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Learning in local government, part 3: Beginning your first agile project

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One of the biggest mistakes that can be made is thinking that moving to agile in local council is just a change of process – a shift from one set of processes to other.

Culture and behaviour are at the heart of it. In a traditional local council environment, everything is usually planned in advance, with full knowledge and certainty that you know what’s going to happen. This isn’t really possible when looking at it from an agile viewpoint. You can’t predict what’s going to happen on your project journey when taking a waterfall approach, or what bumps in the road you’re going to hit along the way.

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Traditional behaviour vs. agile behaviour

The hierarchical structure in local council is managerial and very ‘top down’. CEOs and top managers make all the decisions and lower-level employees are told what to do. These traditional organisations believe that change is a bad thing – it needs to be controlled and managed. Agile organisations believe that change is inevitable and actually a good thing. They believe that cultivating a culture of local decision-making and empowerment is much more effective. It means you’re more likely to get what you need. It’s a shift in behaviour and ways of thinking in local councils that’s required to adopt agile. It’s vital to recognise that it’s this cultural shift that you’re trying to achieve as well as just a process change. So how do you start this…?

Step 1: Begin with a pilot project

Due to the cultural shift aspect, moving to agile as an entire council in one step isn’t the best way to tackle this. Take a first step with a pilot project – this is a good place to start. It’s a good way to find your feet. Your pilot project should be important enough that it’s a project in which people are going to engage with. It needs to be important enough that you’ll see it through to delivery. A team will stay on it, even during some times of uncertainty. Don’t pilot your most critical project as this is all new to you – you need to introduce this slowly. Take baby steps in this opportunity to learn and discover.

Step 2: Gather your team of agile pioneer

With your pilot project selected, you now need to build your team of agile pioneers. This will be your team of people who are keen to do agile. This team have to individually have agile buy-in, as your project won’t get off the ground if a single member is reluctant. If you have a current team in mind but there are one or two reluctant members, re-shape the team for this agile fit.

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Step 3: Give your team enough space

When launching this project, it’s important for the team to be co-located – gathered and working in the same space. Agile projects have very high bandwidth as there’s lot of fast-paced activity happening on a regular basis. Having your team in the same location provides the opportunity to communicate very quickly. It’s a challenge in local council environments to find space, but look everywhere – you could find it in a quiet corner of the office.

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Step 4: Gain stakeholder engagement

The last step is the probably the most critical: Stakeholder engagement. Sometimes you’ll find that a digital team wants to try agile but don’t feel like they can talk about it as the pace and rhythm is so different from a traditional way. The level of stakeholder engagement is continuously much more constant and regular in an agile project, so it’s vital to get this stakeholder engagement upfront. Remember to have this in mind when choosing your pilot project. If you have someone in a product area, they can take the Product Owner role. This is the vision and budget for the project, and someone who can make decisions, prioritise and see how this project is going to evolve.

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