Being agile without a capital ‘A’!

My construction project management students will generally tell me that Agile has no place in construction.  Indeed, many feel that the PMI has alienated engineering and construction by their insistence of the integration of Agile in the Body of Knowledge.  When it comes to the Agile frameworks such as SAFe and Scrum maybe the students are right.

However, I do have a deep suspicion that construction does, and has for some time, used agile approaches we just don’t call them Agile!  Take the idea of ‘gamification’ which features in many Agile facilitation approaches.

Gamification is more than just playing games

Gamification at its simplest is defined as:

the application of game dynamics and mechanics into non-gaming environments

For example, the use of Planning Poker to improve estimating practices and encourage consensus building around the estimates.  Or Retropoly – a game based upon Monopoly which encourages open reflections during the retrospective process.  There are many others.

But gamification is not just about ‘playing games’.  It’s actually about generating game mindsets.  As we see in this definition here:

Gamification is a process of enhancing services with (motivational) affordances in order to invoke gameful experiences and further behavioural outcomes

It’s not the playing of the game that matters. It’s the generation of the feelings, behaviours and attitudes that come along with gameplay that makes the difference.

If you have never seen the San Diego 4-hour-house then it is definitely worth having a look at the short video clip.  In it, two teams compete to build a house from the ground up in 4-hours.  The winning team does it in two hours 45 minutes!  The causes of this amazing productivity are many, but one of the big contributors is the motivational impact caused by the introduction of the competitive elements between the two teams.  This is not just the construction of a house to them, but the participation in a big-time construction game league.  As commented by one of the participants: “

This is not the normal day-job. This is fun!

By the way. It would be tempting to look back on the four-hour-house and dismiss it as just a piece of publicity, with no real engineering or construction value.  However, it’s worth remembering, the application of the time-constraint on this project forced innovation around the construction processes which we can still learn from today.   For example, the use of chemically heating concrete to get it to set within 30 minutes is now a common practice where time is of the essence. 

Crossrail and the use of competition to encourage innovation

Earlier this year I wrote about the great project legacy sharing that has been occurring in the UK promoted by the Major Projects Association.

Crossrail is probably best known as the 15 billion pound railway that is going to be severely over-budget and over-time.  What is refreshing however is the transparency of the operation of the project and its determination to ensure a real learning legacy.  You can find many useful reports and insights on mega-projects on the Crossrail Legacy site.

Crossrail is a large infrastructure project creating an east-west railway line across London and its surroundings. The line will be 73 miles long including 13 miles of underground line under central London. Crossrail brings together numerous contractors working over a dozen of sites.

In the early stages of the Crossrail project, it was recognised that innovation would be critical to finding appropriate solutions.  That meant both encouraging the generation of new ideas as well as having the mechanisms to select and exploit the development of the new solutions.

Invention is the first occurrence of an idea for a new product or process, while innovation is the first attempt to carry it out into practice.

A three-year open innovation programme was funded to encourage the sharing of ideas.  Crossrail adopted an open approach to “create an innovation ecosystem around itself and to foster collaboration among contractors”. 

The innovation team set up the Innovate18 platform where every employee could submit innovative ideas, which it evaluated.  And guess what?  For those ideas which looked promising, the team helped individuals to prepare an entry for the innovation competition.  

Innovate 18 has been very successful with over 800 innovations submitted to the platform since it first went online in 2013 with the support provided by the innovation programme team contributing to a high level of engagement with the platform. The innovation competition aims to promote the submission of early stage ideas to the platform by offering the possibility of financial help to further develop the idea and in doing so overcomes one of the challenges faced by innovation submission platforms which is a tendency to mostly receive submissions for incremental innovations.

Researchers at Imperial College London evaluated  the success of the Crossrail innovation programme and you can find the full report on the Crossrail website.  There is lots of learning to be found here about how to promote usable innovation.  For me, I feel that creating the change in mind-set, promoting sharing between suppliers who don’t normally share and encouraging the follow through of potential new solutions.  Well, that culture change could at least partially be attributed to gamification – creating that game mindset which encourages individuals and groups to just have fun!

Agility is all around

Agile and its related frameworks have created energy and excitement around the techniques that they espouse.  That energy to do things differently, and hopefully to do things better, is an important positive force. 

It would be a shame if this energy led to insularism and ‘methodologist terrorism’.  Perhaps the real lessons are that when we look through a different lens we can and must learn from every discipline.  Maybe our plea to those working on the next PMI Body of Knowledge, which promises to integrate Agile into the very way projects are managed, is that we need to be:

small ‘a’ agile in our practices, welcoming of learning from all disciplines and wary of imposing prescriptive methods.

For further information

  • Hamari, J., Koivisto, J., & Sarsa, H. (2014, January). Does Gamification Work? -A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification. In HICSS (Vol. 14, No. 2014, pp. 3025-3034).
  • Koivisto, J., & Hamari, J. (2019). The rise of motivational information systems: A review of gamification research. International Journal of Information Management45, 191-210.
  • Worsley, L., & Worsley, C. (2019). Adaptive Project Planning. Business Expert Press.

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