A few weeks ago, a friend reminded me of a post I wrote for the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) Digital blog during my agile coaching activities in 2014. The post was titled “Agile for non-digital projects“.

Re-reading it recently, I realised that a) I never shared this ramble on my personal blog, and b) I still 100% agree with what I wrote, maybe more than ever.

So without further ado, I’ve included an extract from the original post here for perpetuity.


People often ask me: “is an agile approach relevant for non-digital or non-technology projects?” I always answer: “agile is for everyone.”

Anyone can approach a project with the Agile Manifesto and its 12 principles in mind. The agile movement comes from software development, so don’t be surprised when you encounter terms like ‘working software’. Just scrub it out in your mind and replace it with ‘delivering my project’.

Delivering your project with agility is especially relevant and helpful when you meet the following challenges and needs:

1. Uncertain Conditions

When you need to find a solution and it’s not clear how you can solve the problem up front. An agile approach encourages you to pick the simplest part of your goal to deliver quickly, so you can learn from the results, iterate, or fail quickly and cheaply.

2. Structuring change and iteration

When your understanding of scope is a moving target, agile techniques can help you to add enough structure, control and routine to flex, test and iterate on your solution to find the desired result.

3. Uniting and empowering the team

We have a saying – “the team is the unit of delivery”. Providing an environment where team members can collaborate with stakeholders and self-organise from clear priorities, results in a two-way design process. The entire team is empowered to find ways to simplify, enhance the project vision and deliver early and often.

Constrained by expensive materials

Before you say, “I’m quite certain of my project’s scope, so there’s no need to change or iterate”, pause a second.

If your project involves digging a super sewer under London, building a new high speed railway or constructing a skyscraper, you will most certainly need a distinct design-up-front stage. This is usually because the expense of the materials and a 500+ labour force means the cost of a test, change or a mistake can blow the budget and call a halt to the entire project.

The Shard. Image by Jon Crel.

Constrained by safety

If you’re shooting a rocket carrying an astronaut to the moon, safety is a priority. But let’s not forget there were 17 missions (or iterations!) in the Apollo Programme. The first unmanned Apollo 1 mission caught fire at launch. Apollo 13 aborted their mission on the third lunar attempt and the crew returned to Earth in a space life raft.

It seems that no matter how certain you are of your project goal, there are so many things we can test and learn from in previous iterations.

Arguably, projects constrained by expensive materials and human safety can still be inspired by agile. Zoom out slightly and we can see these projects are still learning from testing and failure, but with much longer iteration cycles.

Constrained by failure

If you’re not constrained by expensive materials and human safety, perhaps it’s time to challenge your approach. Things can always go wrong, no matter what approach you take.

If it’s cheap to test/fail, why not try it out? We often find projects inspired by agile release early, improve over time, avoid waste and save money.

If your project or programme involves transformational and organisational change, or a repeatable process, you have an excellent opportunity to approach your project using agile techniques. Design-up-front traditional project management processes were created to combat physical constraints that simply don’t exist for these projects.

There are so many useful concepts in the world to get inspired by, and if I can inspire to read more about agile and iterate on your processes, that’s my job done.