Tech teams have been operating using agile methods such as Scrum and Kanban for decades. But now, increasingly non-tech businesses and support functions are turning to these agile practices in an effort to become more user focused, iterative and evidence based in the way they work.

However examples of non-tech businesses and support functions that have successfully implemented agile ways of working remain few and far between. One exception is Sky’s UK learning and development team. I’ve heard great things about how they’ve transformed the way they work over the past year by adopting agile practices. This article does a great job of bringing to life the journey they’ve been on and is full of practical insights into what helped them to succeed.

Examples like Sky’s L&D team show us that the rewards of working in a more agile way can be great. So why do so many non-tech businesses and support functions find it so hard to adopt agile ways of working?

The causes…

1. Lack of knowledge

Partly it’s an education thing. Many people outside of the tech world have limited or no understanding of basic agile principles – the key events and roles that underpin an agile process; the supporting tools and practices; and the importance of transparency, inspection and adaptation as a way of operating. To get started read our article on what non-tech teams need to know about agile.

2. Fear of failure

But even among those who do have a good grasp of the principles of agile, hurdles remain. Agile working relies on total transparency, high degrees of collaboration and rapid iteration. This means people need to get comfortable with ‘unfinished’ work being revealed to their team members for a start, and for the team to get comfortable with releasing ‘minimum valuable products’ to be used by real customers (either internal or external).

Minimum valuable products are an improvement on what already exists but they are by no means perfect. If you’re used to working for months to perfect an online induction programme for new hires before running it by your manager, then switching to a model where the first valuable element you create is immediately made available to real new hires might be quite daunting. People unused to this level of exposure might be afraid of being seen as incompetent or of publicly failing.

How to encourage non-tech teams to adopt agile ways of working

At The Pioneers we use a bell curve to explain why culture and ways of working are so stable. 

One of the primary motivations for people at work is to fit in – people want to be accepted by the team and to feel like they belong. In this respect, if there’s a particular standard or behaviour that determines group membership, it’s most comfortable to sit in the middle of the bell curve — to be ‘average’. 

When people are exposed to new ways of working, such as agile practices, then the people sat in the middle of the bell curve have to make a choice: is it riskier for me to stick with what I’ve always done or should I try these new ways of working. If they’re nervous about their ability to adapt, then it’s in their interests to resist change in order to maintain an environment in which they know how to fit in. Equally, if someone does decide to try the new fangled agile way of working and it doesn’t stick, then they’re also exposed to social risk within their team. Being the buffalo who wanders from the herd looking for greener grass can leave you as vulnerable as the buffalo who can’t keep up because they have a gammy leg!

Adopting new ways of working risks falling out of the pack – particularly when employees are getting mixed messages from leaders some of whom may be wildly enthusiastic about agile, others of whom are also personally nervous about the changes taking place.

So when companies tout agile as the way forward, insisting that it’s going to transform business performance, people don’t immediately jump on the bandwagon delighted that they’ve finally got a way to improve performance. What people really want is to operate in an environment in which they know how to fit in. 

What does this mean in practice?

If you want people to adopt new agile ways of working…

  1. Communicate a clear story. Why are you switching to agile working practices, what are you asking people to do, how do you want people to behave and what do you envision this enabling the business to achieve?
  2. Role model behaviours as a leadership team. Make sure you’re clear on how you can best support agile working in the business. Be consistent and stick with new behaviours even if it feels uncomfortable/easier to slip back into old habits.
  3. Drive the tipping point – the point at which the people in the middle of your bell curve decide it’s less risky for them to try agile than to stick with what they’ve always done. The best way to ‘de-risk’ this change, at least initially, is to spend less time highlighting how different agile will be and how performance is going skyrocket, and instead reassure people that they won’t be berated if things go wrong.
  4. Celebrate small wins. Look for the teams who are implementing agile practices and trying new things. Recognise the effort they’re making and highlight their successes to others in the business.