we zero in on the things which need talking about! No gloss need be applied as it simply isn’t helpful. We need to get to the reality of what’s going on so we can quickly crystalise the decisions which need to be made. All of this demands transparency. As well as promoting particular behaviours, agile approaches embrace an array of tools tell the story of what’s going on in as simple and direct a way as possible. This is all about collaboration and ensuring nothing is hidden. Culturally this is very different than current working practices in some organisations where information and knowledge are utilised as tools of power. Opening things up and revealing the truth is an act of courage and soon invokes respect as people witness a preparedness to tell it as it is.

Is there a common understanding of the current state of play on your projects? Is information that would be useful to others currently being withheld? What can I do to help create a more open and transparent culture? Is there a single source of truth?


Authored by Miles Huckle, Managing Director, Annovista Ltd and USW facilitator in project and programme management.

This blog is part of the Change Maker series. The Change Maker programme is a series of blogs, podcasts and virtual learning sessions to help people and organisations to navigate through a time of unprecedented change. To find out how the Change Maker programme can help re-engage your teams, start the conversation with us or click here to find out more.