Your Career

Are You Agile?

Type: Articles
Topic: Leadership and Career Building
By Heather B. Hayes
23 July 2019

In a tweet-driven, drip-drip-drip news cycle, communication teams must be faster. A problem-solving approach that emphasizes fluidity over rigid structure could be the answer

Credit: Getty Images

News stories change by the minute, tweets can make or destroy someone’s reputation overnight, and one surprise product announcement can completely disrupt an industry.

How can communication teams keep pace?

Consider going agile—and we’re not talking about just being more flexible.

Agile is a problem-solving methodology emphasizing fluidity, fast feedback, adaptation and learning on the go, instead of setting and following rigid plans and timelines. Though it’s mostly known for its use by software developers like Google, agile is not just for techies.

This approach, first formalized in 2001, is increasingly being leveraged by less technical business departments, including marketing and communication. A 2018 survey conducted by SiriusDecisions found 18% of chief marketing officers try to use agile “everywhere they can,” while another 18% say they have used it on many projects and are planning to do more.

Agile is a technical framework, yes, but at its core, it’s a mindset, a way of thinking, says Tim Ottinger, senior consultant at Industrial Logic in Berkeley, California. And for this reason, you can apply it to just about anything.

“Most of agile is just a search for better ways,” Ottinger says. “A lot of people think that agile is all about working faster, better, cheaper, but it isn’t. It’s all about being sooner, smarter and safer.”

By using agile, teams can dive right in by testing ideas, getting fast feedback and executing much more quickly, says Ken Rubin, author of Essential Scrum: A Practical Guide to the Most Popular Agile Process.

“There’s this idea that if we just put a detailed-enough plan together, we can eliminate uncertainty,” says Rubin. “Agile says, ‘No, you really can’t, so let’s embrace that uncertainty that’s inherent in our world and then leverage it to our benefit.’”

That’s exactly what the marketing and communication team at EnterpriseDB, a software firm based in Massachusetts, started doing about a year ago.

Instead of researching and trying to write a complex, detailed marketing plan each year, for example, the team now comes up with a strategy that comprises about seven themes, or core goals. They then build a  framework for measuring results, determine the “epics” (or key projects) that will help support each theme and prioritize five to seven tasks under each epic that team members work on in two-week sprints.

As an example, improving the conversion rate on the website is a theme at EnterpriseDB. An epic aligned to that theme is to run A/B tests on a redesign of product pages. And a two-week sprint would include priority tasks like coming up with a few competing ideas for headlines or text, implementing the two best ideas, going live with two different versions and then reviewing and communicating the results.

“The key thing about agile is you’re constantly learning and adjusting,” says Frank Days, vice president of marketing at EnterpriseDB. “And the benefit of working in two-week bursts is that we can test our ideas. We learn from those tests and create a cluster of new tasks that are related to what we learned. Then we execute against those learnings in the next sprint.”

The team also keeps track of other tasks and ideas, Days adds. “Every time someone thinks of something and we think we ought to do it at some point, we stick it in the backlog. Or if an idea is essential, it gets compared to what’s on the current list in the two-week sprint and, if it’s better, we use it in place of what’s on that current list. This provides some real-time give-and-take in terms of what happens along the way.”

To get started with agile, communication teams can consider implementing its principles within a small part of the organization, allowing those employees to experiment with the approach and report back. Or they can dive in, says Ottinger, with an approach he calls “crockpot agile.” This is when teams don’t officially announce the change; they just begin finding ways to apply agile. For example, they could hold short and frequent “standup” meetings or encourage team members to ask for feedback on ideas and assignments earlier in the process.

In either case, agile “requires a shift in how you view your work,” says Mitch Lacey, an agile trainer who honed his skills at Microsoft Corp. and author of The Scrum Field Guide. “It’s really just putting in place the ability to respond to change faster, to make decisions safer, to identify problems quick and resolve them quicker—and without stressing everyone to the max.”

True to its name, agile means there are no hard-and-fast rules. You can easily adapt it to your organization’s needs. Here are three practices teams can deploy fairly quickly:

Keep it brief

Agile teams hold frequent, but very short, very focused “standup” meetings, which are sometimes called scrums. “It’s a quick 15-minute check-in to ask: What did you do yesterday, what are you doing today and what blockers do you have?” explains EnterpriseDB’s Days, noting that this approach not only makes for a dynamic environment but it also improves communication, since each team member is always up to speed on everyone else’s priority items.

Own it, collectively

With agile, “you’re shifting accountability from the individual to the team and to the project,” says Lacey. “So it’s not how do I do my own job faster, it’s how do we provide transparency, how do we fix impediments, how do we create an environment where it’s safe to ask for help so we can achieve the value we want to build or deliver to our customers or stakeholders.”

Examples of this in action would be allowing team members to choose the project components they want to work on rather than doling out assignments, giving them space to try creative ideas (and sometimes fail), and encouraging everyone to look for opportunities to get help from colleagues rather than troubleshooting alone.

Work in small batches

Rolling out in select areas limits the risk for error, because if something goes wrong, it only affects a few things, says Rubin. “It also allows you to get faster feedback, makes it easier to plan, easier to pivot and easier to recover,” he adds. Agile can make good business sense for global communication pros across industries. It gives communication leaders and teams the flexibility, insights and strategic opportunity to get messaging right—faster.

Do the Agile Math

If people simply work harder or faster, productivity will improve, right? Wrong.

“The reason organizations aren’t productive is that 90% of the time, the work is blocked, it’s sitting idle in somebody’s queue, holding everything up,” says Ken Rubin, author of Essential Scrum: A Practical Guide to the Most Popular Agile Process.

To be more effective, you’ve got to streamline your processes. Simple math shows why.

A 10% improvement in the 10% of time when real work is being done gives you a 1% increase in productivity.

10% of 10% = 1%

But if you can remove 10% of the 90% of downtime involved in your process, you get a 9% increase in productivity.

10% of 90% = 9%

“It’s not about idle workers, it’s about idle work,” Rubin says. “Work should be flowing continuously, so look at your process and figure out how to achieve what I call fast, flexible flow. How do we move work across the department very quickly, flexibly and adapting when needed so change happens with good flow?”

Heather B. Hayes

4 Comments

  1. The “sooner, safer, smarter” formulation came to me from Ryan Ripley who was doing a conference talk on the topic. I borrowed his phrasing, and want to be sure he is recognized for it.

  2. Very interesting and helpful article. However, I am bothered by the use of “agile” where the correct word is “agility.” Is “agile” in this context a brand name?

  3. Elena. You are right. There’s a bit of ungrammatical usage here, but this is so pervasive that it will stick. You may think of ‘agile’ as shorthand for ‘agile methods’ or ‘agile ideas’.

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