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Why agile isn’t just for tech teams anymore

We caught up with Nigel Dalton of Thoughtworks, to find out what lessons we can take from 2020

Working in agile has become the new norm amongst tech and development teams across the world. Since the key principles were outlined in the early 2000’s by a motley crew of software developers, agile has gone on to change the way people work and manage business at some of the world’s biggest tech companies. Places like – Apple, Facebook, Atlassian, Uber and Airbnb, just to name a few. But can agile ways of working be applied to organisations and teams outside of tech? Or is it really just for the trendy Silicon Valley crowd? To find out more, we caught up with Australia’s own “Godfather of Agile”, Nigel Dalton of Thoughtworks.

"I’m obsessed with productivity as the principle that links us all to our work"

Hi Nigel, could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself, what you are working on at the moment, and something you are looking forward to doing once the restrictions lift?


I’m a social scientist, who finally after 35 years of startups, scaleups and screwups, is getting around to working with that as my actual job title - at ThoughtWorks in Australia. Apart from being a fascinated observer of the largest unsupervised workplace sociology experiment in history (aka COVID-19), I’m working on a book titled "Superproductive", podcasting, riding my bike within the 5km bubble, playing guitar, and being closely supervised by 2 sassy, micromanaging cats.

I’m obsessed with productivity as the principle that links us all to our work – defined as ‘measurable progress towards meaningful goals’. Everyone cares about that – from the CEO, to the CFO, down to the software developer and the call centre employee – because making no progress is tough on mental health and organisational health at the same time.


Nigel Dalton, and his cat Stanley.


What are the benefits for teams outside of the tech and software bubble to work in agile? Can it really be applied to any team?


Agile, in terms of the ways of working, was a response to increasingly VUCA times in the 1990s – lots was going wrong in tech with big projects and enterprise software. You had a group of engineers who were frustrated at the blame for repeated project failure being heaped on their craft, so they set about finding a better way to make code. That is all.

They reached into their own work experience (including time at major companies like IBM), and software engineering practices dating back to the 1950s, through the Smalltalk software community in the 1980s, and with some leading technosocial thinkers at the table as well, came up with the Manifesto and Principles.

I was in the USA for the second wave in 2001 at the time when the Snowbird 17 created the Manifesto – and having read some of the first wave’s outputs (Extreme Programming by Kent Beck in particular), was excited to see how these principles could likely be stretched to marketing, sales, operations and service teams. Agile beyond IT! As the web started changing the power balance between consumers and producers, and delivery of products changed forever (products included services now! Services were delivered like products), we desperately needed new ways of working to keep up. 5 year product cycles were dead.

I later learned from ThoughtWorker and former Ford engineer Rich Durnall that the foundations of agile were actually from a whole raft of people and fields, not just code – in particular the Lean Management movement that grew out of Japan, and most famously Toyota. It was a shock, and a joy to discover the answers to ‘agile beyond IT’ were all there in The Machine That Changed the World, Lean Thinking, and Deming’s books.

Here’s what we ended up adopting at the REA Group:

Agile Diagram


The lean core is doing the highest Value work (as valued by customers); managing Flow to ensure no blockages or friction; and paying attention to eliminating Waste in its many forms. Agile daily management systems were based on everyone having visualised work, prioritised and assigned an owner, with a daily conversation, and once in a while retrospectively reviewing how the factory was working.


Working remotely has been a bumpy road for many businesses, can agile help with this? 


There’s more in the Lean toolkit for these remote working times than the agile software development toolbox. People’s misinformed view that you just form remote agile squads, allocate tasks in Jira, and measure story points as progress is counterproductive to making work better to be honest. Luckily there is a tradition of software developers having worked remotely on their code, so it wasn’t all new to many of them!

What has been amplified by COVID-19 is many Executive’s and Manager’s core fears about work – the personal price of failure being high (embarrassment, rejection, shame, monetary loss), loss of their job, loss of power and influence, lack of respect. Micromanagers who were only really talented at observing people being present in the office (by a bum on a seat); perhaps occupied with work or even busy at their desk or in meetings; were generally weak at assessing team productivity - the outcomes, not the outputs. Can agile help with this?

The answer is yes it can – because it encourages a more scientific mindset about work, and a greater emphasis on the humanity involved. The Manifesto talked about sustainability of pace, serving customers, respect for people, conversations over contracts – these are things that will boost your outcomes without doubt. But, if you were crap at managing those before COVID, people are not about to hit the books and pick up new skills now – the worst of them are observing staff with always-on webcams, and arm-waving frantically about getting everyone back to the office full-time – presumably so they can micromanage their staff more effectively.

Agile legend Pat Reed talks about the skillset of the modern agile manager, an ‘adaptive leadership’ model – they are worth noting, as these will be the difference between those who thrive in the chaos of COVID and the recovery, and those that wither and die:

  • Courage
  • Connection to purpose
  • Systems thinking
  • Learning agility – ability to do once, and learn from that experience
  • Growth mindset (rather than a closed, victim mindset)
  • A focus on customer value
  • Skill at sense-making (in the Dave Snowden Cynefin definition)
  • Polarity management (also known as ‘both and’ thinking.


How can you convince the powers-that-be at your workplace that agile is the way to go? Should they start small, or go all in?


There was a study by the Drucker Institute 5 years ago into the failure of agile transformations and ways of working that empirically proved that if the executive and senior managerial stakeholders didn’t understand, and actively support the work to create a new way of working, it was almost 100% sure to fail. So if those senior people are divided on investing millions of dollars in changing the work practices (and along the way the culture) of your organisation, my advice is don’t even bother – you are actually harming the whole model of agile workplaces by creating yet another record of “it doesn’t work around here”.

That makes it look a little gloomy for the skunkworks approach to agile transformations – a small rebel force doing standups and translating their weekly results into Gantt charts for the PMO every Friday is probably not going to change an organisation. It takes far more time to turn the ship around than people imagine, or are promised by fancy management consultants. The famous overnight transformation of ING Bank in the Netherlands is now 10 years into the journey; REA Group after 10 years maybe a quarter of the way to being as good as companies like Toyota, Haier, Spotify or Buurtzorg in terms of utilising lean and agile ways of working to continually boost productivity.

ThoughtWorks (where I work) has adopted the approach of the thin slice, which is more talked about these days – understand the value stream being delivered, all the way to the customer. Understand all the parts of the company that have a role in delivering it – and find something that goes from raw materials (ideas and funding in a digital company) all the way to the glass on the phone the customer is viewing their app on. Innovate that thing!

By executing a new idea within that slice you will discover everything you need to know about the friction in your business, the domains of power and organisation that are counter to delivering customer value, and get multi-disciplinary thinking focused on the customer, not the politics of the bureaucracy.

If a young developer or delivery manager was to get 3 minutes with the CEO in the elevator when they get back to the office, I’d encourage them to express their concern about the productivity that is being lost from a lack of connection of work to strategy, from poor tools and practices, rework of low quality code, and making the wrong thing. Everyone will care about those things.

"Agile and lean both have a learning mindset at the core – people must feel a healthy sense of challenge when things go wrong, not a deep fear of failure."

Are there any organisations you can think of where Agile doesn’t apply? Could Government, for example, run on agile practices?


There are some amazing examples of applying lean and agile thinking within government – all the way to involving citizens in deciding the funding when there isn’t enough money to go to every project and service in a city (check out Participatory Budgeting on the web).

There have been various imperatives at times for governments to adopt agile in both software development terms and governance terms, and as COVID has delivered us unprecedented volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, a test and learn mindset is eminently sensible. In the end, they have as much of the frozen middle bureaucracy as any large organisation grows over time.

If you take those work principles from REA Group – visualise, prioritise, clear ownership, talking daily and reviewing effectiveness of systems monthly, that transparency would certainly be useful from a citizen’s point of view. Having watched the utterly agonising parade of politicians and bureaucrats at the Victorian enquiry into the hotel disaster, where the number of senior people who didn’t know who was in charge reached double figures I could not help but think a lean/agile war-room, with whiteboards and work visualised for everyone to see, and the resulting reduction in ambiguity, could have saved dozens of lives and billions of dollars.

Agile and lean both have a learning mindset at the core – people must feel a healthy sense of challenge when things go wrong, not a deep fear of failure. That psychological safety is core to agile transformations and productivity of teams – you can refer all the way back to Google’s Projects Aristotle and Oxygen, and maybe even 100 years to the Hawthorne experiments in Chicago in the 1920s. With the facebook echo chamber and deep political division globally, there’s not enough psychological safety for our government leaders to experiment.


What do you think the transition back to working in offices again will be like? What sort of challenges do you think we will face? (Other than the big challenge of putting on pants for meetings, of course!)


The primary challenge is limiting the power of the bureaucratic middle managers who are desperate to get back to calling the roll and checking who is present in the meeting room as a measure of productivity.

A lot of companies have declared support for a hybrid future – reducing stress on public transport, the environment, plus workers and their families. 2020 has been a shockingly unscientific experiment in workplace change – imagine if we were trying to work from home with children all back in schools, no threat of civil war in the USA, no daily doom scrolling of news from around the world and around the state? It might have been awesome. But, we shouldn’t waste a good crisis!

Agile ways of working definitely correlate with who has leapt on the bandwagon of continuing the remote work experiment into 2021 and beyond COVID, and it’s not impossible to start that journey while teams are in isolation or hybrid location mode. Lots of coaching and commitment from the top to make that work though. Some tough questions are going to come up about wage rates for remote workers (so do you get paid the rate for where HQ is located, or the country you live in?); the impact of poor management of teams; and the unfair impact on different groups (young people, poorer people, those with less access to childcare and internet…). It’s going to be amazing.

I’m not worried about complete collapse of cities and commercial real estate – offices will need way more than 9 square metres per person to remain healthy in future, more permanent team areas, and whole new architectures (which I am loving working on at present!). People will congregate in the office 1 or 2 days a week perhaps, and if we can get decent internet connections around Australia, then watch the rise of new ‘Zoom Towns’ where people can enjoy great lifestyles, affordable housing, a sense of community and not pay $1m for a 2 bedroom apartment in Collingwood.

This article was originally published on 30 September 2020