“Agility” is not typically a word you’ll find among the corporate values hanging within frames on the walls of an institution like a church or a school. In fact, in all my years of consulting with churches, nonprofits, and schools, I have yet to see it on any list of values. If anything, some of these values actually imply the opposite of agility!

The bottom line is—institutions were not designed for agility. Instead, they are established to uphold a set of traditions or principles. A quick glance at an institution’s charting documents and you’ll see language that defines their convictions/beliefs but very little as it relates to managing change—much less charting a course into new territory! Change in these organizations usually happens slowly, over time, and often with great consternation. 

If 2020 taught those of us in leadership anything at all, it’s the immense value of agility! Take the most often repeated phrase of 2020 for example—pivot. That word, pivot, is a metaphor used to describe a quick change in direction or shifting momentum toward a new target. 

Innovation will not wait for us to feel comfortable with what needs to change!

Today, organizations of every size are demanding a quicker (and better) response to change. So, what can leaders of churches, nonprofits, and schools do to increase organizational agility in the days ahead? 

One of the unique opportunities I have in my work for Slingshot Group is meeting and interacting with leaders from a variety of backgrounds with diverse sets of experiences, skills, and talents. In recent years, I’ve been exposed to and learned from some truly remarkable leaders in the field of technology. 

Unsurprisingly, those who work in tech not only embrace change more readily, they count on it as a part of the challenge they were hired to meet. Adaptability and agility don’t necessarily come more naturally for these people, however. To overcome the obstacles associated with leading change, leaders in the field of technology often organize themselves in a system called “Scrum” and subsequently do their work for the organization as a part of a “Scrum Team.”

As much as this will pain some leaders to learn, “Scrum,” is not an acronym, but rather a framework that allows teams to work together with greater agility. The term was first used in 1986, but over time, the outstanding performance achieved by software development teams who followed its principles forever solidified “Scrum” as the go-to method for organizing small teams around quantifiable objectives. 

Here are four things leaders in any organization can learn from the “Scrum” method when it comes to solving problems and creating lasting change where it counts:

1) Deploy small teams of skilled individuals to solve problems incrementally.

Scrum” pairs groups of people who collectively have all the skills and expertise to do important work and share or acquire such skills as needed to meet team objectives. “Scrum Teams” operate within a framework that helps them work together in an agile way on product development.

“The fundamental unit of Scrum is a small team of people, a Scrum Team. Within a Scrum Team, there are no sub-teams or hierarchies. It is a cohesive unit of professionals focused on one objective at a time, the goal.”*

Notice…there are no hierarchies on a Scrum Team. For all intents and purposes, Scrum Teams are rather flat in their structure, instead of tall. Not only does this create less friction in the creative problem-solving stage of the work, but it also frees everyone up to let the best idea win.

By now, you’re probably asking, “So in the absence of ‘bosses’ and hierarchies, what or who holds them accountable?”

2) Personal autonomy rooted in a do-or-die commitment to team values. 

If people on the team don’t share an equal commitment to the same values, everything starts to break down on a Scrum Team. Scrum only works when personal autonomy (self-governance) is exercised for the good of the team toward a shared goal. 

Successful Scrum Teams depend on each individual becoming more proficient in living out these five values:*

  • Commitment
  • Focus
  • Openness
  • Respect
  • Courage 

The Scrum Team works because accountability is baked into the system. Everyone on a Scrum Team commits to achieving their goals and to supporting each other along the way. The Scrum Team and its members are open with each other about the work, progress, and challenges encountered at every turn.

Scrum Teams work because members expect each other to be capable, independent people, and are respected as such by the people with whom they work. The Scrum Team members have the courage to do the right thing, to work on tough problems, and to hold each other accountable for work accomplished.

3) Good ideas are turned into actionable steps through short bursts of effort.

Scrum Teams improve things incrementally through events called, “Sprints.” Simply put, a Sprint is where an idea is turned into action. The Sprint is a fixed length amount of time (usually a month). Individuals on Scrum Teams primarily focus on the work of the Sprint to make the best possible progress toward larger team goals.

“When a Sprint’s horizon is too long the Sprint Goal may become invalid, complexity may rise, and risk may increase. Shorter Sprints can be employed to generate more learning. Each Sprint may be considered a short project.”*

A couple of important things to note about a Sprint:

  • No changes are made during the Sprint that would endanger the Sprint Goal.
  • The quality of other work/projects does not decrease during the Sprint.
  • Sprints invite a feedback loop for adaptation and review of the larger goal at least every calendar month. 

4) Define the meaning of “done.”

On Scrum Teams, everyone agrees to not only work together on finding a solution to a problem, but also mutually defining and committing to the same Definition of Done. 

“The Definition of Done creates transparency by providing everyone a shared understanding of what work was completed.”*

Depending on where you find yourself leading today, defining “done” may be challenging to measure. If you work in a charitable organization, for instance, you understand that your work is never actually finished! However, the “product” you need to deploy could be a new program or class you’d like to offer. 

When it comes to “defining done,” have your team make a list of all the incremental activities needed to achieve the “done” state by the end of the Sprint. By “defining done,” you’ll ensure mutual accountability on your teams while increasing the quality of your products and services. 

Ultimately, the goal of “Scrum” is to help teams increase productivity, add value, foster creativity, and deliver satisfaction to your customer, client, or congregant. With these principles in mind, leaders in even the most change-resistant organization today can enjoy the benefits and breakthrough that comes with them! 

*From “The Scrum Guide: The Definitive Guide to Scrum: The Rules of the Game” https://www.scrumguides.org/docs/scrumguide/v2020/2020-Scrum-Guide-US.pdf#zoom=100