What is Agile?
As the arts community agrees on the value of entrepreneurship, one specific framework to look at is Agile. Originating from within the fast paced, ever-changing world of software development, Agile is now spreading to other business sectors, even outside of the start-up community. Big Visible Solutions is one company offering regular trainings in New York City in a form of Agile known as Scrum, which offers enough reference points to make it an arts-friendly way to plan, organize workflow and manage teams.
Planning in Agile Mode
A traditional planning process is geared towards envisioning the entire plan from start to finish prior to execution. One of the assumptions made is that the conditions which govern the operating climate at the start of the planning process will remain stable throughout the period covered by the plan. Alternatively, a five-year plan may be drafted with the assumption that it will need to be examined and revised each year in order to remain relevant. That’s an awful lot of time committed to be spent planning!
Agile planning mode is more reality-based. It assumes that you cannot possibly know everything you need to know at the start of execution, no matter how thorough a planning process has been. The goal is to gather enough clarity to get started, and to set up a transparent process for learning and sharing results along the way. Precision is not sought-after while making estimates (guessing), but is to be desired and expected as a team works together.
When you have committed a lot of time to be spent in a planning process, change becomes a threat to be controlled or eliminated. In reality, change is an ever-present constant, which can be channeled into productivity if it is recognized with thoughtful response.
Bottom Line from The Agile Manifesto: Agile values responding to change over following a plan.
Organizing Workflow in Agile Mode
Responding to change does not mean operating in a chaotic or unstructured way! On the contrary, a definite structure to the workflow is necessary in order to measure what in fact gets accomplished. In the Agile framework, workflow is organized into “sprints,” time periods which have specific beginning and end-dates. Based on all the priorities identified in the plan (called a backlog, to be explained in more detail in the next article) the team commits to what it can accomplish within a given timebox. That commitment – to accomplish X by Y date – constitutes the sprint and is to be considered a team not an individual effort.
Defining “X,” or what the team will accomplish together within a very tight timeframe requires that all team members maintain a customer focus throughout the sprint. In other words, everyone involved with a project must understand how the work produced is going to be used in the real world and why it is in demand. The meaning of the work is embedded into Agile workflow practices and constantly accessible to the team because of the Agile focus on organizing tasks by creating short narratives based on customer wants and needs.
These short narratives that define the workflow in Agile mode are known as “user stories.” To take an example highly relevant to the nonprofit arts world, instead of a plan that reads “consultant will research funding prospects for Executive Director to distribute to the Board,” the Agile translation would be “As a Board Member, I want to review a current list of funding prospects so that I can fulfill my fiduciary responsibilities.” The consultant and Executive Director work together to make that story come true, but they are not the focus of the work. The “customer” is (i.e. in the arts world, stakeholder).
Bottom line: Commitment to completing work within a given timeframe fuels high productivity.
Managing Teams in Agile Mode
Let’s look at project management as a discipline. Its place in the business world has become well-defined; most projects require an administrator whose job it is to run around with a club making sure everyone involved is on time and on budget. The project manager holds others accountable, because ultimately they are accountable themselves.
In the arts world, creative projects have managers (choreographers, certainly, fulfill this role) but on the administrative side things are not so clear. Many administrative “projects” do not have managers per se other than the organizational directors. Without a defined project manager, collaborations tend to get bogged down and become more trouble, sometimes, than they are worth. Then around final report time, grantmakers are asked to go into the back room and sprinkle pixie dust all over everything to make it sound good. Grantmakers get tired of reading “spin,” and everyone wonders what the real outcomes are for the money invested.
Projects are led by a Scrum Master in the Agile framework. The Scrum Master functions as a team coach. He/she is responsible for facilitating meetings, listening to reports from the team, identifying obstacles to getting the work completed and removing them, and helping the team understand any changes in specifications as the customer/stakeholder’s wishes become increasingly better understood.
Another important function of the Scrum Master is to lead a retrospective at the conclusion of a sprint. This will be a familiar concept to performing arts administrators, similar to a “post-mortem” after a production. The retrospective is focused on three simple questions:
• What went well?
• What did not go so well?
• How can we improve?
Answering these questions makes the next planning process rather a no-brainer, as the next set of work becomes mapped out and refined automatically. Agile teams are self-organized in that each team member has an intrinsic commitment to accomplishing the goals of the sprint, and the Scrum Master functions as a coach rather than a dictator, taskmaster, or guy/gal with a club.
Bottom line: Agile management is focused on teams rather than individuals, but individuals and interactions matter more than processes and tools for getting work done.
Why is Agile relevant to the arts?
This appears to be a watershed moment: alongside the eternal cry that arts organizations should become ever more businesslike in a traditional, fiscally buttoned-up sense, businesses are now striving to be more and more creative, to think and operate more like artists. The cultural membrane is stretched very thin right now between non-profit and for-profit forms of innovation, minimizing their differences. As a result, producers and practitioners of all kinds can meet and profit from the exchange of ideas on a more level intellectual playing field than ever before, where no one sector is presumed to have all the correct answers and mutually meaningful collaborative learning can take place.
Focus here on the Agile framework represents one set of specifics in that vein. The arts community itself must determine its ultimate relevance and usefulness.
Further information on the Agile framework and Scrum training is available at bigvisible.com and scrumalliance.org.
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