Adapting to change and getting things done with agile

Quanta trainer David Lawrence on harnessing the skills of a Scrum Master to empower teams on agile working

By Quanta

29 Mar 2023

Agile-based approaches to work, such as Scrum, have shown impressive results in the private sector in boosting productivity as well as customer and staff satisfaction. Agile approaches emerged from adopting manufacturing processes that the Japanese developed post-Second World War, which were then adapted by the technology community to improve products and services. Improved productivity, customer and staff satisfaction, and better outcomes are the benefits organisations across the public sector see when turning to agile work approaches too.  

Agile work is also attractive for the public sector because it provides organisations with flexibility. As organisations operate in a constantly changing environment, with new technologies, changing policies, and shifting public priorities, agile work stands ready to help decision-makers respond quickly and effectively to these changes.  

Agile to change  

The recently announced plans to pause progress on several road projects, including a two-year delay to the Lower Thames Crossing tunnel scheme to create a new link between Essex and Kent, and Phase 2a of the High Speed Two railway line – which will carry services from the West Midlands to Crewe – highlight the importance of moving away from traditional project management to more contemporary ways of working, such as agile.  

As Transport secretary Mark Harper explained, the decision to push back delivery of Phase 2a was prompted by "significant inflationary pressure and increased project costs", which came about by the economic fallout from Russia's invasion of Ukraine and supply-chain disruption stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.  

Quanta trainer David Lawrence says large infrastructure projects, such as HS2, are difficult to run incrementally, but notes there is a great advantage to an agile mindset and not investing so much time and effort planning things in great detail that may not be realised due to changing political, economic, societal, technological, legal or environmental factors.   

“The advantage of agile work is ensuring projects are delivered on time and within budget,” he says, noting organisations no longer need to build in time and cost overrun contingencies. “With agile, you're able to adapt quicker, and it's not as costly to change direction," he adds.  

Lawrence explains that agile work allows delivery teams to get things done by adopting a pragmatic approach, improving the interaction between staff, citizens and stakeholders.

He explains: "Agile work is more effective than traditional project management because it breaks down project stages into smaller pieces, allowing teams to work towards a minimum viable product, developed in short cycles with regular feedback between stakeholders, ensuring continuous improvement and quality controls."  

Creating cross-functional teams with clear roles and responsibilities is another advantage of agile work, which is particularly helpful in breaking down silos and promoting collaboration between departments. Here, Lawrence says, is where the importance of leadership skills takes on another level.  

The new agile leader  

Adopting agile work in government requires a significant cultural and organisational shift, which takes time and effort to achieve. For Lawrence, this is why public sector organisations are increasingly interested in having leaders with the skills of a Scrum Master. 

"Scrum is a framework within the agile approach to software development that emphasises teamwork, communication, and iterative progress toward a well-defined goal," Lawrence says. He explains that Scrum involves a team of developers who work in short 'sprints' to deliver small, incremental improvements to a product or service. The team holds daily meetings to stay aligned and discuss progress, with regular reviews with stakeholders and retrospectives to assess what worked well and what could be improved.  

"One of the key features of Scrum is the role of the Scrum Master, who is responsible for ensuring that the team works together, is following the process and removing any obstacles that may arise," Lawrence explains, noting Product Owner is another vital role in Scrum. "They are responsible for defining and prioritising the product backlog, a list of features and tasks that need to be completed."  

For Lawrence, the role of a Scrum Master and Product Owner can be applied to project and service delivery in government in much the same way as it is to project delivery in any other industry. This is why public sector organisations are increasingly interested in having leaders with the skills of a Scrum Master and Product Owner, which have similar but not exclusive attributes to Team leader and Service Delivery Manager.  

"The Scrum guide is easy to learn but hard to master," he says, noting that the framework must be modified to fit each department or agency.  

"This is the kind of support public sector organisations need from organisations like Quanta," says Lawrence, noting specialised trainers will give them general awareness and help train up their Scrum Masters and Product Owners to provide them with a start.   

"This can be a long transition for some people from their traditional project management ways of working to an agile approach," says Lawrence. However, he notes that adopting agile work and gaining the skills of a Scrum Master can be extremely rewarding, particularly due to the many benefits of empowerment. 

“People are naturally drawn to problem-solving and creativity. If, as managers, we get out of their way and empower them to do so, it generates a happier, increasingly more productive workplace,” he concludes. 

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