Agile beyond software development, some cases of adoption in research

Posted on Posted in Agile, Research

Can Agile contribute to collaboration and shared management of research, evaluation and other science-related projects?

In this first blog post about a series of questions around such possibility, I focus on existing case studies and some of the learnings, issues and potential benefits derived from the appropriation of Agile for research practices. (This post is based on an extensive literature review and ongoing case study for my PhD project, with support from Dimmons and a CECAN Fellowship).

Let’s start with a definition: Agile (here’s the Wikipedia article) is a set of practices, values and principles for software development based on iterative teamwork, with requirements and solutions evolving through the collaborative work of cross-functional teams who are self-organized. By specific frameworks like Scrum or Kanban (the two most popular ones) teams adopting Agile try to generate a shared development process based on adaptive planning, continuous improvement, frequent consultation with the end-user, small and frequent releases for early delivery, and rigorously tested code. A process of adaptation that usually represents a challenge by itself, depending usually on facilitation roles and cultural changes inside the organisation.

While Scrum and Kanban adoption is still growing in the IT sector at a considerable scale, the number of non-software companies approaching Agile has also increased significantly (according to studies like the 11th Annual State of Agile Report). For example, different implementations of Agile have been analysed and documented in experiences about  manufacturing and supply chain management, educational settings, construction projects, venture capital groups, mining and metallurgical industry, or law firms.

Like in the case of software development, usually those adoptions need to be tailored and addressed to specific teams or parts of the organization, with complicity from the direction and from top-management positions, with most success cases based on the spirit of starting small (before trying to expand to other areas of the organization). Another key learning in these cases is to establish effective adaptation processes, as well as coaching and training support before the implementation of Agile, with the critical aspect of facilitation as a requisite for the correct propagation of the frameworks outside software development teams.

Similar learnings and insights are derived from the existing literature about Agile adoption in research and science contexts, which is not very abundant (yet) but points to interesting practices and styles of adaptation, depending on the type of research project. For example successful experiences adapting Scrum for academia-industry collaboration; about how Agile can bridge the gap between research and practice in the management of case studies; or to enable collaboration when working with and mentoring PhD students; to develop prototypes in “Action Design” research projects; to coordinate a large-scale European research project with distributed teams; to manage a R&D laboratory; for experimental ethnography approaches in the workplace; for evidence-based projects for behavioral interventions; as well as adapting Lean (another methodological and managerial framework related to Agile) in the biopharmaceutical sector or for human-centered research practices.

Some of the learnings derived from those cases point to similar conclusions as when adopting Agile in other not software-related projects: the importance of tailoring and adapting Scrum, as well as the key aspect of facilitation, especially in contexts where teams are distributed and face-to-face meetings are not possible. Among those important requirements for successful adoption, authors argue that adapting and implementing Agile methodologies leads to better management of expectations and sharing of problems, or to new models to bridge the gap between research and practice.

Apart from academic papers, is also possible to find other voices in the “blogosphere” thinking about the potential of Agile for research, from detailed translations of the Agile principles to grounded theory qualitative research methodology, to adopting Scrum  for academic styles of research in the SCORE project, or integrating Agile methods and ethnography for user-experience research within companies. So all in all seems a still open, interesting question in need of further exploration.

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