Agile – an update

Following my presentation on agile working and service delivery at Diabetes UK for the Third Sector Digital Leaders programme last year, Zoe and Dave kindly invited me back to present to the latest cohort a couple of weeks ago; coincidentally during Diabetes Week.

I focused again on our use of Agile methodology to develop our digital Know Your Risk tool, but took the opportunity to update it with new things I’ve learned, as well as more on how we as a charity have adapted to a new (small ‘a’) agile approach to working since we moved to our new central office in Whitechapel in September 2016.

One of the many good things about our new base, apart from it being less expensive than our previous office, is that we have a big ‘town hall’ space with a kitchen, where it’s easier for the whole charity to gather, as well as making it easier to bump into colleagues and have an interesting chat while getting a cup of coffee.

The wider world of Agile

Just before my latest presentation I bumped into my colleague Richard from the database team who had just been to a useful presentation from Tom Gilb – his key takeaway was to take an approach to requirements definition that kept refining to remove any ambiguity – to really hone each one down to a basic, clear, universally understood definition.

I also followed on Twitter an excellent workshop session on Agile from Econsultancy, serendipitously the day before my own session. One highlight was the use of the term ‘Wagile’ to refer to organisations who end up with a kind of hybrid of Waterfall and Agile project management, which might sound bad to purists but could just reflect the fact that not every organisation can take a textbook Agile approach.

I was interested to see a new JustGiving blog post from Zoe about Agile, sparked by a report into money wasted by ineffective Agile projects possibly turning the tide of opinion against the methodology. Zoe and her contributors really got to the heart of the new and more nuanced approach needed to get the best from Agile, especially if you can’t take a textbook approach – you might never expect to get your whole organisation working in a ‘pure’ Agile way but you can, as I’ve mentioned before, at least cherrypick the best elements and underpin it with a more ‘agile’ mindset.

Zoe also wrote a nice summary of some of the highlights of the latest cohort on her own blog – it was good to see that the people on the programme felt that my experience of introducing ‘agile by stealth’ could be something that could work for them too. As long as everyone appreciates it’s in the ‘subtle’ rather than ‘sneaky’ sense of the word! 🙂




The Charity Digital Toolkit

Despite great progress made in the past 10 years or more, digital skills and strategy are still in short supply in the voluntary sector. To help to address this (and following her report on the state and implications of this shortfall last month), Zoe Amar and the Skills Platform have put together the Charity Digital Toolkit:

Building on the success of The Charity Social Media Toolkit, we decided to take a similar approach in giving charities a grounding in fundamentals by sharing expert advice, inspirational case studies and tips and tricks, but we wanted to tackle weighty topics, going in-depth where needed and asking big, challenging questions about what it takes to make digital work. We encourage you to use this toolkit to help your charity take the next step in its journey with digital.”

– from the Introduction, Charity Digital Toolkit

Each chapter provides insight from a range of contributors into different areas of digital trends and know-how, and I was happy to contribute a case study about how my charity, Diabetes UK, introduced Agile working in a very pragmatic way, through development projects such as our main website and – the featured case study – our online Know Your Risk test for the risk of Type 2 diabetes:

  • Foreword – from Martha Lane Fox
  • Chapter 1: What is digital? – from Zoe Amar
  • Chapter 2: Digital leadership – from Louise Macdonald and Simon Hopkins
  • Chapter 3: Digital audience and strategy – from Katie Taylor and Zoe Amar
  • Chapter 4: Digital channels – from Mandy Johnson, Donna Moore, Dave Evans and Jarrah Hemmant
  • Chapter 5: Measuring success – from Clare Bamberger and Matt Collins
  • Chapter 6: Digital fundraising – from Steve Armstrong
  • Chapter 7: Digital governance and risk – from Brian Shortern and Sarah Atkinson
  • Chapter 8: Digital service delivery – from me
  • Chapter 9: Digital behaviour and the future – from Beth Kanter and Paul de Gregorio
  • Chapter 10: Digital skills development – from Jo Wolfe.

The more I reflect on our online Know Your Risk project and our Agile approach to delivering this service through digital, the more I can see that the best way to achieve the digital skills that lead to digital transformation or maturity, and a more effective voluntary sector, is through doing – taking a hands-on approach and involving people across teams throughout your projects and activities.

I would love to hear any thoughts you have on this, or what you’ve tried that has or hasn’t worked, in any area of digital skills for non-profits.

2016 highlights – summer – I *did* walk 500 miles

Summer 2016
– the 1 Million Step Challenge

When I was two months in to the three-month 1 Million Step fundraising challenge that my charity, Diabetes UK, launched this summer, I blogged about my progress on the charity’s blog site and shared some tips with my fellow walkers.

I’m proud to say I did complete the challenge, though it took me an extra week or so to do it! And thanks to the generosity of my family and friends, I raised £230 – 115% of my target.

What it was like to take part

I found it interesting that, even though I had already been tracking my steps for nearly three years, and had taken part in other walking challenges in that time, something about this particular challenge really motivated me to reach the overall target of 1 million steps.It was a significant challenge, since the average UK adult is said to walk only 5,000 steps a day, and my average tended to be 7-8,000 a day.

It was a significant challenge, since the average UK adult is said to walk only 5,000 steps a day, and my average tended to be 7-8,000 a day.

Since I started step tracking in November 2013 it has motivated me to walk more than I ever did before. I find myself taking the long way around where possible, and trying to walk rather than hop on a bus or tube – to the extent that 2014 was the last year that I bought an annual season ticket and from 2015 I started walking as much as possible.

Both my Dad and his Mum had Type 2 diabetes and I know that a combination of this family history of the condition, plus our ethnicity (South Asian on that side of my family) as well as my age and gender mean that I’m at increased risk of developing the condition myself. Those are the factors I can’t change. But the factors I do have control over are my weight and waist size, so making walking part of my day seemed like a good way of reducing my risk of Type 2.

Despite all the health benefits, it can still be hard to make sure you walk 10,000 steps a day, and my average tends to be closer to 7,000. So, seeking some extra motivation, I was really happy when we at Diabetes UK launched our new 1 Million Step Challenge this summer. More cause to walk, while also fundraising for a good cause.

It takes me about 10,000 steps to cover five miles. 10,000 x 100 = 1,000,000 steps, which = five miles x 100, which = 500 miles. Hence “I will walk 500 miles” became my earworm for the summer. (Sorry for passing it on to you too.)

I had a combination of different motivations and practical steps to keep me going towards 1 million. See if any of them could work for you.

I found these practical steps helped:

  • Walk for my whole lunchbreak – and schedule these walks into my calendar so that they’re less likely to get sidelined.Combine it with reading if I’m somewhere safe to walk while reading, like a park.
  • Combine it with reading if I’m somewhere safe to walk while reading, like a park.Can also combine it with writing, if inspiration strikes – I wrote some notes for this blog post while walking in the park.
  • Can also combine it with writing, if inspiration strikes – I wrote some notes for this blog post while walking in the park.I love taking photos and Instagramming, so walking gives me more opportunities to do that.
  • I love taking photos and Instagramming, so walking gives me more opportunities to do that.I’m interested in architecture and the city I live in (London) – and there are always new places to discover.
  • I’m interested in architecture and the city I live in (London) – and there are always new places to discover.If your job permits, try having meetings while walking – a Walk-and-Talk, for those who remember The West Wing – though I must admit, I haven’t tried that one myself yet.
  • If your job permits, try having meetings while walking – a Walk-and-Talk, for those who remember The West Wing – though I must admit, I haven’t tried that one myself yet.
  • Make friends with other Fitbit/fitness tracker users – apparently on average Fitbit users walk an extra 1,000 steps a day for every Fitbit friend they have.

And I had various things to motivate me:

  • The challenge itself provided motivation – to complete a big personal goal – especially one that you have shared with lots of people.
  • Staying healthy, for me and for my family – including improving my chances of avoiding Type 2 diabetes.
  • Fundraising in memory of my Dad, for a good cause and a charity which not only employs me but has helped my family and so many others affected by all types of diabetes.
  • It’s a nice little reward when you get a 1m Step Challenge or Fitbit badge for doing a lot of steps in a day or reaching the latest equivalent distance – such as the Great Wall of China – and it helps you push on towards the next milestone.
  • And it spurs you on when you see how well other participants and Fitbit friends are doing, through the 1 Million Step Challenge website, the Fitbit app and social media.

It was so nice seeing people sharing their steps and milestones on social media. How do you motivate yourself or make walking – or any physical activity – part of your day? Please share your suggestions and experiences in the blog comments, on social media with the hashtag #1millionsteps. It would be great to hear from you.

What it was like behind the scenes

Although we don’t have a formal innovation team or group at Diabetes UK, in recent years we have tried to come up with new ways of providing support and services, and new ways of fundraising to make it possible.

Back in 2013 our then Events Fundraising Manager, Mark Fox, came up with Swim 22, a fundraising challenge where participants swim 22 miles – the equivalent to a Channel crossing – across three months in the relative comfort of their local pool.

Swim 22 has been a great success. Taking the Agile approach that I had introduced, we started with a minimum viable product in 2013 on our main website without agency involvement. Building on the success of the first year, in 2014 we worked with our agency Manifesto to build dedicated sign-up forms, a distance tracker and shareable content such as progress badges, all based on the Acquia platform.

For the 1 Million Step challenge, we were able to go from a moment of inspiration early in 2016, for an event that wasn’t even in our original plans for the year, to build and launch for 1 July. This included registration and recording functionality along with progress badges – again all through Agile, taking the decision to launch with a minimum viable product based on the Swim 22 platform and requiring very little adaptation.

It allowed us to launch another effective fundraising product, supporting our prevention and healthy lifestyle message – with minimal budget and with our comms focused online and therefore with relatively low costs. We have been able to tap into the fitness tracking trend of the past few years, provide a mass participation fundraising event with a low barrier to entry than some sporting events – requiring no specialist equipment other than a pedometer and no facilities other than a place to walk.

Despite a fairly low barrier to entry, all along I have been conscious that despite the simplicity of the concept, the step target could be offputting for people who are less able to walk, so as part of our review and plans for development, I will be advocating different levels of target reflecting different levels of ability and achievement – in the hope of starting and encouraging more people to take their first steps to positive behaviour change.


Barcamp NFP Half-dayer, November 2016

Last month I was happy to be able to host Barcamp NFP at Diabetes UK’s new home, Wells Lawrence House in Whitechapel.

It was a half-day version of a free, volunteer-run event that I have been involved in since it launched about five years ago. It’s currently led by the ex-head of digital at BHF and Unicef UK, Laila Takeh.

It’s an ‘unconference’ – an event where you turn up with ideas and questions about your work or things you want to learn about, but with no pre-planned agenda. People volunteer to run sessions and the group then agrees which sessions they want to be part of and we build a schedule for the day.


I led a session on ways of using Agile in your work, not just for technical devt but also basing your work on user needs and taking an iterative approach. My colleague Amy ran a session on digital transformation and the great work she’s doing to help make digital more of a mainstream part of what we do. Including making the media wall in our new Town Hall space work smoothly! 🙂

I attended a useful session on defining and making sense of digital engagement metrics. The holy grail is coming up with something that is really useful and helps us to reach and connect more people, and get more support. We talked about ideas for a clearer, more consistent set of metrics, their relative value, how to compare your performance over time and with peers/competitors, and how best to report and act on what you see – all in a way that non-Digital and non-Marketing people can also appreciate. I took away lots of new ideas, and the reassuring feeling that we do a lot of good things already.

We had a wide-ranging session on sharing among charities. Part of the Barcamp ethos is that it’s open to charities big or small, as well as individual activists. We talked about examples of sharing knowledge, content, tech and other resources. I made the point that we put people first but that, when a person has multiple conditions or other needs, they’re often dealing with a separate organisation or service supporting each condition and it would help that person more if we could find a more integrated, shared approach. It also struck me that bigger charities like ours have often done (and, crucially, paid for) bits of work that could serve as a model or template for smaller charities, with little or no funds, to save them reinventing the wheel. And of course we can do things like provide our brilliant venue and hospitality to make sure events like Barcamp NFP continue to help us all to help more people.

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.