Lessons from the inside: agile & scrum at a small scale

OpenUp's JD Bothma teaches the team a thing or two about using agile in the civic tech space

In April this year, we held a screencast for the whole team on agile and scrum at a small scale, focusing on how to use these principles and methodology in the civic tech space. 

Recently, we've gone through some changes. From a reduction in team size to a new brand identity and website, OpenUp is quite different from what it was just a year ago. As our organisation has changed, we've adapted the principles of agile to our way of working. 

Quite simply, agile is a manifesto and a set of principles that attempts to minimise risk. It comes from observing what was done when things went well, and when they did not. At its core, agile tries to address human nature in the face of complexity. This is very useful for organisations like ours, who exist in more than one space. On one hand, we code and develop technological tools and resources for people. On the other, we work with people to inform, empower, and realise their rights.

We practice agile principles on a daily basis and, slowly, it has become ingrained in the way we work. At OpenUp, we use it for more than just the tiny part of a project that is the technology because we believe it can contribute to risk management and the fast learning seen in the innovative tech world.

"OpenUp is somewhat differently configured from a typical software company where a lot of these things come from."

Scrum is a framework for software project management that emphasises teamwork, accountability and repeated progress towards a clearly defined goal. Typically suited to a team of five to nine people (at OpenUp, our teams are often composed of only one or two people), it functions on having well-defined roles. There is (1) the product owner who is expected to be present and available at all times to clarify requirements and drive the vision of the project or tool; (2) a scrum master who helps stakeholders apply the process as they have agreed and protects the development (or implementation) team from interference; and (3) the implementation team, who develops the product, tool, or resource.

Watch the screencast of how we think about agile and scrum at OpenUp. 

"Teams are effective when they are trusted and empowered."

At OpenUp, scrum is particularly important to facilitate communication and expectations management, as a consequence of the planning and iterative implementation. An example of this is working in sprints (or work cycles) of two weeks at a time. At the start of a sprint, we determine a set of deliverables and decide what we are going to spend that time working on. We check-in and exchange ideas or struggles during daily standup, where we share what we did yesterday, what we'll be doing that day and if there is anything stopping us from achieving what we're supposed to be working on. At the end of a sprint, we review what was achieved, what was not achieved, but more importantly why

The following is a shortlist of takeaways from the webinar: 

  • The fewer tasks or deliverables you have the better because if you can pool your efforts as a small team and get one thing out (instead of not putting out several unfinished things), then there is more value out in the world supporting your users,
  • Find a balance - that works for you and your team - between favouring something that is built (even if it isn't perfect) over something that is documented correctly,
  • The first step to implementing agile and scrum is to just start doing stuff, see if you did it well, and then actively trying to improve on it from what you’ve learnt,
  • There is intent behind each principle and activity, and 
  • Things are often never perfect the first time, and you need to learn to be okay with this and iterate. 

These ways of working are not the only ways things have to be done but are merely a starting point for some kind of a methodology. In fact, this is not the first time we've debated the merits of agile. These methodologies are not a textbook and there is no correct way to implement them. More than anything, this was an opportunity for a team that has gone through a few changes, to tease out the intent behind these principles and what they achieve, and learn how to apply them to our context within the civic tech space.

We encourage you to watch the screencast, which goes into a lot more detail. 

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