Review: Agile Beyond IT

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Agile Beyond IT: How to develop agility in project management in any sector
By Adrian Pyne
Practical Inspiration Publishing, 211 pages, 2022

This is a book about project management with lessons for those in public relations and comms roles.

If you’re wondering where the connection is, the author offers this explanation: ‘Project people are generally change people. We like change; projects are mostly about change. [Whereas] business as usual is about keeping the show on the road.’ Most of us surely accept that public relations and comms is also about change. Discussion of risk and issues, of stakeholder management (and engagement) and corporate culture and the frequent citing in this book of change expert Kotter will also sound familiar to many.

The twin axes of this book are the Agile Manifesto written in 2001 by a group of software engineers – and the transformative power of artificial intelligence (AI).

Caught as we are between Agile and AI we are faced with a classic moment of challenge and opportunity summed up decades ago by Andy Grove, a former Intel CEO: ‘there are only two types of organisations; the quick and the dead.’

This approach within the IT sector has led to the culture of ‘fail fast’. In entrepreneurial and IT circles talk of failure is applauded as a necessary prelude to success. Yet it’s not a topic of conversation I’ve often encountered in public relations and comms circles. Are we afraid of admitting to failure?

There is one principle from the Agile Manifesto that is readily applicable and increasingly common, though. The principle reads:

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly.

Author Adrian Pyne, a project professional, explains this principle: ‘A self-sustaining cycle of learning and improving is highly beneficial. Just ask any elite sports person.’

This applies in education where we’re increasingly assessing the student’s reflection on a project or assignment alongside or even instead of the assignment itself. It’s the process of learning rather than the product of learning that’s the most important thing. It applies too in professions where professional assignments and CPD encourage the development of reflective learning.

Pyne extracts broader lessons from the Agile Manifesto. Among these is that ‘agility places at least as much importance on people over process/tools.’ This should be empowering to those alarmed at how the talk of AI and automation appears to be tilting the balance the other way. ‘Being agile means keeping things simple and avoiding unnecessary work.’ Now are we talking your language?

At its heart the challenge is about adapting to change. A project has its own logic: ‘Too free an attitude to change risks fragmenting the project and wrecking value delivery’, whereas ‘under agile project management change should be welcomed, but only if the change enhances or at least maintains the value delivered.’

As an educator, I often worry about the perfectionism paradox. We tend to grade perfectionists highly, and employers are often keen to hire them. Yet being a perfectionist can mean no end of torment in a public relations role where the job is never done and perfect is rarely possible.

So here’s another aspect of agile that makes sense in the context of public relations and communication: ‘just enough is the heart of agility. A project needs to be literally just good enough in all of its respects… There should be no additional benefit in making an output, an outcome or capability from the project any better than it needs to be to suit its purpose…. Agility means challenging what you are doing. Do we really need that report, this level of detail, this meeting?’

A project (this could include a campaign or public relations programme) exists to deliver value, so ‘a project should choose a path that provides the greatest chance of delivering the most value.’

Pyne tells us this is done in two ways:

  1. ‘By delivering the highest-priority outcomes first if practical.’
  2. ‘By addressing the highest risks early.’

That sounds like a very practical playbook for public relations; good advice for how to approach working with a new client or after you’ve been hired at a senior level. (I advise you to be more cautious if you’re hired to a junior role: overachieving early on would only show up your more senior colleagues!)

Pyne is keen to stress that an agile approach does not mean you don’t have to plan. ‘If anything, being agile requires more discipline rather than less… Being agile is about doing just enough planning.’

Indeed, his section on planning is also highly applicable to other fields, and the author explains the VMOST model (Vision, Mission, Objectives, Strategy, Tactics) with greater clarity than I’ve seen in other texts.

But what of AI? The short chapter towards the end of this book is focused mainly on software tools. There’s a hint that automation can remove some chores, freeing up time to focus on what matters, but this theme is not explored.

Overall this is a strong business book. It carries its learning lightly and has only a few references to established sources, but the author draws on a lifetime’s experience and he explains himself well to a reader from outside the field of professional project management.