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Tips to Make Your Organization More Agile

By Association Adviser staff • April 12, 2021

Agile methodology has dramatically improved the success of software development for the past 30 years. This adaptive and collaborative process breaks large projects into smaller chunks. During each cycle, the team works toward a specific outcome, gathers customer feedback, and incorporates the feedback in the next cycle.

Agility also is an important value for nonprofit organizations. According to Deloitte, it can push marketing departments to quickly design, create, and launch marketing campaigns, develop new services or products and better engage with members, donors, and other stakeholders.  Agility also can foster greater cross-team unity, flatten the organizational chart, and improve flexibility and adaptability throughout the entire organization, according to Forbes.

Agility, however, doesn’t just happen. It must be cultivated.

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An Agile Workflow

An agile workflow cycle typically has four parts: Plan, Do, Check, and Adapt. Each cycle is referred to as a sprint. A sprint is usually a one-to-four-week period during which the team tries to accomplish one goal or outcome. At the start of the sprint, the team holds a planning session. During that session, the development team tries to forecast what can be developed in the sprint, and the person designated as product owner determines and prioritizes the tasks to be accomplished.  During the “Do” part of the sprint, the team accomplishes the tasks. In daily meetings, they tell what they did yesterday, what they will do today, and what challenges they expect or have met. During the “check” phase, the team works with other stakeholders to discuss what was achieved and what could be done in the future to improve. The team also evaluates its own processes and identifies what to improve during the next sprint. Then the process begins again.

Here are some ways to adapt this agile workflow and philosophy to your organization.

Start Small

Don’t try to move from a more traditional management style to agile across the whole organization at once. Becoming agile often requires a major behavioral change on the part of leadership. Going slowly may allow this to occur gradually. Start by choosing one complex service or problem where customer opinions may change quickly, and the solution may be multifaceted. Then implement a cross-functional team to work together and with members, donors, or other customers to deal with the problem in rapid, iterative, and flexible cycles. Once this team has the hang of agility, use one of its members to coach another team that will work on a different challenge.

Here’s an example

Suppose the association wants programs that will be relevant to its members. A team is tasked with engaging speakers for the upcoming conference as one part of that overall goal.  During the first cycle planning meeting, the team hopes to develop a list of 10 potential speakers for the five conference slots. The conference owner prioritizes the tasks required to develop the list, for example, using research to determine what members view as relevant, getting recommendations, researching speakers, etc. During the “do” phase, members complete the tasks, reporting daily in brief meetings. Once the team develops the list, it meets with a focus group of members to obtain feedback. Based upon the feedback, the team either prioritizes the list and invites the speakers or begins a new cycle to generate different recommendations.

Educate Leadership About Agility

According to Harvard Business Review, leaders who have only a passing familiarity with agile methodology often implement it chaotically. They start too many projects, put people on too many cross-functional teams, and knock themselves out trying to attend every team meeting. They overturn team decisions. To truly be agile, leaders need to learn to trust the team.

Embrace Technology

Emerging technologies such as predictive analytics software and artificial intelligence (AI) can help marketing departments predict culture and, by extension, what their members or customers may want next. For example, predictive analytics uses machine learning to make predictions based upon historical data.  Machine learning is an AI technology that finds patterns at scale within datasets. Finding ways for teams to use this technology will accelerate the move to a more adaptive and customer-centric organization.

Destroy Barriers

Many marketing departments have functioned hierarchically and with silos for many years. To truly become agile, you may need to make major changes to processes and systems. For example, individual teams must be working from the same set of priorities, and everyone in the department must do so as well. For example, if developing a new member service is a priority, then that service must also be a priority in the budget as well.

Being agile can help nonprofits gain more members, better engage those they have, develop better fundraising ideas, and serve their constituents more effectively. With a little planning, this “Plan, Do Check, Adapt” framework can become a permanent part of the organization’s culture.