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Times call for an Agile mindset

Work is changing in the 21st century. One of the fundamental elements of rethinking how work gets done is rooted in digital.

January 10, 2019

By Jean-Louis Ecochard, The Center for the Digital Nonprofit

Work is changing in the 21st century. One of the fundamental elements of rethinking how work gets done is rooted in digital. Broadly called “Agile” (e.g., organizational agility, business agility, management agility), this paradigm shift in management is ideally suited to respond to the pace and complexity of change in our world, requiring organizations to become quicker and more innovative. To further illustrate Agile, McKinsey & Company defines organizational agility as “the ability to quickly reconfigure strategy, structure, processes, people, and technology toward value-creating and value-protecting opportunities."

Faced with increased volatility of world challenges―from climate change to more displaced populations―the nonprofit sector can also benefit from being Agile. One of the findings of the conducted by the Center for the Digital Nonprofit is that the category of Entrepreneurial Spirit skills, that includes Agile, is in average lagging in our sector. Thus, accelerating Agile skills could prove particularly important to the future performance of nonprofits, particularly with digital transformation.

As with any paradigm shift in its early stages, it is normal to encounter lack of clarity. Agile is not immune to that. This confusion is especially true when people are stuck in the old way of working are having difficulties implementing the new one. For example, some organizations claim to be agile but behave no differently than they did in the past. Others seek to define agile so precisely that instead of practicing new ways of working, they create theoretical processes almost impossible for people to comprehend.

In this obscured environment, it is refreshing to see Steve Denning shed light on Agile by sharing research of the small set of principles that divide the “Agile haves” and the “Agile have nots”. These principles are a different way of thinking, comprehending, and acting in the digital world.

Here are these three principles adapted to the nonprofit sector:

Principle 1: Beneficiary Value

Denning’s research identifies this principle as “the most important aspect of the Agile  mindset” and warns that it “is at once the most obvious and the most difficult aspect of Agile to grasp.” He identified this as a challenge in part because research observed a disconnect between what managers say and what the organization does. For example, in our sector, many managers have learned to repeat phrases like “beneficiaries come first,” while continuing to run the organization as an internally focused, top-down bureaucracy focused on growing fundraising. Despite advances in monitoring and evaluation systems, few mid-to-large nonprofits know each and every one of their beneficiaries worldwide, including their level of satisfaction with services received. Impact data is often reported at such high-levels that its analysis washes out essential beneficiary detail.

Adopting the Beneficiary Value principle need not be complicated nor expensive and could start with a simple database listing beneficiary identifier, services received, and a record of their level of satisfaction over time. Although crude and imperfect, particularly as compared to current reporting frameworks, this nimble dataset could usher new behaviors aligned with beneficiary value. Imagine nonprofit staff and donors all aware of current beneficiary satisfaction and trends over time – would it prompt different ways or working and giving?

Principle 2: Small Team

Denning explains that “Agile practitioners share a mindset that work should in principle be done in small, autonomous, cross-functional teams working in short cycles on relatively small tasks and getting continuous feedback from the ultimate [beneficiary].” Small Teams is a principle that can be observed to be already in place in many nonprofits at the field level – although the “autonomous” aspect varies widely. Our field programs are indeed often less than a dozen people at a location working on critical tasks and adapting quickly to changes in context. Could surfacing the Small Team principle from our field operations enable us to learn and adopt it organization-wide at global scales?

Principle 3: Network

Through the Network principle, agile people perceive the organization as a living ecosystem fluidly adapting to changing condition and collaborating towards a common goal. As a sector, our common goal is to do good and, with digital, we aim to do good better. In Network organizations, hierarchies and structures that get in the way of achieving performance are lessened or replaced altogether by self-management.  Work is also transparent with everyone having access to the same information.  Organizations living the Network principle adopt a culture similar to the Teal level described by Fredrik Laloux, that has been observed to sustainably increase performance.

Denning concludes that the secret of Agile is in the mindset defined by these three principles and warns that “Without a mindset with these three keys, what we saw was 'fake Agile’ i.e., Agile in name only. And there is a lot of fake Agile around.

So, can the world’s largest humanitarian nonprofits―members of NetHope―learn from the five largest and fastest-growing firms on the planet (i.e., Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft) that embrace the principles of Agile to become quicker and more innovative? The answer is: We must.

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