Agile working in practice
March 9, 2019

Agile working in practice, more tips to help Analytics teams transition

By Paul Laughlin

Continuing our series reviewing how data, analytics and insight teams can achieve Agile Working in practice.

In my first post on how to achieve Agile Working in practice, I focussed on four principles that were needed. Principles of attitude and culture, in order to have the right mindset and approach to working this way.

Continuing with this series has been driven by the feedback I have heard from a variety of data & analytics leaders. Those working in business today are telling me that this challenge is still very much a work in progress. Senior leaders want a more agile business, but it’s not a quick fix to achieve.

To help, in this post I focus on two more aspects. Firstly, common practices, that I’ve observed in analytics teams implementing this approach. Then 4 drivers of success that I and other writers have observed. Those behaviours and attitudes that differentiate those who achieve successful Agile Working.

Agile working in practice: common practices

At the start of my first post on agile working, I referenced the 5 most popular agile methodologies. But, whether you are implementing Scrum, Kanban, or one of the others, certain practices appear to be needed by most methods.

So, whatever nomenclature you prefer, watch out to ensure you are implementing:

(1) A visible ‘backlog’ of prioritised work

Every member of the team can see new work and any significant changes needed. One key here is having real clarity as to commercial priorities & drivers, so that requests for work can be compared & prioritised.

(2) Tickets for the units of work needed

Work is broken down both to suit time periods for sprints and to divide the different skills needed. One key here is the ability to diagnose early on the work units needed from different data, analytics & other skills – worth planning out common work units in advance (based on experience). Plus, the use of tools like Competency frameworks to raise awareness of skills really help with allocation.

(3) Public boards to track progress

Internal customers, sponsors & wider team have a common view of priorities and progress. Such transparency is key to the culture needed for this collaboration. One key is to consistently use this to support stakeholder management & sponsor conversations. Driving expectation of them using the board too.

(4) Planning short sprints together, with bidding for units of work

A regular rhythm, e.g. 2 weeks, is established as the duration for delivery and cycle for new priorities. One key here is the cultural attitudes I praised as needed in my first post, another is to focus more on collaborating in order to achieve delivery, rather than more rigid planning.

(5) Stand-up meetings for the whole team to share progress & challenges

Regular opportunity, e.g. daily, to spot issues early and collaborate to fix. Once again the attitudes and culture I shared previously are crucial to this working well. Managers also need to ensure that they encourage openness about issues or mistakes. Good news reporting is the very antithesis of agile working.

(6) Post-sprint reviews to learn from what worked & what did not

Time is taken post-delivery to identify any lessons to be learnt for future sprints. One key here is to focus on systemic issues. Depersonalise criticism and work on improving how everyone works together to improve the system for future work. Any underperformance by individuals should be handled separately. Use one-to-one chats with managers (where possible giving close-to-the-moment feedback).

I have documented such a simple list to help reveal that a significant amount of agile working is not ‘rocket science‘. You may well have more success by simplifying to ensure everyone gets it, rather than an over complex purist approach.

Agile working in practice: drivers of success

Through a combination of reading other bloggers on this topic and reflecting on what I have seen in practice, I have 4 drivers to propose.

Driver 1: achieving personal ‘flow’

Despite all the focus on collaboration and flexible team working, Agile working also relies on high performing individuals. At its best, team members know their strengths and have honed ways of working very productively.

Entering a state of ‘flow‘ is important for leaders and analysts. That state where you no longer notice time passing and are not easily distracted. You are absorbed in the task and make surprisingly fast progress. I may well blog more on this important topic, but for now I recommend those interested to read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book “Flow”.

Driver 2: a culture of Collaboration

We are all in this together“, rather than being political spin should be the ethos of working this way. Successful delivery relies upon a flexibility and mutual support that is often not present in larger teams working within more rigid projects.

Team members should be encouraged to stay aware (keep eyes & ears open) of both their own progress and how wider team is doing. Joint success often relies upon a willingness of every team member to both ask for & offer help. Once you are winning with your work unit, look up & see where you could help with other top priorities.

Driver 3: learning continually

Agile working has close affinity with the principles of continuous improvement from Systems Thinking. A commitment to spotting & closing gaps in knowledge & skills, plus a thirst for personal growth are key attitudes from effective team members.

A visible organisational commitment to Personal Development Plans can really help. In too many businesses, large & small, these can be token efforts – too easily reduced to documenting a book that was read or training course attended. Embedding a culture of L&D takes time, but supporting individuals with time & money to prioritise their development pays huge dividends in improving team effectiveness. What Stephen Covey called taking time to ‘sharpen the saw‘.

Driver 4: reliability and clarity

Every team member in an Agile working team needs to both understand what is asked of them and keep their promises. The lifeblood of working this way is effective communication and it requires a higher level of taking personal responsibility not less.

The old adage of “my word is my bond” is the attitude to encourage here & leaders should challenge individuals if commitments are not delivered. Accountability is needed to avoid drift and any degree of hiding behind collaborative processes. In addition I recommend investing time in developing leaner and more effective communication. A future blog post will cover this in more depth, but for now I recommend reading “Brief” by Joe McCormack.

Agile working in practice: what is helping your team?

I hope those thoughts and recommended resources are useful. It would be great to hear your thoughts.

If you are new to working this way or have it working well, please do share your experience in comments box below. What tips do you have for others who want to make the transition to agile working in practice (not just using the buzzword)?