Agile transformation for non-IT companies and teams

why innovation! uses cookies to provide you with an optimal browsing experience on our website. Please check our Privacy Policy & Terms of Use to learn more about how we use cookies. By clicking on “I agree”, you consent to the use of cookies.
Sign up   |   Sign in

Agile transformation for non-IT companies and teams

Can agile work for non-IT organisations?
Vikram Asokan
10 min
14 Jun. 2022

Agile has gained popularity over the years.

While predominantly, software/tech companies are the ones that transitioned to agile from the traditional waterfall methodology, in recent years, many non-IT/tech companies have also made the switch to agile, due in no small part to the pandemic.

These organisations improved their flexibility to adapt to change as demanded by the market and improved the speed of delivery as demanded by business when they adopted Agile.

As agile is a framework for developing iterative and incremental products, it provides and encourages flexibility to address rapidly changing requirements.

So, while the misnomer is that agile is largely a methodology for IT industries, its principles and values are applicable everywhere.

Besides, while IT industries may be the most prevalent practitioners of agile, it’s important to note that most agile practices like Kanban didn’t originate from the software industry.

Kanban originated from the Japanese word of sign/sign board or card you see. Kanban serves as a visual cue to prompt the team on the action needed to keep the process flowing without any interruption through the employment of transparency in the entire team.

This process was inspired when Toyota was studying a supermarket in the UK. This system was developed for Toyota by industrial engineer, Taiichi Ohno to have a self-stocking factory floor of raw materials in the production line to improve the manufacturing efficiency.

Today, Kanban is a great, viable framework for companies to start using agile. It’s easy enough to pick up and do. Even if you’re not running in the agile way, you can still implement tracking via Kanban board to, on the surface, at least, track and improve the visibility and division of labour within the team.

But of course, agile isn’t just about the frameworks and processes. It is about culture and mindset.

How and why to apply agile methodology?

If you are new to a team and are planning to introduce agile and the agile mindset, prepare to face resistance.

This is inevitable as people are generally suspicious of trying something new that may interfere with their comfort levels. Alternatively, the team may know of agile but have written it off as something unsuitable to their way of working, for example, a finance or human resource team.

But you know that adopting agile is the best way for a team working in the traditional way to improve their efficiency, deliver faster and overall, have a healthier and happier working environment.

To overcome this resistance, first study their current practices. Identify gaps and demonstrate to them the value agile and the agile mindset can deliver to them. Any company can benefit with agile as it is designed specifically to improve how a team/organisation deliver value to its customers.

How it does this is by including customer feedback into the development process and administering a delivery cadence of small increments to the product in an iterative manner.

The agile manifesto states:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  4. Responding to change over following the plan

You will see on the left side that the agile principle (bolded) adds more value over the right, which is the conventional way of working.

Since agile fosters change, when we look at the second point of Working software over comprehensive documentation, we can adapt it to a less IT-inclined industry or department as Usable Working Product over comprehensive documentation.

What is a usable working product? It’s one which delivers value to the end user or customer.

As in Agile software development, it is beneficial to establish early on, a common understanding on what is considered as the basic building blocks at each stage of delivery that aligns with your final usable working product. This is the equivalent to the definition of done that the entire team agrees on in order to confirm completion.

Now, implementing a new set of processes, even if it’s a process that’s attached to proven promises of efficiency, can still be off-putting to the team. The best approach here, is to frame Agile as a culture and practice.

The most important is to cultivate the mindset of approaching work for non-IT teams that would have specific requirements that can’t be easily met with instant prescription and adoption of agile.

However, there are few elements in agile that will help you to advance in your existing workflow as the team moves together towards adopting agile culture and practice.

Yes, Agile transformation is all about culture that happens organically. It’s an iterative approach of building an environment for teams to focus and take responsibility of delivering the outcome, unlike traditional environment where management shoulders the responsibility of success and failure of the strategy while the team focuses on the output.

From experience, when we work on Agile transformation initiatives, the opposition and resistance tend to come from Quality, Finance, Regulatory and Compliance departments/ units. This is due to their lack of understanding of Agile and its principles.

Agile doesn’t compromise on quality, compliance, regulations, and the budget. Rather it helps you in adherence and adoption. It also supports you by preventing the team from getting slowed down by the process and bureaucracy.

An elegant way to introduce agile to the team is to consider changing the terminologies in agile to reflect the terms and words your team feels comfortable with.

For example, for a sales team you can rename terms like task and stories as prospect, leads or customers. The marketing team can refer to their campaign as a feature.

Why agile?

Teams feel valued and are more productive when they have autonomy and an environment where they can leverage on their strengths to achieve the company’s goals.

When we don’t have a framework that creates organisation-wide alignment, we will have multiple teams practicing agile with a lack of cross-team or departmental coordination.

When that happens, we are at risk of creating agile silos which challenges the unified vision and collaboration of agile. This happens when teams implement ceremonies without understanding its purpose. Don’t try to force processes and ceremonies you don't need.

While proper implementation of agile is necessary for the success of the transformation, the greatest strength of agile is its flexibility and simplicity.

Hence agile is not just a methodology for software. It can be applied to other industries. There are multiple frameworks (e.g.: SAFe) which can help your workflow and processes in scaling agile across the organisation at different stages.

For a start, your non-IT Team can adapt and use the following key agile practices from the agile manifesto:

  1. Create a list of prioritised items to be worked on by the team. This will give them autonomy to organise their day and create transparency in the team (Backlog)
  2. Write short descriptions in a few sentences about the work that needs to be done to guide them (User stories)
  3. Write a note on what the criteria is to be met in order for the work to be considered as complete (Definition of Done)
  4. Set a period of 2-4 weeks to complete the work (Sprint)
  5. Select items of work from the list that can be completed within the period (Sprint backlog)
  6. Use a board with categories of “To do”, “In progress” & “Done” displayed vertically where items move from left to right when work progresses. Team can select stories from “To do” (left column), and when they start working it can be moved to “In progress” (left to right middle column). When the work is completed and meets the criteria it is moved to “Done” (right column) (Sprint board)
  7. Team can also have an “On hold “category to park items which they have started working on but have stopped for the moment
  8. Each team has 3-9 members depending on scope and workload(Agile team)
  9. Have a 10-15 minute meeting at a same place and same time every day where the team assembles to discuss about their progress, challenges and to seek solutions. Each team member is also given an opportunity to speak on their own progress, challenges and the help needed (Daily stand-up)
  10. Once the work is completed, present it to stakeholders for their feedback (Sprint Review)
  11. After completion of work and the review, the team meets to discuss on what went well, what didn’t go well and what lessons can be learned from this period to help them improve their future work (Retrospective)

With agile, the following are benefits:

If this sounds good and you’re interested in adopting agile for your organisation or non-IT team, remember that the objective is to iterate and come up with a custom framework that will help the team to interact, communicate and collaborate more.

These elements will help the teams advance towards adopting agile culture. And like all things worth doing, practice makes you better. Multiple iterations and retrospectives will help increase your progress.

But don’t start prescribing agile before you ask yourself the question of what do you want to achieve?

You must understand what the organisation needs and validate that adopting agile will address your issues.

Be aware however, that if you want your teams to become agile, you will need to have them coached to be prepared to handle their objections (side effects) and manage the risks (contra indication). It is not as simple as learning about the subject on Google and implementing it right off the cuff. There are many good resources online that will teach you, but proper agile adoption will only happen under the coaching/mentoring of an experienced agile coach/consultant.

An agile company is a resilient one and to get there is worth the challenge such a transformation will create. At why innovation!, we are familiar with all the challenges non-agile companies face and are well-versed in tackling them and instituting successful agile transformations.

If you’d like to learn more about how we can help you undergo agile transformation, reach out to us.

Follow author, Vikram Asokan on LinkedIn.

More Content