How to Improve Technology the Agile Way

Written by Harry Rothmann on December 4, 2018

When I think of organizations looking to make improvements to their technology, I always picture this cartoon: a team of cavemen pushing materials on a cart made of square wheels while two friends stand next to them waiting to install round wheels. The team struggling to push the cart refuses the offer of help, claiming that they’re too busy to upgrade their cart. Of course, it takes more effort overall to use the older technology yet human nature will still resist the obvious improvement. So, how do you engage your staff to make improvements when everyone is too busy?

Every organization has a vocal minority that represents a certain area of the organization and wants to drive decision making. The only way to get a fuller picture of the associations’ needs is to do your research beyond listening to this minority. Doing appropriate research and collecting data allows you to present facts about why these decisions are being made. It’s a necessary investment, to gain that all important buy-in. If you’re going to commit to moving the organization forward with technology, that move needs to be validated and a certain level of buy-in is necessary to move forward productively.

In 2018, data is being collected everywhere. There has been no other time in history when collecting data has been easier than it is today. Data is accessible and there are so many great business analytics tools available to make the most it. Overall it’s a small investment to make, so you can dive deeper into that data and use it to your benefit.

With that said, there is no replacement for person to person interaction. You can’t just rely on data. Coming from a history of working at a chapter- and affiliate-based association, I know that going to those different areas, chapters and affiliates to meet with them in their environment is an extremely effective form of user research. You’re collecting data, in a very non-technological way, that can make a big difference to decisions at the headquarters level.

Having that user research helps start off iterative conversations. No process is too small to rethink how you do things. It doesn’t have to be about building a whole new website. If you can rewire the everyday processes that take up your staff’s time and energy over many different tasks and functions, overall your organization can benefit.

Not only will data help you start the process, it can help you again when you come to the implementation phase of your project. Leverage that data to re-educate yourself on what you’ve done right, and what you might have done wrong. Use your iterative steps as opportunities for corrective action.

The best example of this is how Microsoft has evolved its releases of Microsoft Office. Years ago, these releases were deliberate and years apart. Now with Office 365, these products get improved upon every other week, if not sooner. This new model of major technology companies and how they release software can often be fundamentally at odds with associations’ funding and budgeting life cycles. Associations need to learn to adapt faster, and an iterative methodology can help us do that.

Several years ago at the Association of the US Army, we revamped our website. It was a healthy process. The core methodology behind what we did was very agile. We solicited a web design vendor separate from our web development vendor so that we could bring different experiences to those processes, and allow for these teams to work with us to create a better end product. What we found was the product we originally wanted evolved and ended up completely different. We launched the site, and continue making iterative improvements to this day. We’ve made a conscious decision to continue to invest in it financially, evolve the functionality and learn from what we have now to make it better for the future. Since our launch, I’ve had numerous organizations use our site as a model for theirs. I attribute this agile methodology and use of data as the key reasons why we’ve been successful.

The reality is it’s a never-ending cycle. You can adapt your new AMS today, then start thinking about the next step tomorrow. Technology life cycles can be challenging and our day-to-day job responsibilities never end. The more you can use data and research to match those technology cycles internally, the more seamless your improvements can be. If you do that, you can avoid being the team pushing the cart with square wheels.

Harry spoke in the “Approaches for Human-Centered Design in Technology Initiatives” session during SURGE Optimism 2018, an interactive virtual conference hosted by on November 7th-9th. Click here to watch the sessions on demand.