Mehdi Terbeche & Michael Carrier
Today, agility is a key concept in consulting firms and other service companies. All major firms have begun transformation projects and many fields other than information systems have begun to embrace agility. This desire to be more ‘agile’ has also reached humanitarian and development organisations who are using the experience of businesses to increase their effectiveness and flexibility. But what are the roots of this trend?
The concept of ‘agility’ was established – in the world of software development – due to the need to restore common sense. Meeting a need in a coherent manner had become of secondary importance compared to meeting the terms of increasingly complicated and restrictive contracts. People had begun to talk about resources and man-days as others talk about kilos of potatoes. It was in this context that 17 people involved in using ‘alternative’ project management methods got together in 2001 to create what is known today as the Agile Manifesto1, an extremely succinct document that re-establishes the foundations for the proper management of an IT project. This manifesto serves as the common denominator for what are referred to today as ‘agile methodologies’. These are methods for steering and carrying out projects that aim to include the users as much as possible and be as reactive as possible to their demands. This is achieved by means of short and adaptive cycles (‘iterations’) that allow expected deliverables to be conceptualized and carried out progressively or ‘incrementally’.
Of course, project management is not limited to the world of information systems. Indeed, it provides a methodological framework for the majority of international humanitarian and development projects. At the Autumn School on Humanitarian Aid, which took place at Groupe URD’s headquarters in October 20182, the participants collectively reflected on agility in humanitarian and development aid, and the Agile Manifesto emerged as a source of inspiration. In this article we have adapted the original text in order to produce an ‘Agile Manifesto for Humanitarian and Development Project Management’.
Agile Manifesto for Humanitarian and Development Project Management
(Adapted from the Manifesto for Agile Software Development)
The 4 values – Through our work in the sector, we have come to value:
- Individuals and interactions over standards, processes, procedures and tools.
- Concrete and relevant products and services over exhaustive project documentation and reporting.
- Collaboration with the different stakeholders over contract negotiation.
- Responding to change over following a plan.
These values are the basis of an agile approach. We recognise the importance of all the items mentioned above, but we believe that an agile approach should give priority to the items at the beginning of each phrase (in bold).
The 12 principles – We follow these principles:
1. Our highest priority is to meet people’s needs in a responsible manner through the concrete and regular delivery of products and services in the common interest.
In the aid sector, ‘clients’ can refer to: those who are targeted by its operations (often referred to as ‘beneficiaries’), the body that funds the operations (‘donors’) or the authorities who regulate them. In an agile operation, all the stakeholders work together to place the population at the centre of the project and respond to their needs in a responsible manner.
2. Stakeholders welcome changes, even late in a project. Agile processes adjust operations when needs, contexts or resources change in order to remain as relevant and effective as possible.
Projects almost always need to change in order to be successful, and all the more so in the kind of contexts where humanitarian and development projects are implemented. These changes are normal and to be welcomed as long as there is a flexible mechanism in place to manage them.
3. Implement projects frequently and in a timely manner, with short cycles that allow stakeholders’ opinions to be taken into account regularly.
This principle underlines the importance of short implementation and improvement cycles – sometimes called ‘sprints’ – in order to implement projects regularly and concretely, and adapt frequently, if necessary, rather than wait too long in order to design the ‘perfect operation’ which only exists in logical frameworks. It also raises the question of the responsibility of aid programmes to regularly gather and take into account the opinions of aid recipients.
4. Stakeholders and project teams work together throughout the project.
Agility is not possible without a ‘participation revolution’ which implies the active involvement of aid recipients in projects.
5. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
Though the aid sector has taken some time to make progress on this issue, ‘wellbeing’ at work cannot be dissociated from an agile approach which is impossible without motivated and responsible staff.
6. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to the stakeholders of a project is face-to-face dialogue.
In a typical ‘operational chain’ during an aid project, numerous stakeholders are involved without necessarily having the possibility of meeting each other and establishing relations beyond the impersonal relations of carrying out activities, using resources and achieving results. In order to build relations, it is important (if possible) to have at least some face-to-face exchanges in order to overcome the shortcomings of remote communication.
7. Products or services that meet aid recipients’ needs in a responsible manner are the primary measure of progress.
In order to be agile, it is necessary to have detailed and shared understanding of the changes that are being targeted by an operation while reducing the monitoring of methods and means implemented to achieve them.
8. Agile processes promote a sustainable work rate. The different stakeholders should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
Agility is impossible if the commissioning body, the implementing teams, the aid recipients, etc. do not have the time available to monitor a programme and adapt their involvement if necessary. The effectiveness and ability of a team also depend on their level of availability, without which the project runs the risk of weakening the people involved, and consequently, resources being misused and results not being attained.
9. Good project design and continuous attention to technical excellence reinforces agility.
Being agile does not mean ‘cutting corners’ or taking action in a superficial way. We begin to prepare agility during the initial assessment and the project design, laying the foundations that will allow us to implement activities in a flexible and relevant manner. Agility also depends on the technical quality of the products and services that are implemented or strengthened by an operation. This limits the risk of blockages as much as possible, and helps to improve these services in the future.
10. Simplicity – the art of maximising the amount of work not done – is essential.
With the increasing complexity of operations, it is essential that simple (though not simplistic) project implementation and monitoring mechanisms should be put in place that allow people’s needs to be met in an effective and responsible manner.
11. The most agile operations emerge from self-organising teams with clear and relevant decision-making processes.
An entrepreneur once said: “I do not pay engineers in order to tell them what to do, but rather so that they tell me how to do it”. Agile operations also depend on delegation and governance that are clear and accepted by all.
12. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to improve, and adjusts the operation accordingly.
Continuous improvement is directly linked to this principle. It involves taking a step back to make adjustments throughout an operation. More generally, it helps the organisation to learn.
Reworking the Agile Manifesto for humanitarian and development aid is neither revolutionary, nor totally new: experienced organisations will see it as common knowledge. However, we feel that these principles can serve as a common denominator for initiatives that help to adjust an operation when needs, contexts or resources change, thereby increasing the relevance of humanitarian and development aid.
Michael Carrier – Michael Carrier contributes to the humanitarian sector’s Quality and Accountability initiatives and accompanies organisations to help them adopt a continuous improvement approach. He has Masters Degrees in International Relations, Business Management and Organisational Quality Management. He has 15 years’ of experience working on improving the impact of aid on crisis-affected people and communities, having held a variety of operational, administrative and technical positions, both in the field and at HQ level. His work has focused specifically on programmes to reduce armed violence and to support people with disabilities.
Mehdi Terbeche – Having worked for several years for some of the biggest French companies as a Project Leader, Mehdi Terbeche became interested in agile methods. He currently runs a company specialised in agile project management and provides his clients with daily support in their transition towards agility.