Agile for non-profits Can a few simple tools and rituals unlock greater alignment, happiness and impact for your team?

Are agile collaboration practises worth exploring for your team? It depends. Generally speaking, would you say that you…

  • …like strong structures and processes — but don’t want to be straitjacketed by them?
  • …want tighter co-ordination — but with fewer meetings and emails?
  • …like small, steady improvements that add up over time?
  • …want to give team-mates more autonomy and flexibility — while staying aligned with shared goals?
  • …like approaches designed to work with real human psychology — rather than management theory or jargon?

If you found yourself answering yes, then adopting some simple agile practises — like doing team retrospectives, using some form of visual board to track priorities and shared work, or planning and prioritizing in short two-week “sprints” or “heartbeats” — may be worth exploring for your team.

What Is “agile?”

Agile is a project management methodology and mindset that grew out of lean manufacturing, software development and startup culture. It has since spread to the wider business world, government and non-profit sector. Agile approaches tend to:

  1. Plan iteratively. Break big goals into small time-bound pieces, to create shorter feedback loops.
  2. Continually adapt and re-prioritize. To make faster adjustments and improvements.
  3. Focus on teamwork and collaboration. With open communication in tightly-knit, cross-functional teams.
  4. Learn through retrospectives. Break work into two-week cycles, with rigorous team check-in after each cycle to surface learning and improvements.
  5. Embrace positive psychology. To increase team momentum, engagement and health.

Why Agile for Non-Profits?

Every organization now claims to want to be more “agile” or nimble.” But what does it actually mean, and how do you do it? As a leader responsible for strategic planning and program management at Mozilla, I became interested in how open source development teams used agile methods like Scrum as a smarter, easier way to organize their projects.

The challenge is: much of the terminology for agile methods like Scrum are primarily designed for technology projects or businesses, and not always a great fit for non-profit teams. So I’ve developed a set of methods, resources and training to translate and simplify agile for the values, mindset and vocabulary of non-profit organizations.

Agile = rituals for continuous improvement

At its simplest, that’s how one of my mentors explained it to me, and I think he’s right: at its essence, an agile approach is about creating rituals and systems for continuously improving. This is what the Japanese would call kaizen or “getting better at getting better.”

At its simplest, agile breaks big goals into small pieces, then shortens the feedback loops between planning, building and delivering so that you can learn and adapt as you go. This reduces risk of failing, makes the work better, and allows your team to learn what they’re applying and course correct as they go.

Agile teams run great team retrospectives to surface key learning, uncover tensions and remove obstacles. And they’re really good at continually re-prioritizing the backlog of work to be done, based on what they’re learning and the changing circumstances around them.

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