Archives for posts with tag: Agile

“Just over a decade ago, breakthroughs enabled software development teams to achieve both disciplined execution and continuous innovation, something that was impossible to accomplish with traditional management methods.”

The result?

The best-kept management secret on the planet: Agile

– Steve Denning, author of Radical Management

I currently seek ways to amplify what seems like a natural alliance between the agile sector of business, for which we can use the loose shorthand  “start-up world,” and the arts.   Both need management practices and principles in order to deliver and operate, yet report a predictable set of structural tensions and frustrations with traditional, water-fall style management.   I don’t advocate arts managers paying attention and learning about Agile because business has all the answers, but because the start-up world is so darn arts friendly, it hardly makes sense not to.

As Denning describes it, “Software developers were known to be antipathetic to both managers and management. Badly dressed, unkempt, even sometimes unwashed, speaking about issues that managers could hardly grasp, these employees were the most problematic of a big organization’s employees. ”   Yet they came up with a solution that management couldn’t, a framework for completing excellent work at high velocity in climates of extreme uncertainty.

It is a punk rock way to work, because it subverts command and control, top-down approaches.   It is a way that feels good to work with others, because it rivets everyone’s attention on being great and kicking obstacles out of the way.  It creates an environment that encourages workers to bring more of themselves  to work, to be people while they are working, and to play.

Four of us who attended the Agile Games in Cambridge last week discussed forming an Agile in the Arts user group as part of Agile New England.    Agile New England is an open membership group, by the way.  http://www.agilenewengland.org/

Letcha know what transpires…and please do the same.


Arts workers, your tribe just got bigger by a factor of X –

 (hint: your best ideas represent X)…

Here’s something that’s not exactly news, but worth proclaiming loudly at this particular moment.  Entrepreneurial business – that is, the start-up world, which includes those hip software guys and gals and their innovative counterparts within larger companies – sees itself as more closely aligned to the arts than to traditional business.  The arts has friends in high places, not only friends but a tribe of genius-level thought workers – rainmakers and gamechangers who represent the very nexus of the global ideas economy.

Entrepreneurs are striving hard now to do what arts managers have been doing for decades, dealing nimbly and effectively with climates of extreme uncertainty, while making it look way cool.  Consultants – whose reputation has arguably been sliding in an era of post-recession budget constraints  – are well positioned to reinvent themselves as the scout bees of this new landscape, since we work as both arts managers and entrepreneurs, and sometimes for organizations in both the non-profit and for-profit sectors.  As we discussed and agreed at the Dance/NYC symposium in February, the sector is not as important as the work itself, and the fact that it is fulfilling its mission and connecting with its intended audience.  Now, more than ever, is a great time to mix things up.

Entrepreneurial science has developed specific frameworks to map and describe a reality-based, arts-friendly way of getting things done – one of these is Agile, another (closely related) is Scrum.  If more arts workers learn this language, we can communicate better with our extended tribe.

I just returned from a three-day conference at the Microsoft “Nerd” Center in Cambridge– the Agile Games.   The experience strengthened my notion that if the arts and the start-up world can just find ways to share respective models and frameworks, connect our discourses and put the right people in touch with each other to improve both sectors’ ways of working, we can fast-track towards – in the words of keynote speaker Michael Sahota – “learning to play and playing to win” in the new ideas economy.

Arts administration and Agile project management form a natural alliance for spotting opportunities within chaos, welcoming change and adding layers of complexity with soul-stirring results.  But first, we must look up from our deadlines, recognize other stripes and types of “creatives,” deconstruct our jargon and identify what we’re passionate about.  When that “strategic planning” work is done and we’ve identified our next big “wow!,” it is fairly safe to bet (aka project) we can find funders interested in our collaborations.

Many will say we’ve already been doing this.  Okay, yes, Agile is very much a description of what arts workers do all the time.  However, if we go ahead and learn it –  delve into a set of specifics that has been determined to have global relevance – we can carry on with greater intention for the sake of our field and the positive, world-transforming attributes that we have always known art represents.

The following Q&A with project management veteran Tom Gilb – known today as “Grandfather of the Agile movement,” has direct application to the world of arts funding, particularly as outcomes-based management  is catching on among grantmakers and showing up in their reporting requirements.   A statement he makes validates my assumption that there needs to be a shift from “grantwriting” per se to more of a project management-driven approach in an age of increased competition for project-based contributed income:

“So that is my lesson to stakeholders and project funders. Demand clear, quantified objectives before happily dispensing money.”

http://projectmanagement.atwork-network.com/2012/03/20/qa-tom-gilb-on-quantifying-project-objectives

Recent publications such as Mario Morino’s Leap of Reason make clear the connections between big thinking, fundability, creativity and survival in the coming years in the nonprofit sector.  So in that spirit, here are some questions for arts managers to consider.

  • At any given point, could a funder walk up to someone working in your box office or classroom or studio and say “tell me what you’re trying to accomplish this season with my money” ?
  • Have you integrated aspects of project management into your grantwriter’s set of responsibilities?
  • Is your grantwriter considered the “spinmaster” in your organization?
  • Do some of your staff seem resentful of having to “kowtow to funders”?
  • Are grantwriters included in long-range programming and brainstorming meetings?
  • Are programming staff assigned to write portions of your final reports?

The arts should stay ahead of this curve – it’s where we belong!

“Sponsored by Agile New England, Agile Games 2012 is an Agile Conference devoted to the serious play, collaboration, and experimental learning that power Agile software development. Agile Games 2012 will be held April 19-21, 2012 at the Microsoft NERD Center in Cambridge, MA.”

Full schedule available at http://www.agilegames2012.com/index.php/conf-info/51-programannounced

I cannot WAIT to attend and report back to the arts community!

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.

Please provide feedback on this article and related topics here or to elibux@juno.com.  MANY THANKS.

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