6 steps to agile outside of IT

Agile – it’s not just for IT anymore.

The technology arena is saturated with agile – particularly in software development with the maturity of Scrum and the lean method of Kanban. The momentum created by the successes of collaboration, transparency, and adaption in a technology group naturally seeps into the rest of the organization. It’s not uncommon to see leadership decide to take those same frameworks and apply them outside of technology to other divisions such as Business Intelligence, Marketing, and Creative Services. There are often some early successes, particularly in the beginning. But many non-technology teams experience challenges that are not answered through the application of the same frameworks that created the successes in technology.

I am a proponent of the popular frameworks and models. They provide safety in an agile transformation so we have a playbook to guide us through the labyrinth of change management. So why not just pick a framework and start with where you are at? Because to fully harvest the benefits of agile at a team level, it is best to start with fertile ground – create an agile environment.

In this blog, I take a practical look at six steps that help nurture and grow agile at a personal level (what you might describe as the agile mindset); a team level (including those pesky managers who don’t know what self-organizing teams will mean to their job); and an organizational level (how do we do more and how do we do it better.)

1. Create a vision

Define the business outcome you want to achieve, and then communicate it.

The first step in adopting agile is understanding why you should (or should not.)  It sounds elementary, but understanding – and communicating – why you want to adopt agile, and if it’s benefits are right for your organization, is often overlooked. It is starting to become an easier business case to sell Agile to a business sponsor with the budget to implement it. The numbers are clear: Agile projects are four times more likely to succeed. Version One’s State of Agile Report states “The top two reasons for adopting agile for the last three years has been to accelerate product delivery and enhance their ability to manage changing priorities.“

Taken at face value, these two statements can seem like conflicting ideals. Executed poorly, and teams get dragged into a swirl of fractured prioritization, pet projects, and unrealistic expectations. This exhibits in having an incredible amount of work started, but nothing finished.

At its core, establishing agile is a change management process. A structured approach combines a top-down message with bottom-up application. It requires a clear vision communicated by leadership and demonstrated through their personal collateral – communicating the vision can’t be delegated away.

2. Create a safe environment

To quote Joshua Kerievsky, who founded the Modern Agile movement, “safety is a prerequisite.” Kerievsky is talking about psychological safety. Without the foundation of trust and empowerment, processes fill in the white spaces where autonomy should live. Instead of starting with framework, tackle the big issues first.

Apply systems thinking to your organizational design to create scaleability.

Re-design your organization specifically to achieve your biggest business opportunity. Align leadership from all divisions on top objective is, then form a team to create it. Do you want to be able to complete marketing initiatives faster than ever before? Create a cross-functional team who has all the skills needed to succeed, regardless of the impact to all the other projects in the shop. If the leadership has determined they are working on the most important opportunity opportunity, show the team. Give them the environment they need to succeed, and then support them by letting them finish what they started.

Even the C-Suite needs to be told “not yet.”

Once that objective has been accomplished, and everyone has celebrated the success, scale to the next most important, and then the next. If you find you don’t have the right people – empower management to solve for that issue so that you can scale, and then sustain the results.

3. Create sustainable results

Apply Lean Thinking at the management level to create sustainable results.

Agile promotes working at a sustainable pace. Even in non-IT teams! Yes, in my experience, this can be done, even with creative delivery and fixed deadlines. It requires an investment in people, process and technology. Managers of any agile team should concentrate on removing impediments at the team level. Support the team by helping to limit the amount of work in progress. Ensure they have the right tools and training, and the right people on the team to create the synergy required to succeed.

  • Don’t be stingy with training, technology and tools. A business intelligence team may need an investment in a visualization tool so they can prototype a shared understanding of a dashboard before they spend 6-8 weeks developing it.
  • Ruthlessly mitigate dependencies. A marketing team may need an in-house copywriter so they don’t have dependencies on an outside firm . How can you hold any team accountable for delivery with dependencies they can’t control?
  • Give your team time and space for innovative. Creative talent such as graphic art or web development may need training, inspiration through conferences, and flexible hours in order to efficiently produce the ideas they are imagining. Innovation doesn’t occur just between 9 and 5.

4. Create business agility

Apply agile frameworks at the team level to adapt to change.

Executing any agile or lean model will immediately highlight the ongoing balancing act between responding to change and committing to delivery. Many specialty teams outside of IT serve multiple customers and the nature of their work emphasizes multiple creative iterations. Consider these scenarios:

  • A Business Intelligence team struggles to get items completed in the constraint of the short time boxes prescribed in Scrum. Their work is iterative and sequential. There is evidence in business today that there are issues with general maturity in understanding data sciences. Essentially, data customers don’t know what their data can tell them, and it takes several drafts to lead them to a decision.
  • A Marketing Team iterates on an ad. Their work is highly subjective and needs to be tested before advertising investments are made. Customers are fickle; changes are subjective and deadline-oriented, so iterations may be forced to be very rapid.
  • A Graphic Artist delivers several drafts of a design to the Product Manager, but in the end none of them are used, and he doesn’t know why. It’s demoralizing, and it reflects in his creativity.

Should the teams abandon agile? If they use Scrum, should they switch to Kanban? Maybe. But what if they started to apply the agile mindset in a broader fashion, regardless of framework?

Create cross-functional, dedicated teams. Teams must have the skills they need to get an item to completion. There are many pragmatic approaches to agile, but this is a non-negotiable. Magic happens in the synergy created by working as a high-performing team.

Create a trade-off matrix before starting. The business requester and team must collaborate to determine the balance between the desire for predictable delivery and responding to change, and then commit to it throughout. It’s a fact. You can’t have both.

Require the business to set a force-ranked priority list. Any time an organization is required to share resources across teams, which is a model we often see outside of software development, the business must set the priorities so a team member is not forced to. This can be a difficult, but imperative conversation: have representatives from multiple divisions agree on the highest value item for the shared resource to work on. (At one company, this meeting was affectionately called “the Thunderdome,” in reference to the steel-cage jousting in the Australian movie Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985).

Broaden the definition of done to focus on delivering value early. In non-IT teams, getting to a state where everyone agrees something is done, can be a very different journey than software delivery. There may be baseline standards the teams must follow, but consider expanding on it to create a definition of done that will deliver value for each item, for each iteration, no matter the framework.

Every time a team helps the organization make a decision, they are delivering value.

The dialogue in non-IT teams can sound much different than it does if we are forecasting the work to complete a finished software feature.

 “This week, we can commit to refining the calculation from the extract of your client’s data. If I can deliver a trusted number to you by Wednesday, this will provide value to your client. While you review with the client, we can be working on the visualization of the dashboard.”

 “I’d like to deliver the second draft to you by the end of next week. In order to do this, if I can get you a design by Thursday, can you commit to a response by Monday?”

5. Create a learning organization


One of the core principles of agile is to create feedback loops, often termed “inspect and adapt.” It takes an investment in process, time, and attention. Inspection, without change, is essentially futile. Feedback is an essential step in creating a culture of learning and innovation.

A bi-weekly, one hour investment from a team who pauses to reflect on what they can do better, and then designs an experiment to accomplish it, delivers 26 small, consumable improvements in one year, regardless of framework.

Do not limit improvements to the delivery team. Customer feedback is often left out of reviews and planning conversations. Delivery team members complain they do not understand the business purpose of why they are creating something. But when an item is delivered, it is even more rare for them to hear how it was received in the marketplace. It gives a sense of fulfillment for a data analyst to hear how the dashboard he contributed to helped the client detect a critical issue and prevent significant loss.

But what if something fails in the market? Consider the culture shift if the failures are celebrated as much as the wins. What is the learning that is created when we stop to reflect as a whole organization?

What innovation is lost if we don’t take the time to experiment?

To quote Jim Collins, “Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice and discipline.” Every domain, every specialty team, every business has its own unique challenges. But the agile principles, consciously applied, can help organizations of any size and complexity take the next step towards greatness.

6. Celebrate

There are not as many non-IT agile case studies as there are software successes being published. I’d love to hear more! Help evangelize the agile principles with your stories. Succeed or fail, when you find something new that works, let the world know, so we can help you celebrate.

~Julee Bellomo

Live your truth; hone your craft; show your thanks

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