At a glance
By Nigel Bowen
You’ve no doubt heard about how growing numbers of organisations are applying agile work practices. Perhaps you’ve overheard terms such as “sprints” or “scrum master” being exchanged.
However, if you work at an accountancy firm, there’s a good chance you haven’t “gone agile” – yet.
What’s now known as the “agile methodology” developed as a response to a problem: the long wait time before a planned product would be complete using existing product development methods.
It evolved from ideas in the Agile Manifesto, written by a group of 17 American software developers in 2000.
For a tech company, the ability to divide a large project into discrete tasks, assign those tasks to small teams and have teams work concurrently means more tasks are completed faster.
This speeds up a product’s time to market and, in turn, reduces the likelihood of a rival launching a competing product first.
The spectacular success of many tech industry businesses in recent decades has led many to attempt to replicate that success, copying the ambience, culture, operating procedures and management styles of Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and others.
The results have been hit and miss. The biggest hit of all has been agile, which has proved remarkably scalable.
Agile in practice
In terms of management style, agile is acknowledged as involving a degree of egalitarianism that hasn’t been the historical norm in accounting firms. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the “scrum”.
Projects are broken up into tasks, and teams are expected to complete each task in a “sprint” that typically lasts one to three weeks.
To keep things moving, team members usually have a “scrum” – that is, a brief meeting – at the start of every day. If team members are in the same physical location, this should be a stand-up meeting to encourage brevity.
Agile teams aren’t devoid of hierarchy. They have a facilitator, called a “scrum master”, and often comprise a mix of junior and senior staff.
Yet scrums are meant to be relatively informal affairs where everybody speaks briefly but freely about the progress they are making.
Regardless of their job title, it’s assumed that all team members are working toward a common goal and will help each other out wherever possible.
Agile accountancy in action
How agile methodology can translate to accountancy is the bigger question.
One example Stitely provides is of how his team functions during tax season.
“First, your firm must be organised into project teams,” he says. “A tax prep team might consist of a partner, a manager and some preparers.”
When it comes to “sprints” during tax season, Stitely acknowledges that tax time overall is too long a timeframe to qualify for a typical sprint, so he recommends adapting accordingly.
“A week is a reasonable time for a sprint. Identify projects that can be done by the end of the sprint, or projects that need to make a certain level of agreed-upon progress by the end of the sprint.”
“[In scrums], team members are expected to arrive with full status reports on obstacles to project completion. Without scrums, small or non-existent obstacles kill project turnaround and cause unhappy clients.
“Dealing with obstacles in a scrum always leads to some sort of positive action, and action is the only possible driver of progress.”
Is there a catch with agile?
When applied correctly, agile is pretty much all upside, which is why it’s now being so widely embraced.
There are just two problems with going agile. First, it’s rarely possible for any business to go fully agile.
For instance, it may not be appropriate to allow junior staff access to sensitive commercial or financial information. This is rarely a significant issue given businesses soon discover which projects and tasks can best be completed by agile teams.
What can be a significant issue is people’s innate resistance to change. It’s worth investing time and effort in educating your workforce about the benefits of being agile and encouraging them to welcome the transition to an agile workplace culture.