Alain Olive, Charlotte Dufour & Monique Cardot

What is an agile team? Is it possible to envisage agile operations and responses if the teams who design and implement them are limited by non-agile environments, practices and ways of thinking? Over and above the operational issues that this question raises, there is the fundamental consideration of the human being in complex organisational systems. Are aid organisations inevitably bound to be standardised ‘service providers’ and passive partners? In the age of aid bureaucratisation, is there still a place for the spirit of rebellion that led to the birth of the humanitarian movement?

These were the questions that were debated by some of the participants at Groupe URD’s Autumn School on Humanitarian Aid in October 2018 during a discussion about how to build agile teams. In this article we propose to look at these issues in greater detail. Firstly, we analyse what it is that ‘stifles’ the ability of teams and individuals in the sector to be agile, at a time when the growing complexity of crises and of the system set up to respond to them requires more and more adaptability on their part. We then explore possible ways of re-boosting teams by allowing them to both optimise the impact of their collaboration with the population and partners and to give back meaning to their involvement in the sector.


The project approach in complex contexts: did somebody say ‘agile’?

The international aid system is affected by several paradoxes. The first is that the realisation that “it is not enough to do good, it needs to be done well” and the responsibility of delivering aid in an equitable and transparent way in all fields while respecting human rights, have led, over time, to the development of a whole range of frameworks, and operational and accountability standards. The paradox being that these mechanisms (sometimes?) make the system very rigid, which reduces actors’ ability to respond appropriately.

These quality-related demands have also had positive results: the professionalization of activities and operations, and the involvement of experts other than doctors, logisticians and geographers, such as directors, administrators, and managers with a specialisation in one field or another. These changes have helped to respond more appropriately to crises of increasing complexity which have weakened areas where there are ecological, climatic, social, economic and demographic tensions.

On the other hand, the aid system has become more rigid: the work of humanitarians, and of aid actors in general, is increasingly complex and is slowed down by increasingly cumbersome administrative and financial procedures. These procedures are part of new ways of working, such as nexuses and consortiums approaches with, sometimes, huge cultural differences between members. They can also be distorted when military doctrines are given priority over humanitarian operations or when some NGOs create orphanages for “humanitarian tourists”.

The second paradox is that the international aid system, which is based on an internationalist concern for humanity, can – at its worst – force those who work in it to adopt a de-humanising position. Taken to the extreme, this creates incongruous and stereotypical situations where human beings who have been affected by a crisis, a disaster or poverty are confined to the role of passive beneficiaries, and above all, of victims to be saved and who have no say in the matter. For their part, national authorities and local NGOs are seen as incompetent or corrupt, with little understanding of the issues at stake or, at best, they are selected to be simple implementing partners.

Though this is a somewhat exaggerated picture (though no so far removed from reality…), it nevertheless raises the question of the place given to the human being within the system. Already in 2005, in a book called “Beneficiaries or partners?”1, Groupe URD was questioning the role of affected people in humanitarian projects. At the other end of the spectrum, it is also necessary to talk about the place of aid sector workers, whether employees, volunteers or even interns; resources who are renewed with each turnover, and who are often damaged or “burnt out”.

The psychiatrist and psychotherapist, Barthold Bierens de Haan, former head of the ICRC’s psychosocial staff support programme, wrote about the sources of stress and angst among staff2. Much more than considerations of security or exposure to risk, organisational and managerial pressure, as well as ineffective managers, were mentioned most often.

Projects get caught up in implementation approaches – objectives of effectiveness and efficiency, quality of the results – when the conditions themselves are often under-estimated. How many logical framework actually take into account the human factor that aid workers represent as drivers of the expected change and without whom the project cannot be carried out?

All of this leads us to a possible third paradox. In this context, where energy and creativity is crushed, the concept of agility is both a risk and an opportunity. It is a risk if the injunctions to think, act and be agile are added to the tensions that already affect practitioners who are asked to no longer just be relief workers or developers, but to think “out of the box” while being limited by rigid implementation, monitoring and reporting methods. It is an opportunity if the addition of agility into the system allows human beings to be at the centre of complex systems, not as beneficiaries or humanitarians, but as agents of human solidarity.


Having the courage to place human beings at the centre of complex systems

At the level of the individual, agility is an adaptive approach based on the best that the individual can give: their intelligence and their courage to leave well-trodden paths and frameworks in order to respond to changing contexts, that is to say, to reality. However, applying this idea is not easy because, as we have seen, agility cannot be achieved by decree: it is achieved by means of individual and collective reflection and experience, often based on observations of shortcomings and failures of projects and teams, but also dreams of a different form of action.

At the level of the individual, above all, agility is about letting go the need and desire for control. Over and above knowledge and certainty, agility calls for the meaning of actions and tools to be questioned, particularly if these are reputed to be all-purpose. Complex crises require specific responses that are adapted to the context and existing capacities. Is it possible to be agile when using standardised ways of thinking and tools?

Agility is a question of humility and responsibility: sometimes not knowing how to answer a given question, not knowing what approach to use, or what tool to apply. In the face of complexity, experts can sometimes feel helpless and without answers. In any case, the situation in which he or she finds themselves requires reflection, consultation and risk-taking in order to implement an unformatted project in response to changing issues, or even a changing environment. It is a question of giving oneself the right to make mistakes, and being humble enough to accept one’s own vulnerability which, far from being a weakness, can lead to greater creativity, and even, according to Renée Brown, to joy3.

It is also important here to repeat that agility cannot be imposed – and particularly not by means of bureaucratic procedures: it is achieved by dealing with the reality of a situation or a context, and when possible, working with ‘sherpas’ who already have relevant experience in the area. When they are managers, it is their responsibility to recruit collaborators on the basis of talent (for the future) and not solely on the basis of qualifications and experience (from the past).  They are also responsible for establishing a confidence-based working environment and empowering collaboration via continual benevolent communication, and a protective environment for risk-taking. As such, agility is a learning process that promotes collective intelligence.

In a team, agility involves regular sharing of doubts and errors in the face of the complexity of contexts and decisions. It is an opportunity to learn and help everyone’s practices evolve, both individually and as a team. To do this, agile teams need to listen and have benevolent relations over and above the notion of respect. Even with the best projects, with substantial budgets and teams, how can we hope to mobilise the passion and physical and psychological availability of staff if the working environment is toxic? …if each person is only interested in their own advantages and image? …if, in addition, management is seen as being imposed and does not play its role? Agility therefore depends on the environment: can an individual, manager or team be agile if the organisation is not? How can there be agility when processes and modus operandi are fixed by contracts, standards and logical frameworks that have been written years in advance for the years ahead when, from one season to the next, people’s realities change, they move, and economic activities evolve?

Agility in organisations therefore involves reconsidering accountability in its entirety, that is to say, not only in relation to funding agencies, governments and citizen donors, but also from the point of view of populations, authorities, partners and collaborators. It consists of investing in the very first resource of a project, that is to say, the staff Devoting in them consists of ensuring that they are able to work in often difficult contexts and conditions. It involves putting in place psychosocial risk prevention mechanisms and rapid and appropriate response systems at the first signal of problems or as soon as is reported. It is a way of finally allowing organisations to learn and evolve… of giving them the possibility to leave and to come back. An organisation that is benevolent towards its collaborators does not worry about ‘losing’ them because, either they will feel sufficiently respected and valued to stay, or they will leave and perhaps come back better trained and more open due to new experiences.


It is time to go back to aid fundamentals

Though the idea of agility comes from the need to meet people’s needs more effectively in increasingly complex situations, it is encouraging to see that, when it is raised in relation to teams and individuals, there is a call for a return to the very foundations of humanitarian action and international solidarity in general: the relevance of what is done and the relations between those involved. Listening, benevolence, the right to make mistakes, creativity, compassion, etc. can only take place if there is dialogue and interaction. Could this be a way of ensuring that the ‘participation revolution’ mentioned in the Grand Bargain really takes place? …that beneficiaries become genuine partners, and humanitarian actors become agents, witnesses and assistants of the changes that take place in the world, rather than the ‘saviours’ of passive victims?

Some of the participants at the Autumn School who discussed the issue of agile teams called for a return to the spirit of rebellion of the first ‘French doctors’: rebellion against the system(s) that shape crises, but also rebellion against – and within – the system that has been built to respond to crises, when it does not fulfil its role and limits humanitarians to the single role of aid administrators/managers.

  1. Grünewald (François) & al., Bénéficiaires ou partenaires ? Quels rôles pour les populations dans l’action humanitaire, Paris, Karthala, coll. « pratiques humanitaires », 2005.
  2. Bierens de Haan (Barthold), Sauveteurs de l’impossible : un engagement à haut risques, Belin, coll. Biblio Belin SC., 2005.
  3. Renée Brown, Conference “The power of vulnerability”, available at the following address:


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