Advice: Applying Agile in Community Development

I recently interviewed Senior Coach Jerry Doucett in regards to a question from a community-developer considering using agile methods to grow her organization. Jerry’s response offers excellent suggestions and a is a very good place to get started.

Here is the community developer’s question:

“I am a community leader focused on bringing large numbers (hundreds and thousands) of individuals and community organizations together to discuss important social issues and when possible we take action in our individual or collective neighbourhood life to facilitate change and improvement. My biggest challenge is that funds are limited and I often don’t have access to space. I have a bigger vision than what I can currently implement given the limitations of my non-profit budget yet my community gatherings continue to grow and I want to expand. How can agile help me? What do I need to know about agile which can help me get focused amidst what is sometimes a very chaotic environment and how can I begin taking steps to move in the direction of my vision?”



By Jerry Doucett

Jerry Doucett 201601 white background - head - 275 squareAdvice on Practices

When there is more work than can be delivered (a common situation in business), it can be helpful for a leader to leverage some strategic business, Lean, and Agile techniques to work within constraints and tackle the challenges.  Here are a few suggestions.

Be Transparent

As a leader being transparent doesn’t mean you are expected to air all your dirty laundry.  Instead, it means you may find it helpful to be truthful and honest about some specific challenges you face; to show you are human, concerned with the limitations, and illustrate you are confident enough in your leadership position to seek input, empathy and assistance from others that may also be affected.


This also does not mean a leader should spell out doom and negativity.  Instead it means a leader needs to be clear on the boundaries, constraints and impacts and then provide a positive atmosphere and attitude to move forward with.


In your scenario, using a proper communication strategy to share specific challenges and limitations with key community members may help generate the support needed to invoke empathy, ingenuity and creativity.  Pointing out issues such as the need to provide sustainable growth or optimize expenditures due to limited funding does not in any way indicate failures of leadership.  In contrast if it is messaged correctly it may serve to define the boundaries and galvanize community members to rally around the issues.  At a minimum it may serve to generate a common understanding and empathy for difficult decisions that may need to be made.  If community members are aware of the difficulties they may be more willing to own the problems and impacts, and perhaps even find creative ways to work around them.

Leverage Collaboration

Aristotle has been credited with saying “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”


With that thought in mind, it is advantageous for a leader to recognize innovative ideas often come from a diverse group of people with different perspectives.  It is also a misconception that leadership is expected to provide all the answers.  It can actually be more effective for a leader to convey the vision, needs and outcomes to align on and then work to clear obstacles and provide an appropriate environment, support and guidance for collaborative work.  The vision should be aspirational yet realistic and achievable, and it should be motivational to engage others in the journey.


In your scenario you might find it helpful to hold focused brainstorming sessions with key community leaders and participants.  As a leader it would be helpful for you to frame these discussions and define the vision, issues and/or outcomes you desire from each session, such as;

  • “Given the criticality of time, we offer real-time personal, customized services and support for the X interest group.”
  • “We have identified at least 3 viable options for [physical or digital] space given our funding limitations.”
  • “The community leadership has defined a continuously evolving and improving process for prioritizing and tackling our biggest issues.“
  • “We have implemented an incredibly easy-to-use approach that leverages process and technology to enable collaboration, knowledge sharing and access to shared information and services across our communities and neighbourhoods.”

In other words, define the outcomes, boundaries and expectations you have (i.e. the “what”) and then leverage the power of diversity and groups to tackle these issues (i.e. the “how”).


It would be extremely helpful if an experienced facilitator could be leveraged for these sessions; someone that can remain neutral and impartial, that will ensure all voices are heard, and that will be focused on getting options on the table but not leading the discussion.  Remember that domain knowledge for the facilitator is not necessary but their facilitation skills and ability to remain neutral and fair is critical, as the neutrality will ensure a trust environment is created and maintained which in turn will improve chances for increased collaboration, participation and innovative ideas.


Only by providing a safe environment as well as the encouragement and support needed can a leader leverage the innovative and creative power and diversity of groups.  As a leader you set the vision and goals, and then empower a group and show them you have confidence they will come up with some effective and unique solutions.  Your input is important and your responsibilities need to be made clear, but to create a safe environment a leader must be open and willing to seriously and objectively consider any and all alternatives, regardless of who they come from or what they suggest.  A leader must not only say they are willing to do this, but actually exhibit those characteristics and act accordingly, as actions will speak louder than words.

Define Value

An important part of the process is to clarify a common measure of value.  However, defining value can be elusive as everyone has a different idea of what is important and therefore what provides true value.  More often than not value is simply a forecast.  Remember the goal is not to absolutely define and measure exact value, it is to provide a high level estimate of value that may be relatively compared across all work.


Value can sometimes be derived by asking questions like:  “How much time or effort would this save?”, “How much would doing this reduce repetitive tasks?”, “How much will this increase satisfaction?”, “How much will this increase or decrease usage? (depending on what you are trying to do)”,  “How much money could doing this save us in the long run?”, or even flipping the questions around like “How much money, time or [insert item of importance here] could be lost if we don’t do this?”


In your scenario value could be a series of considerations such as “how many youth are engaged”, “how many families are assisted” or “how much change or improvement results from our actions.”  It is a very personal measure that is difficult to determine, but it is important to define what is valued in order to create alignment and a common rallying strategy, declare what is important, identify the risks and impacts, and ensure the right things are worked on at the right time.


People often tend to over-think, over-engineer, over-design and over-build things and leaders are no exception to this.  If anything, compared to team members a leader may often need to consider additional sociopolitical cultural, or economic issues.  As a result of these complexities, potential solutions may tend to become overly complicated.  Given these challenges it is important to remember the art of maximizing the amount of work not done can often be essential to success, optimization and sustainability.


When the work and constraints are complex and real, it is important to recognize there may be pieces of the larger work that are unnecessary, not cost effective, or provide substantially reduced value.  Given constraints it is important to consider the Pareto Principle (commonly known as the 80/20 rule) which is often applied in business and optimization observations.  An example would be that 80 percent of value delivered is often derived from 20 percent of the solution or work.  A further extraction might be to estimate the last 20 percent of the value might approximately take 80 percent of the effort (although this is based on conjecture and not statistics).


In considering the conceptual approach of the Pareto Principle it would help to decompose solutions into smaller, more tactical pieces.  Then, objectively ask which pieces are necessary to deliver the highest degrees of value; not necessarily the top 80% of value or 20% of work, but conceptually a considerable proportion of the highest value in the smallest amount of work.  This weighting should especially be done in light of the real constraints such as time, finances, ability or needs.  Many businesses have experienced dramatic improvements in profitability by using the Pareto Principle approach to simplify their efforts and focus on the most effective areas, and then either discard, ignore, automate, delegate or delay the rest of the work as appropriate.


After simplifying and cutting waste, a refinement would be to prioritize the remaining work based on a measure of value and then tackle it by always focusing on the highest current priorities (highest value work next).


This approach will not ensure everything is delivered, or that more work will be delivered, but it will help optimize a return on investment and ensure the items of highest value are addressed first.


Using this approach would result in a list of work ordered based on value, where the most valuable items are at the top of the ordered list and lower value items follow below them.  Then the practice would be to always start working at items at the top and as work is completed you choose the next most valuable piece of work in the list to tackle.


In your scenario this might result in certain programs being given priority over others, and that prioritization would be driven based on whatever value measure you defined earlier.

Limit Work in Progress

When there is more work to be done than constraints allow, the human tendency is to “juggle” the work and tackle more things at the same time. The theory behind this is that humans believe we are good at multitasking and we that we can optimize our time accordingly. We also believe when we run into impediments we can immediately task-switch to something else with no loss in productivity.


The reality is there is a substantial overhead cost to task-switching and the more work we have in progress the less effective we actually are.  Countless studies from many different domains (Psychology, Physiology, Sociology, Economics) have all concluded there is a high cost to multitasking, sometimes as much as a 40% loss in productivity.  This is especially true for cognitive tasks, and slightly less so for physical tasks.


The correct practice to follow is to always limit your work in progress and focus on working on what matters most right now.  In the Agile and Lean domains the call to action is “Stop starting and start finishing.”  Another similar viewpoint is “Unfinished work is debt.”


In your scenario, the recommendation would be to limit the number of work items or programs you tackle to as few as possible.  When combined with the prioritization technique (above) the resulting process is to “swarm” the most important problem as a group, tackle and resolve it, and then move to the next most important item. The fewer critical issues you focus on at the same time the sooner you can implement a potential solution for evaluation (see the inspect and adapt section below) and move to the next one.

Deliver Quickly

The practices of simplification, prioritization and limitation of work in progress collectively enable the ability to deliver and complete work quickly.  The value in delivering something quickly is to obtain timely feedback on the work or solution and then act on it accordingly.


Closing or tightening feedback loops ensures the right, most appropriate solution is implemented more often as you are delivering smaller pieces, getting feedback quickly, then changing the plan and output based on the feedback and iteratively resubmitting for another round of feedback.


This approach also mitigates the considerable risk of spending a lot of time building a complete solution to address a very complex idea, but missing the mark on the needs and not discovering that until the results are already completed and delivered.  This would potentially result in a lot of rework and waste.


In your scenario this approach means it would be beneficial to frequently validate ideas, policies, procedures and practices as they are being designed and discussed rather than after they are rolled out or implemented.

Inspect and Adapt Often

One of the cornerstone practices and guiding principles of Agility and Lean is a commitment to continuous improvement.  The facilitation of this is the technique of constantly inspecting and adapting….


constantly tune and adjust your plan to the current environment



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