adjective, ag·ile \ ˈa-jəl , -ˌjī(-ə)l \ marked by ready ability to move with quick easy grace; having a quick resourceful and adaptable character
“Agile work,” according the Google search results, can refer to
- companies that allow their employees to work how, where and when they choose
- an Agile project management style; one which meets a project’s need for flexibility and speed
I’m going to focus on the latter for this post.
Why agile excites me
While I’ve heard the term “agile” before in reference to the mysterious world of agency, I have never been completely clear on what “agile” means, what it entails, or what it’s value points are.
This knowledge gap was addressed in one of my classes last week, and I am really excited about it for so many reasons. The main reason is that most of the major issues I’ve witnessed/been a part of/experienced in my career could have, theoretically, been solved with the implementation of an agile project management system.
Most of the major issues I’ve experienced in my career could have been solved with the implementation of an agile project management system.
I’ve been working in one marketing communications role or another for going on eight years. In that time, I’ve tried out agency, in-house, and contracting roles. Most recently, I experienced a very strange, unsustainable fusion of in-house and agency. The department, a marketing team for a college within a university system, was intended to be in-house, but the clients’ — no, wait, we aren’t supposed to call them that —the stakeholders’ expectations were the exact same as if they were working with an agency. The kicker is that none of these stakeholders has any money. In other words, they (all 26 departments) want top-tier work, at the drop of a hat, without having to lift a finger, and without having to adhere to a working agreement, or be responsive to requests for assets.
As you might imagine, this is problematic.
In an agency setting, these problems would not exist. The team would simply charge the client more if the project needed turned around in a week. Or, the team would bill for the time it takes to make repeated asks for assets, information, etc. that the client committed to providing upfront, but never did. Or, if I client misses a meeting, the agency team members would charge the client for the time they spent prepping for and commuting to the meeting.
The client is held accountable and the agency is compensated fairly.
I‘ve found that most people are willing to put up with a lot of inconvenience and annoyance if they’re appropriately compensated.
But when the money is removed, what you end up with is a small team of very frustrated, disrespected, unhealthy, overworked marketing professionals dealing with “stakeholders” who are at best, ignorant and unclear in their expectations, and at worst, completely ignorant to marketing tactics and yet somehow extremely opinionated on the topic. It’s the epitome of a lose-lose.
If only I had known about agile!
Learning to go agile
Diving into research around agile, I’ve learned that it is a working style intended to break down a giant project into tiny, small, manageable & value-driven tasks. Agile is best suited to projects that require extreme flexibility and speed. Through this method, project managers breakdown milestones into “sprints,” or short delivery cycles.
Commonly used for in-house teams, agile project management is a good option for teams that are self-motivated and communicates in real time. It works because team members can rapidly adjust things as needed, throughout each task.
With agile, there’s a timeframe for which you will do work. The two kinds are
- Sprint — where every phase is broken down into two weeks
- Kanban — “first in, first out” task organization in which the team is constantly at work. As soon as something is done and someone has availability, they take the next thing on the to-do list, or to use the correct term, “the backlog.”
Throughout the production process, tasks, or “stories,” flow from the backlog to in-progress to completed to accepted and then released. After release, there are often bugs that need addressed, resulting in a re-cycle through the aforementioned steps.
The aspect of agile that made my ears perk was the work-in-progress (WIP) limit and point system. The WIP limit is a defined limit as to how many items a person can have at one time. WIP limit is tied to points. A tiny task or “story” is assigned a point value. A team’s capacity is also defined in points. During review periods or debriefs, a team is measured by the ratio of points they committed to (“velocity”) vs. the points they achieved/accomplished.
Why this is a good idea
Defining what a team is capable of handling at any given period of time is essential to employee success and morale. I’ve never worked on a creative team that was able to even somewhat accurately define this number. As a result, workload is usually unpredictable and too heavy. Sometimes way too heavy.
This is especially challenging when you’re operating as an in-house agency, and especially when senior leadership doesn’t understand marketing whatsoever. In this instance, when a creative team can’t meet a big request in a short amount of time, they are viewed as unable to manage time, unwilling to go the extra mile for the betterment of the company, or generally uncooperative.
Agile addresses this issue head-on by removing the emotion and guess work. Workload becomes a mathematical function whereby any decision can be justified and defended. Despite gaps in knowledge in what a creative team actually does from the clients’ perspective, the playing field is leveled and both parties are able to make educated decisions.
I look forward to the day when agile stops being a theory I study and becomes a working style I am a part of. And maybe as a project owner. Or manager. But definitely not as the scrum master.