Can Agencies Be Agile?

Agile (as a noun) is a collection of project management principles emphasizing flexibility, adaptability, and execution, over rigid project planning. Originally popular among software teams, the early adopters of Agile generally enjoyed the following benefits:

  • Higher quality work
  • Increased customer satisfaction
  • Happier teams

Not long ago, Agile methodologies started leaking into other industries. Now, these principles have successfully been applied in a variety of settings including: government, retail, publishing, and law firms. But, the largest adopters of Agile outside of software are marketers. We’ve all heard the buzzword “Agile Marketing,” but what exactly does it mean for an agency? It’s safe to say that Agile as applied to a software team is unlikely to work in an agency setting. Agencies are uniquely different and we should have an open mind when considering how they can benefit from being Agile. Unfortunately, many agencies are still stuck in the past.

Gantt is a bad word

The old, traditional approach to project management is often referred to as Waterfall. Practitioners of Waterfall-related techniques rely (heavily) on the use of Gantt charts (first developed over 100 years ago) to carefully plan out every detail of a project, including dependencies and timelines. Ask yourself: When was the last time I worked on a project that didn’t change? Never. Projects always change, and never evolve the way a carefully constructed Gantt chart says they will. Creating Gantt charts and keeping them updated usually ends up being a huge waste of time.

A modern alternative to Gantt charts is an Agile backlog. The backlog is an ordered list of “to do” items that represents the scope of a project. Items at the top of the list are highest priority, and those at the bottom of the list may never get done. Yes, I said that correctly. Scope is notorious for creeping into projects and the backlog is the Agile weapon of choice to deal with this inevitability. The backlog helps ensure that the most important items are completed first. It’s perfectly fine if that really cool idea someone had for a glitter breathing rainbow unicorn never makes it into the final result. After all, it’s probably at the bottom of your backlog list. That’s scope creep prevention — Agile style.

Agency Agile

Agile, as applied in a software setting, is not the same as Agile in an agency. There are two main reasons: 1) the need for capacity planning, and 2) time tracking. An Agile purist (with roots in software) may tell you that you can’t be Agile if you forecast resource availability, track time, and estimate how long your tasks will take. Not true at all. But “Agency Agile” will be slightly different. The very nature of the agency business model necessitates forecasting resources, estimating time, and tracking time.

Creating time estimates allows agencies to easily determine how much they should charge for a project. It also allows them to see how their teams are progressing during the project lifecycle. Even for agencies that are not billing by the hour, keeping track of time gives them insight into whether or not they actually made money, and what their profit margins are.

Time estimates are not only useful for seeing if projects are on budget. They also help with forecasting capacity. One of the biggest challenges faced by agencies is knowing if they have available resources to take on new projects. Creating time estimates at the task level makes it easy to see if they have capacity for new work and it allows them to see if any team members are over or under utilized.

Beyond time and resources, here are some Agile elements that can successfully be applied in an agency setting:

  • Kanban (continuous workflow)
  • Scrum (iterative workflow — sprints)
  • Daily Standups
  • Epics, User Stories, and Spikes
  • Backlogs & Team Boards

It’s 100% okay to have some teams taking a Kanban approach, while others operate as Scrum teams. Agencies should be agile about how they are Agile. Ideally, the entire agency embraces Agile though, not just a few people or teams.

Conclusion

Agile applied in an agency setting is different from “software Agile.” Agencies often juggle dozens of projects at any given time, and need to make use of concepts that Agile purists may frown upon, such as capacity planning and time estimating. But, nobody is 100% Agile (whatever that means), and you probably shouldn’t try to be. Go with what works, and have an open mind about what it means to be Agile in an agency.

About the Author

Davidson Wicker is the Founder & CEO of Ravetree (www.ravetree.com), an Agile Work Management ® software platform designed specifically for agencies. Prior to starting Ravetree, Davidson worked as a software engineer where he built enterprise applications for Fortune 500 companies. He has spoken several times on the topic of “Agile Beyond Software,” and is a strong advocate for the adoption of Agile principles in digital agencies and elsewhere. Davidson holds a Masters Degree in Applied Physics and is also a former college-level physics instructor.