Purposefully Scaling Agile in Your Organization

The US Army War College, in the uncertainty that developed at the end of the Cold War, came up with the idea of VUCA to describe environments that are volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. The term was co-opted by strategists and managers to describe the rapidly changing business environment, moving faster every day.

How can business leaders cope with VUCA? It takes visionary leadership, rapid response to change, flexibility, versatility, and resilience in other words, it’s not easy. However, integrating agile project management frameworks across departments can give your organization an edge in today’s dynamic business conditions.

How is agile different than traditional project management?

We are all familiar with traditional project management, sometimes called the “waterfall model” of project management. Projects (which are usually quite large) progress in a linear fashion. Changes are not typically welcome during the project they are seen as inhibitors to progress. This means projects are static and do not evolve as problems do. Traditional project management is also often quite bureaucratic, requiring lots of reviews and the need for buy-in from several levels of management.

Agile project management is the total opposite. Projects are broken down into smaller tasks and take twists and turns on their way to the finish line. Game-time changes are encouraged, and the project team reevaluates direction constantly. There are reviews after each iteration, not at every step, giving the project team more time to work on the project and less time striving for managerial approval.

One study, analyzing 3000 completed projects from 150 organizations around the world, found that agile methods are essentially better across the board: they lead to higher productivity, higher quality, lower project costs, and higher on-time completion. The author notes that “agile methods continue to provide their users with a competitive advantage.”

So, what is the secret sauce that provides these great results? It starts with agile’s underlying values. Agile was conceptualized in a 2001 manifesto with four main values:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

Having started in software development and IT, agile is most popular within those departments, but there are benefits to moving faster and having more flexibility across all departments in a business. Most businesses have not realized this benefit meaning that yours can be one of the first to apply agile methods outside of software development.

Applying 'Scrum' outside of software development

From the manifesto, many different manifestations of agile were conceptualized, the most popular of which being the Scrum model. Scrum is characterized by the use of self-governing teams and a specific pathway for getting projects done. Here’s how it works and how it might be applied in a department other than software development, like marketing:

  1. Teams come together to develop a list of ideas on ways to improve their company’s marketing from any angle – perhaps refreshing the organization’s value proposition, creating a new ad campaign, or designing a brand style guide.
  2. Teams prioritize the ideas based on how much value they’ll bring to the organization. Maybe team members have noticed a lack of consistency in brand messaging, so they put the new brand style guide at the top of the list since it will bring the most value. The remaining ideas are ranked from most valuable to least valuable. Remember the importance of flexibility in agile project management this prioritized list should be frequently re-evaluated to account for business changes.
  3. Take the highest priority idea (or ideas, depending on the size of the marketing department) and break down ideas into work cycles called “sprints.” For the brand style guide, there could be a sprint for articulating brand story, visual design (typography, color palette, imagery style), and brand voice.
  4. Break down the sprint into activities. For the visual design sprint, activities might include vetting different fonts, creating a mood board for imagery, and looking into accessibility and readability concerns for certain colors.
  5. Every day that a sprint is underway, hold daily “standup” meetings at the beginning of the work day. Go around in a circle and have everyone on the team say what they did yesterday, what they plan to accomplish today, and what is holding them back from making more progress. The goal is to help the team review progress, adjust their plans, and self-organize.
  6. Activity progress is tracked on a “Kanban Board,” a special kind of workflow visualization tool. Tasks start in the left-hand column of the board and move right as they approach completion. This allows team members to visualize progress and see if reprioritization is needed. On the marketing Kanban Board, team members see that the brand voice activity is almost complete, but the brand story activity is just getting started maybe some team members should be taken off brand voice and reassigned to the brand story activity so the scrum’s activities are completed in tandem.

Once the sprint is complete, team members evaluate the sprint’s outcome and discuss ways to improve in the future. They look for ways to increase speed and quality in the next sprint. Maybe the team working on the visual design activity took too long to finish because the graphic design team was occupied working on other tasks. The marketing team can take away from this that, in the future, when planning activities that need cross-functional support, they should take into account the workstreams of their cross-functional helpers so progress is not stunted.

The Role of Purpose in Scaling Agile

If you decide to implement agile project management, you’ll be in good company. Many organizations use it for software development, and it is becoming more popular to use in other departments according to HBR, John Deere uses it in R&D, NPR uses it to create new programming, and Spotify uses it in every department.

However, there are some precursors necessary to make agile both successful and scalable in your organization, and even after it is implemented, it still is not perfect. Luckily, a sense of work purpose can help meet these prerequisites and overcome some of the negative effects of agile methodology.

First, you need to get buy-in from all levels of management into the agile values. Without this buy-in, the implementation will fall apart because it will not come across as serious by your employees. If all your employees and management can clearly articulate their individual work purpose and understand how agile can help them reach it, there will be a much higher chance of getting buy-in.

In an article for Inc., startup veteran and proponent of purposeful organizations Adam Fridman notes that agile methodology means more time and commitment from team members. Increased devotion to the workplace can take a toll on energy levels. Thankfully, a study in the International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health found that setting a work purpose helps employees stay energized throughout the day. Additionally, our own proprietary Kumanu data found that people with a high sense of purpose have 34% more energy than people who have a low sense of purpose.

Mirroring the VUCA business environment it helps combat, the agile project management environment is also constantly changing as ideas are reprioritized and activity teams change. Purpose can serve as a guiding star for team members to reach toward. While the path to get to the end result may be jagged and less predictable because of agile methodology, purpose will remind employees what matters most to them at work and point them in the right direction.

Taking a step back, no matter what shiny, new management techniques you use, it is ultimately for naught if you can not connect with your employees on a fundamental, human level. The most efficient project management techniques will fail if they’re imposed by a robotic and rigid boss. Only by connecting authentically with a higher work purpose can organizations cut through the clutter and flux of today’s business environment. Purpose doesn’t only serve as a catalyst that helps agile methodology be more scalable and successfully implemented; it also empowers employees to bring their whole selves to work and connect with each other and their work in an authentic way.

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