6 min read

Expert interview: How to embrace Agile as a non-tech team

September 17, 2021

Photo of Natal Dank

To thrive in today’s environment businesses need to adapt quickly to changes in the market or industry, which often means making a fundamental transformation away from long planning processes to become more agile. Those that make a successful transition have the opportunity to achieve performance improvements, growth, better customer satisfaction, and improved employee engagement.

I sat down with the infectiously energetic Natal Dank recently to learn more about how teams outside of tech can embrace Agile. She explained what Agile means for HR, why it’s becoming an increasingly popular way to work and what a shift to Agile means for the team dynamic…

J: Why are non tech teams moving towards agile working?

‍N: Teams and organisations are seeking new ways to design how they work in response to changes in the market. For example delivering value to their customers in new ways, rapidly respond to disruption or gain a competitive advantage through digital innovation.

‍While the themes of digitalisation, disruption, uncertainty, globalisation and complexity are becoming the standard, the way in which we organise how we work, collaborate and engage with our customers are still evolving.

‍The mindset and values of Agile have developed as a direct result of this need to redesign how we work. Ultimately, Agile offers a way to find the answers to many of the current challenges we face in business and the workplace.

‍What’s interesting, is we’re now seeing very different teams and organisations at very different stages along this Agile transformational journey. From tech startups who have lived it from word go, to large, traditional and hierarchical organisations starting to make the shift to stay competitive.

J. How does agile differ from traditional ways of working?

N: The customer sits at the heart of Agile. Understanding how business value is driven through customer value is central to the definition of Agile.

‍This means when you run a project or design a product you want to immediately test and validate it’s the right approach with your customer. Now this is key, because your customers are different to your stakeholders, and stakeholders don’t make or break a business, customers do. However, how many projects have you run where it’s the stakeholders who are the most important decision makers, not the customers?

‍To build customer value, Agile advocates small, networked and multi-skilled teams that self-organise and get work done through iterations. An incremental development process of test, learn and adapt.

‍Delivering value and solving problems incrementally is Agile’s answer to the traditional, ‘waterfall’ way of implementing a project or designing a product. It argues that in a world of complex and rapid change, your 6-month project excel spreadsheet or Gantt chart will quickly become out of date, as resources, markets and customer needs shift almost daily.

‍Instead, Agile working starts with setting the vision and listing all the possible things that might need to be delivered. The next step then is to ruthlessly prioritise the most important things to work on first to produce something of value for the customer in a short, time boxed period. Once you have produced this thing of value, take it to your customer, listen to their feedback, observe how they engage with it and then use this data and insight to drive your next iteration of work. Throughout this work, we are constantly adding to and reprioritising work, to ensure the most important thing is always next.

‍The outcome, almost every time, is not only a project or product designed and delivered at a faster rate, but a result that is validated and shaped directly by your customer at every stage.

J: What are the biggest shocks for teams that move to agile working?

‍N: With core values like transparency, self-organisation, multi-functional teams, experimentation, feedback loops and incremental development, Agile is a radical shift away from our traditional, more hierarchical and often bureaucratic ways of working and structuring organisations. With this comes a whole new way to lead teams, make decisions, plan, budget, track performance and deliver value to our customer.

‍Agile is a total mindset shift, which potentially transforms organisational culture and asks people and teams to unlearn a lot of old habits. It also means there are a lot of false starts and failures when people start to work this way. But that’s Agile. Failure, when done quickly and safely, allows us to learn. Hence, the mantra of test, learn, adapt, repeat…

J: What are the benefits of agile?

‍N: Nearly every team I’ve worked with don’t want to go back to the old way of working once they’ve tried Agile. This type of collaboration generates a positive energy and it can truly end silos within teams and organisations.

‍The next major benefit is delivering a higher level of value at a much faster rate. Once Agile teams find their flow and prioritise effectively, they can greatly accelerate results, which in turn gives a business or organisation competitive advantage. Agile also means the ability to pivot and change direction at any time when needed. Allowing teams to be more responsive to the environment and market.

‍At a macro level, Agile helps an organisation focus on purpose, rather than just profit, as the key driver of business value. The aim is to build shared value across employees, customers and the business. By empowering teams to make decisions and deliver value directly to the customer, the business grows, which ideally feeds back into making the organisation a great place to work.

J: Why is it particularly important for HR to embrace agile?

‍N: A good way to understand Agile in HR is to firstly, appreciate the two areas in which it applies to what we do. To start with Agile HR means embracing an Agile mindset and using the tools and techniques in our own work.

Agile for HR

‍This might mean you start to use Agile frameworks like Scrum to run an HR or organisational change project, or experiment directly with your users what works and what doesn’t. Another key benefit is using Agile prioritisation techniques to understand what the most important thing is to work on at any one point in time, which will allow you to manage your HR portfolio of work in line with stakeholder and customer feedback. I call this first area of application, Agile for HR.

HR for Agile

‍The second area is the need to innovate our own people processes and services to support Agile teams. This is big. It means evolving practices in topics, like reward, performance, talent, learning and recruitment, to support a culture of collaborative networks, continuous improvement and incremental development. In an Agile organisation everything from job roles, career paths and bonus structures require a rethink. Alongside this is the organisational design aspect of guiding Agile transformation and helping leaders understand their new role. This is where HR is in an unique position, different to other parts of the business. Generally, other departments focus only on applying Agile techniques to their own work. It’s due to our profession and focus on people, that we need to consider the bigger picture of what Agile means at every level, be that individual, team or organisational wide. I call this second area of application, HR for Agile.

J: How does agile working change the team dynamic?

‍N: Firstly, the team becomes multi-skilled or t-shaped to ensure they can make decisions in the moment and deliver value to the customer quickly. Ideally you want all the specific skills and experience needed to get things done immediately so handovers and dependencies don’t slow you down. You also want people who can flex between multiple roles and cover each other.

‍Secondly, Agile advocates self-organisation at the team level. People doing the work should know what is best for their customer. While the ‘what’ and ‘why’ is set through the vision, the ‘how’s it truly decided at the team level. This means the team need to collaborate and innovative in new ways, but also be accountable as a team, rather than just individuals. For most Agile teams, performance becomes something they monitor themselves, ideally supported through honest feedback and conversation to ensure everyone is contributing their fair share. Technically, there are no managers in Agile, instead it introduces roles like coaches, scrum masters and product owners to build an environment of self-organisation and team accountability.

‍Thirdly, the team model becomes the basis to how you grow, or scale, an Agile organisation. Coordination, governance and business goals are achieved through networks of teams, rather than hierarchical lines of control. Again, this is a big shift for organisational culture and the role of the leader.


‍J: There are a lot of ‘rules’ and new language to understand, is it all essential?

‍N: No, indeed many organisations simply talk about ‘our ways of working’ and use words that mean something to them internally. Providing you are embracing the mindset, the language and words you use, don’t really matter. I often talk about finding your own distinct flavour of Agile, that is tested and validated for your organisational culture and brand.

‍However, in saying all of that, it’s essential to be disciplined in your approach, to ensure it works. Many teams and organisations start using a few new tools, without fundamentally shifting their mindset or values, and Agile becomes yet another thing that we ‘add on’ to our more traditional ways of working. This places pressure on Agile and often means it fails to deliver the benefits we set out to achieve.


J: What are your top tips for getting started?

‍N: Start small and apply Agile principles from the word go.

‍Create a safe space and run a small experiment, where you literally test out these new ways of working. Most likely you’ll get a few things wrong and fail, but you’ll also enjoy some success. Then reflect and review what it was like. More than anything I’ve worked with before you need to experience Agile first, to then understand how you can begin to apply the mindset within your everyday work and team.

‍For the experiment, pick a nice complex problem that you need to solve and if you do it will make a difference to your organisation.

‍Invite a multi-skilled team to commit to a time boxed period of work and use Agile techniques to deliver 1 or 2 iterations of work or ‘sprints’.

‍Generally, what I find, is everyone is so excited by what they have achieved and how they have collaborated that they want to go again.

Natal’s passion is helping leaders, organisations and brands build awesome places to work, where talented people want to be.

As founder of Southern Blue Consulting she has worked with organisations both great and small to embrace the Agile mindset, redefine their culture and co-create healthy, happy and financially successful working environments.

Natal is also co-founder of the Agile HR Community — an ongoing learning network and community of practice that sets the new standard in HR professional skills and certified training.

Get in touch: natal@southern-blue-consulting.com or @nataldank

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