Agile is not a dirty word

Chances are, sometime in the last decade, you’ve probably heard someone telling you you need to be more ‘agile’, but what does that even mean?
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The Public Sector Innovation Network (PSIN) ceased on 8 January 2021.

The PSIN was an Australian government network helping public servants understand and apply innovation in their daily work.

The content on this page has been kept for historical purposes and may not be accurate.

See previous PSIN content on the National Library of Australia Trove archive.

These days, everyone wants to be ‘agile’. But what do they mean by that? Surely public servants aren’t lining up for adult gymnastics or contemporary dance classes? Surely they’re not taking sit-stand desks to trapeze-artist extremes? Surely it’s just another buzzword… right?

No, it’s not.  

The word ‘agile’ is about expecting the unexpected and being able to jump into or out of things quickly. But ‘Agile’ (with a capital A) is also a style of project management that gets great results.

This case-study is going to be a little different. We usually talk to another team about something they did, that was a bit different, and also made a difference.

The difference here is, we’ve interviewed ourselves about how our team tailors the principles of Agile project management for our own purposes and how you might also benefit from trying it out.

Buckle up, this is gonna get meta.

Key innovation principles

  • Agile can organise tasks and thoughts (as well as repeated work cycles)
  • Experiments will teach you more than theory
  • Don’t worry about being perfect

Why we went Agile

We (the PSIN team) asked us (the PSIN team), how we (the PSIN team) use Agile.

What even is Agile project methodology? (Spoilers: we’ve also put together an Agile explainer.)

Basically, it’s a way to organize your work,’ explains Nick Ellis. ‘It came from the software world originally and before then it was based on the manufacturing principles of car manufacturers.

‘It’s based around the idea of constantly releasing and testing finished pieces of work, like software improvements, and changing course according to the results,’ says Nick.

But this central principle of Agile is not the part that has most helped our team – we manage a network, we’re not a software developers.

We could visualise the benefits

‘For us, the main benefit is seeing the overall picture,’ says Helen Bailey.

‘Using Agile, we were finally able to visualise all of our team’s work all at once, and it changed my life!’ Helen exclaims. ‘We have about six streams of work going at once and it was really difficult to see what was going on across our whole program. Now we can.’

Nick adds: ‘Agile project management is very transparent – we can see what everyone is doing and where we can help each other.’

‘It's also really good for accountability because everybody takes responsibility for their own tasks,’ says Helen. ‘Each team member chooses what they will do each day and if someone can't get it done then we talk about that. We ask ‘What is the blocker? Can any of us help to unblock that blocker?’’

Principles help more than perfection

We are the first to admit that we don’t do Agile in the most proper/perfect/dogmatic way.

‘We're not strict, we don't use it in the sense that a software company might. It's all about the principles for us,’ says Helen.

There are many principles but we subscribe to:

  • Focussing on the outcome
  • Responding to change
  • Empowering the team to self-organise
  • Ensuring sustainable workloads
  • Reflecting and adjusting.

The Agile process can feel intimidating because of the sheer amount of jargon associated with it (more spoilers: we’ve also put together an Agile glossary).

‘It's actually really simple, but every dang thing has a dang fancy name,’ says Nick. ‘And so, if somebody talks to you with all of the fancy names, you just get bamboozled.

‘When we first started, we had somebody helping us and they would talk to us for an hour and we'd look at them as if they were from Mars,’ says Nick.

Learn, try, repeat

But by persevering and getting our heads around the jargon and the process, we were able to unlock Agile, including an incredibly useful piece of the puzzle – determining just how many tasks we could each do in a day.

We did this by assigning a score to each task.

‘The scoring was huge for us,’ says Helen. ‘We’d been using Agile for about 18 month but kept assigning ourselves too many tasks each day and wondering why we couldn’t complete them all when nothing specific was blocking us. Assigning scores fixed that. We now know that each of us can do 20 points every day so we calculate our tasks every morning to make sure we stick to this. If we go over, we look at the tasks through an ‘urgent/important’ lens and we pull some back to do another day.’

A principle of Agile is constantly learning and incorporating your lessons into your work.

‘We’re always iterating how we use Agile,’ says Helen. ‘We tweak our practices all the time, depending on what we learn or what we are doing.’

The best time to start is now

Nick advocates starting to use Agile at a basic level and growing as you learn more.

‘Start by setting up a simple Agile board and adding tasks on post-it notes. Then build from there,’ he says.

Helen agrees. ‘Learn a bit more about agile, speak with people who use it, ask to join their stand-up meeting (an Agile ritual), or go and see their Agile board and then experiment with your own,’ suggests Helen.

But visiting other people can be time consuming and tricky (especially right now), so after talking about this, we decided to put together a helpful little Agile 101 starter pack, as well as a glossary of the many, many bits of jargon you might come across.

So, if you want a new way to organise your work, read on, and if you have any other questions, drop us a line. We’re more than happy to help and show you our board!

Read more

See also

The Public Sector Innovation Network (PSIN) was an Australian government network helping public servants understand and apply innovation in their daily work. PSIN ceased on 8 January 2021.

See more PSIN resources or read about PSIN on the National Library of Australia Trove archive.