8 things we learned about Agile at GDS Academy

Thanks to an agreement between the LGA and the GDS Academy, local government officers can currently attend the Academy’s courses for free. This is a great opportunity to share and embed a digital and agile approach across the sector, and build skills and consistency.

Attending the Digital and Agile Foundation Course in Fulham this September was a chance to really focus in on these methodologies for delivering change to services in the public sector. Over ten days we covered a huge amount of ground, exploring principles and theory but mainly learning through doing in a series of practical exercises. As well as our expert facilitators, Bev and Al, we were joined by a number of practitioners to share their knowledge and real-life examples.

After an intense but enjoyable course, here are 8 things we learned about agile:

  1. Agile is about sustainability

Contrary to popular belief, agile is not about delivering more and faster. It’s about creating the conditions for a team to work at a consistent pace, delivering consistently good work. It won’t create any more hours in the day, but it should direct the time you’re spending to the things that will create the most value. In addition, continuous improvement and the ability to react to change are fundamental principles of agile that help to make teams and projects sustainable.

  1. Beware of your biases

We all bring our own biases to our work – some we may be aware of, whilst others are unconscious. Working in a multi-disciplinary, non-hierarchical team, using data and constantly testing a service with real users help to combat these biases and ensure we’re making decisions based on evidence of what works, not our own assumptions.

  1. The aim is to build a shared understanding…

One of the times our coach Al looked most pleased on the course was when he’d set us an activity and we didn’t do it. Or rather, we started doing it, and then changed it to something that made more sense to us as a team. He loved it when we ‘broke the tool’ because completing the tool isn’t the aim of the project.

Agile tools and methods are there to help a group of people breakdown ideas, have conversations around them and build them back up into actions, not as ends in themselves.

  1. …And a quality product that delivers value

Agile methods are geared towards delivering value for the user and have built-in ways to ensure a quality product. Creating a Definition of Done and Acceptance Criteria not only help to the team to collectively understand what good looks like, but also ensure that no work is complete without certain key QA tasks being performed. By discussing what needs improvement in Retrospectives, the team can highlight any areas of concern about quality and add them to a Definition of Done, to ensure they’re monitoring and maintaining their own quality.

  1. Measuring velocity is useful – but not necessarily for the things you think

Measuring how much work agile teams is useful for governance, but not because a team will endlessly be able to do more work because they’re using agile methods (see point 1). Because of the relative sizing techniques used in estimation, you can’t compare how two teams are performing, but that doesn’t mean that this monitoring isn’t useful. We had a useful discussion about how measuring team progress (such as number of days a card takes to complete) can be a useful lever for influence over factors outside your team that may be creating blocks.

  1. Agile organisations are on a spectrum from mature to immature

Different organisations sit at different places on this spectrum, and move along it for different reasons. This means that different approaches and levels of structure are required. In general, for less mature organisations, more structure and direction is needed. For those organisations that are more mature in agile terms, the intent of agile methods will be better understood, so teams can be more intuitive and self-directed.

  1. To do agile, the organisation needs to buy-in and change

To achieve all the benefits that agile can bring, an organisation needs to embrace it, and that means changing some fundamentals of how it works. If you’re trying to fit agile into a traditionally waterfall organisation, with the traditional roles and structures this entails, you’ll have to make compromises. This means that while you’ll see some improvements and definitely get some gains, the full value of agile won’t easily be delivered.

  1. We’re all having similar challenges

As an ‘outsider’ to the civil service, it was interesting to learn more about how different departments are tackling the transformation challenge and their relationship to GDS. It was reassuring to know that many of the challenges associated with this work (persuading people that change is necessary, balancing risk and uncertainty, and challenging ‘how we’ve always done it’) are common, and that there’s not one right way to tackle them. However, we were all able to share practical ways to overcome them.

Thanks to Bev, Al and everyone at the GDS Academy as well as the rest of Cohort 62 for a great course.


Cohort 62 pose for a group photo