An Agile approach

I’ve been reflecting recently on how my charity, Diabetes UK, has benefited from an Agile approach. I contributed to a blog post earlier this year and then was invited to speak on the subject this month at the School for Social Entrepreneurs, as part of the Third Sector Digital Leaders programme they run jointly with the fantastic Zoe Amar. I also led a session at the Barcamp NFP half-dayer (more on that in a future post too) on the same subject.

We’re well underway with a digital maturity programme to help everyone at Diabetes UK make better use of digital and to expand and amplify what we’re able to do through digital channels; and we have recently moved office and adopted a more ‘agile’, flexible working approach – and designed our new building around it.

Adopting Agile

We’ve been using Agile as our main digital development methodology at Diabetes UK since 2012 – officially. But we were also able to adopt some of the principles a bit earlier than that, to help us solve particular problems. And we’ve been able to use an Agile approach to help the wider organisation develop their digital skills while contributing to digital projects.

Agile by stealth

I think I became aware of Agile around 2010 when we launched our online risk score. Three of the key elements seemed to be:

  • Product ownership
  • User stories
  • An incremental approach/development of minimum viable product (MVP) at each stage.

Although we didn’t have full adoption by the charity at that point, and certainly for the risk score it took a while to agree a product owner (meaning the Digital team was the de facto owner till we did), we were able to develop user stories and make incremental improvements/MVPs. I thought of this as ‘Agile by stealth’ – which worked as a way to benefit from some of the principles while we worked on getting agreement for a more official Agile approach. Because we had user stories ready and waiting, we were able to move quickly whenever small amounts of funding became available, usually through sponsorship, to make the priority improvements and put them live.

Agile in action

I took us fully Agile for digital development in 2012 (although we’ve never been truly ‘textbook’ about it – eg our developers are not in-house and the project team works on multiple projects, not just one sprint for one project at a time – but this still works really well for us and shows you can implement it in a way that suits you). An initial catalyst was having senior management who wanted to see results quickly but wanted to keep tight control over the release of budget. Agile had the big advantage of the incremental approach – which meant gradual spending for gradual, visible improvements.

It also meant we could capitalise on a bigger funding opportunity to improve the risk score – for the short term, to support an outdoor ad campaign, and, for the long term, to make it genuinely more user-friendly and effective as a tool to identify people at the highest risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and to encourage them to seek a medical diagnosis.

Agile as a transformer

A bit later, as part of our new digital strategy, we also finally identified and agreed owners throughout the organisation for our various digital products.

This made the user stories much richer and allowed us to focus on internal users as well as external ones. It also promoted a real feeling of ownership and engagement from the owners – they felt more invested in the success of the product, more conscious of the need to be user-led, more able to get hands-on with analytics and testing, and – crucially – more likely to see the value of finding additional budget to support digital marketing for their product. To encourage engagement it’s important to demystify Agile and show that it’s not just a set of buzzwords but actually a pretty common-sense approach that puts the users first and allows you to identify, prioritise and make improvements that satisfy user needs.

Our small improvements to the risk score from 2010 to 2012 and bigger improvements in 2013 and 2014 were followed last year by the development of an electronic version of the risk score – an app – that could be used offline at our Roadshow events, where we often have no wifi access – but that could push the data to the master risk score database once we were somewhere with a connection.

The benefits of Agile were clear again: although I wasn’t involved in the app project, we had actually had the app (or rather the requirements that led to it) as one of our user stories on our backlog right from the beginning in 2010 – and this, combined with product ownership and a hands-on approach from our Prevention team, meant we could make the case for budget and get moving quickly to launch the app as an MVP, but continue to make improvements as we tested it in the field. It has greatly improved our efficiency and accuracy at capturing data and permissions, providing results (and GP referrals where needed), and providing follow-up information for all opted-in users.

Agile as an enabler

I liked the analogy my brilliant co-presenter at the Digital Leaders event, Amanda Derrick, used to describe the Agile approach – that it is an enabler, like the app her choir uses to monitor their performance and make sure everyone sings in tune. The enabler is key to success but the focus is on the outcome – what we care about – the harmonious singing.

Most recently, we as a charity have also adopted a more agile or flexible approach to how we work, allowing us to create a system and a workplace that helps us work together in a better way. This allows us to sit and work together in project teams and for sprints, as well as providing a dedicated testing room where we can run everything from user research to user acceptance testing, involved internal and external users. And it means Agile is one more aspect helping us to achieve the digital maturity I mentioned at the start of this post.

Are you using Agile?

It was great to be involved in a discussion about Agile with such an engaged group for the Digital Leaders event and I’d love to know how you use Agile, or aspire to that approach, in your own work.

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