Blog / Event: Agile Pilot - How to deliver "stuck" digital products and encourage innovation across your organisation

September 19, 2016

Complex portfolios of digital products can stall in development. It’s a fact of life. The vision gets clouded, deployment slows down, your team becomes demotivated and progress halts. You’ve stopped delivering. Or even worse, you can’t quite seem to get your ducks in a row and you’re having trouble kick-starting your new project.

Then comes the big question: “What does it take to gain momentum?”.

Three speakers, three sessions, a round of Lego and room full of eager minds were the basis of our Agile Pilot event, where we aimed to uncover a variety of different answers to this big question. Not only that, but hear from those who have successfully piloted agile projects through traditional organisations and come out the other side, cheering victoriously.

With introductions by Carrie Bedingfield done and out of the way, the morning launched with an energetic ‘Yes, But…’ session, with the room pairing to build ideas for products based on their partner’s idea.

Yes But 1

Session 1: Innovation too late

Melissa Sabella (@msabella) - Founder and CEO, The Honeycomb Works (@thcworks)

Previously working as the Director of Strategy, Delivery, Product and Innovation at Reed Learning, Melissa was responsible for the overall strategy of Reed Learning, reporting directly into the CEO of the Reed Group. She has led digital transformation in professional learning and development by piloting agile teams in organisations to deliver fast tangible results for key stakeholders.

Melissa Sabella 1

Melissa’s session addressed the situation where an organisation moves too slowly for too long and, just when the light bulb strikes… It’s too late. The organisation has found itself in a position where it’s too late and, unfortunately, there isn’t enough time left to show results and funding gets cut off.


Failure is not an easy thing

  • In baseball, the elite players fail 7 out of 10 times - we have to get as comfortable with failure as they are
  • It’s easy to say we do, but when it comes to money being invested and people’s jobs on the line, protecting the status quo feels responsible
  • When failure does happen, sometimes it’s the right thing after all


What could we have done differently?

When a great project idea doesn’t achieve the result you were hoping and aiming for, you then look into asking “why?”. For example, it could be that an organisation loses their nerve, the sponsor leaves, funding gets cut off, etc. But remember if this happens that it’s important to look back and ask yourself: “What could we have done differently?”.

Melissa Sabella 2

  • If massive transformation invloves management changing roles and collaborating , be sure accountabilities and ownership are clearly negotiated and expectations are set from the start
  • Get the structures and incentives right - i.e. make sure your marketing is sitting with your product and your sales team is rewarded to sell the new stuff
  • If you have a tough decision to make and there are two choices, do not make a decision - come up with more choices and more options
  • Take the time to create your strategy and be ruthless about focusing on what will get you there vs. generate some incremental revenue
  • Socialisation of the product idea is important - getting a whole organisation excited about what’s happening will keep people invested even when it gets tough


Session 2: Transforming local government services

Martyn Evan (@martynrevans) - Head of Product, Unboxed (@ubxd)

From working with organisations such as SH:24, Pearson, Reed Learning and, more recently, Buckinghamshire County Council, Martyn has a wealth of experience in going into organisations, taking stuck or unstarted projects and kickstarting progress with agile teams to deliver results, directly from day one.

Pilot Agile project - Martyn Evans 1

Martyn’s session focused around transforming digital services through applying the GDS (Government Digital Service) Service Standard, using local council as a recent example, and sharing his top tips for ensuring success within a pilot agile project.

Applying the GDS Service Standard to transform digital services

One of the main drivers in public sector organisations is not how to make money, but how to save money. The challenge is knowing that better services need to be delivered. There is currently a large movement in the public sector moving towards, and adopting, agile and the GDS Service Standard.

What you shouldn’t do

  • Spend one year thinking about a service you want to deliver
  • ..another full year specifying it out
  • ..two years building it
  • ..another year testing it
  • Then release this service to the public five years later for them to say: “That’s not what we wanted”, and no one uses it

What you should do
Follow the GDS Service Standard for building your digital service:

  • Spend 6-8 weeks with a small team to explore your ideas, get to know your users and the pain points they have
  • Go back to your stakeholders and tell them what you’ve done, then undertake an Alpha phase
  • Spend a further 6-10 weeks going back to see your users again to prototype ideas and get feedback on these
  • And then go to back to your stakeholders again to share your evidence, then build a bigger team
  • Go back out there with your bigger team and build something that is ready to go live

Although a very linear process, the Service Standard is a very useful way of making your team not spend too much time on things that perhaps they shouldn’t be spending time on.

Pilot Agile project - Martyn Evans 2

Buckinghamshire County Council

Buckinghamshire County Council are currently on a cost-saving mission, with a target of saving £1.8million across the council by 2017/2018.

Following the arrival of their new Head of Digital, the digital team knew they wanted to apply the GDS Service Standard to their newest services, having seen success in other public sector departments, as well as take the first steps in this cost-saving target.

  • The project kicked off with an Inception Workshop - getting all key stakeholders into one room for two days to go through the process of what problems were going to be solve (everyone joins in to share their thoughts and get their say)
  • Next was the Discovery phase, with the team getting out of the council building to engage with users in the local area and putting themselves in the shoes of these users, using the current systems in place to experience these first hand
  • Following the Discovery phase, the team put together the business case for the Alpha phase
  • The Alpha phase addressed technical prototypes to begin integrating the new services with existing services
  • At the end of Alpha, there were two services to take into the Beta phase
  • These two services are now in the Beta phase, with real people using them on a daily basis, and the cost savings are already happening through reduced volume to contact centres


Three tips for the success of your agile pilot

Tip 1: Test your assumptions

  • Identify the assumptions that you’re making at the beginning of your project
  • Test these assumptions by asking: “What needs to be true?”
  • Pick the assumption that is the biggest risk, which is most likely to be a false assumption
  • Test this assumption and find out if this is true, before you start building anything
  • Say “We believe that…” and go and test it
  • Actively show things to users and get people to tell you you’re wrong
  • Go and hear things you don’t want to hear - fail fast

Agile Pilot tip 1


Tip 2: Show your working

  • Use agile principles - don’t produce massive reports but put in a Show & Tell session after each sprint
  • Use this Show & Tell to invite anyone and everyone who is interested
  • Share what you said you would do during that sprint, what you did do, and what you think you’ll do during the next sprint
  • Don’t use your internal design resource to produce impressive documents for your stakeholders, but create a very simple infographic to share your progress visually
  • Use Slack to open up conversations and make these visible in public channels - stakeholders can take part if they want or they can just see the conversations

Agile Pilot tip 2


Tip 3: Assemble the right team

  • If you can find really smart people available, get them on your team
  • The team’s role is to use their digital expertise, their agile principles and their experience to work together with the Product Owner to help them make the right decisions
  • As your project grows, grow your team
  • Find the advocates on your team and the word spreads

Agile Pilot tip 3

And Martyn’s slides from the session:

Agile Pilot - Martyn Evans from Unboxed


Session 3: Getting un-stuck - A tale of destruction and rebirth

Richard Atherton (@RathertonRich), Management Consultant, Coach & Programme Manager

Richard Atherton is a coach, educator and leader with more than 15 years’ experience. He has led or helped to transform numerous clients, which include ITV, BBC and Universal International. Richard works at the cutting edge of human and organisational development.

Richard Atherton 1

Richard’s session took the audience through the story of his leadership of the transformation of a large media organisation. He shared the insights gained from introducing Agile into areas of their organisation for the first time:

  • An organisation might say: “Yes, we want to be Agile” but the reality is they might be demanding ‘un-Agile’ deliverables, such a Gantt charts and large documentation
  • Accept, accept, accept: Accept everything that the organisation wants to do, then change it and work on making it Agile
  • The more you accept, the less frustration you will receive and the less resistance there will be
  • Commit to the deliverables they’re looking for, but say you’ll approach them in a more Agile way - then work on chunking these deliverables down, one at a time, into more manageable pieces
  • Reduce the expectation around the detail of analysis documents - deliver these in a shorter amount of time and make the the depth of these documents slimmer
  • When you get the formalities out of the way, then comes the time to work in a different way with the organisation and begin introducing new techniques to their ways of working
  • Experiment to find ways of approaching new challenges, and bring your teams together


Get your team to set some hard, measurable objectives

  • Set some quantitative results in your team that are difficult, but not impossible, to achieve
  • This objectives approach complements Agile, as one the biggest criticisms of Agile can be a feeling of no direction and accountability
  • Set these measureable objectives to state what the direction is, and show that the team are holding themselves accountable
  • These objectives could be cash for the sales team, revenue, events for marketing, etc.


Work out loud

  • Feedback feedback, feedback: Encourage a culture of getting feedback into everything you do, and always ask for this feedback
  • Get this feedback through workshops, sessions, user research interviews - anything and everything, just make sure you get this vital feedback
  • Use storytelling to connect to people on your change journey - create a visual story of your whole journey together
  • Carry out your Show & Tells in big open spaces and get everyone involved, including your sales team - get them to share their prospects, 'work out loud’


Lego Serious Play

Richard completed the session by getting the Lego out and leading a Lego Serious Play exercise.

Richard Atherton 2

Each person created a model to represent a time where they had either gotten stuck or had experienced trouble in getting started with a project to share with the people on their table. The aim of this session was for each situation to take a visual form, for people to open up about their challenges, and discuss ways of overcoming this - harnessing the table’s collective intelligence.