Why digital and communications teams should go Agile

Here’s a talk I gave last night on how Agile can help digital and communications teams realise more value. It was part of a series of events we’re hoping to organise for digital teams at charities and non-profit organisations. We’ll post content related to the other two talks very soon.


Video Transcript

I’m going to set the scene a little bit. Tonight’s presentations centre around Agile ways of working and how that applies to communications and digital teams as compared to software teams where perhaps Agile ways of working were founded.

So this is Manifesto’s studio and there’s lots of the team to chat with. We’re going to take a little break after two presentations and there’ll be more drinks and chatting afterwards.

I’m Jim Bowes, one of the founders of Manifesto. The other two founders are both here tonight: Simon and Curtis. As I told a couple of people, Curtis used to be in Home and Away so if you want to make him feel awkward you can talk to him about that.

We’ve got two other great presentations coming up: one about advertising from Jon at Space and Time Media and one from Cameron about the Acquia Lift Platform which is a personalisation engine for Drupal. Obviously I know some of you work with content management systems that aren’t Drupal but hopefully the principles still apply and you’ll be able to can take that thinking back to how you work with your own systems.

So I’m talking about

Agile in the age of context

We’re gonna kick off by taking a little bit about, not Manifesto, let’s get straight past that.

Traditional project management is based on a waterfall concept where things happen one after another. Show of hands: who’s familiar with this way of working? And who still primarily works in this way? Yeah, so some people still do.

There was a business review paper in 1986, Harvard Business Review, which said today’s competitive challenges are not well matched to this way of working and something that happens in a more iterative way may be more suited to the challenges of life and business and the world as it develops.

So some guys got together in the mountains in America and they came up with some principles that are known as Agile. But Agile at the moment is a bit of a buzzword. People in all kinds of contexts use agile just to mean what it actually means – because it is a word in the English language. The meaning of Agile, with a capital A, is kind of similar and relates to these four principles that these people came up which are:

– Individuals and interactions over processes and tools;
– Customer collaboration over contract negotiation;
– Responding to change over working to a plan; and
– Working software over comprehensive documentation.

What I want to get across and I really feel is that Agile isn’t just following a process. It’s a thought system and way of life and an approach to everything you do. So at Manifesto we run the whole company using Agile. There’s a backlog for Manifesto. Our company pension scheme was a user story: so it says, ‘as an employee of Manifesto I need a pension scheme so that… I have money in old age’ or something like that.

Our process is that we pick off the thing that’s most valuable to Manifesto as an organisation and take that and work to achieve it in little chunks in a way that is realised as part of the company.

Now this came, as you can tell, from a more software approach – because we’ve got working software over comprehensive documentation. Perhaps a [misconception] about Agile is that it means no documentation, that’s certainly not true. What it means is documentation for people who need that documentation, so if you’re a support person you might need to know how a piece of software, or website, or a comms journey works. But if it’s just for the purposes of reporting or just because we’ve always created a document then let’s not create that document.

Responding to change over following a plan – I think that’s fairly self-explanatory, and one I’ll go on to talk about more about why it’s important in communications teams.

Customer collaboration is about let’s not spend too much time worrying about what we’re saying we’re going to do and let’s work together to achieve our goals and our vision.

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools – well, Agile has some processes and tools. It doesn’t not value the things in grey it just values the things in red a little bit more.

There are some well known Agile methodologies. In about 70% of the projects in the UK, Scrum is the overarching methodology that is Agile. So Agile is just the principles, DSDM Kanban, XP and Scrum are just examples of Agile methodologies.

Kanban is Japanese for billboard and it’s about flow and limiting work in progress. And I think for communications teams and teams that don’t work with building and releasing software, Kanban is potentially a more powerful tool, because it’s about keeping your focus and not trying to do too much. And I think you can definitely use it for PR campaigns. People might have seen tools like Trello – which is effectively a Kanban board. You could just say it’s a to-do list but Kanban sounds better.

DSDM is like an old school methodology that tries to be more of a project framework.

XP stands for extreme programming. Probably not something you need to worry about too much, if you’re a communications or digital team but if you’re working in IT it brings about a lot of the technical processes that enable you to work in an iterative way. So being able to release to production quickly or to restore to a previous version of the site – those are the kind of things that come from XP or pair-programming, where people work together to solve a problem together to make an overall better quality product.

I think totally applies to – I mean, I’ve written press releases in a pair-programming kind of way, even if the way I’ve done that is to bounce a press-release back and forth between someone really quickly, where I know the first version of that press release is of a low quality, but there’s a few key points in it. And then someone tweaks it and by the time you’re at the fourth version it’s actually quite good.

This is the core Scrum process for those who haven’t seen it before. You basically have a backlog of all the things that you want in exact priority order. Every (between) one to four weeks you take items form that and move them into a sprint backlog. You then have a planning session; every 24-hours you do a stand-up with the questions: what did you do yesterday? What do you plan to do today? And is there anything holding you up?

The idea is that at the end of the period you have a potentially shippable product. And that is something you could release to the public if you so choose.

And you totally can apply this to a communications context. It can be that when there’s a need to respond to something, like things happening on social media, or because of a PR campaign, or crisis management, you might need a framework that’s more flexible
and that’s why I think Kanban – which is more about saying ‘this is our focus’ and ‘this is our flow’ is perhaps more appropriate.

This is a little slide about the team, really about the roles. So whatever your vision is, you need a team that can deliver on that vision.

And then there are two other roles: the ScrumMaster who is not the boss of the team but the owner of the process, helps coach and guide the team to self-management; and the Product Owner who represents value and the order of the backlog. And they interact with all of your other stakeholders.

What this enables is focus for a team. By letting people work together and collaborate, through the Product Owner, who understands what it is you’re trying to make, you’re able to create productivity.

I think there are some challenges facing communications teams that have changed over the last few years. I wanted to give a little preface about Agile because I think as a method, and as a way of thinking, it can help address some of these.

1. You’re not in control of all of the content created about your brand. Even whole campaigns can start without you.

This is probably an example that gets used a lot – and there are some people in from Cancer Research UK tonight – but the #nomakeupselfie is a fantastic example of this, where CRUK capitalised on something that was happening organically, and really turned it into something that was hugely successful for them. You could choose to ignore that, or you could choose to react to it, and if you’re just firmly following a plan, you’re not going to be able to do that.

2. The world is realtime. And that creates winners and losers.

So I did some work with [a large insurance company], trying to get them to agree a framework on how Tweets would get signed off. Because things happen about mortgages and financial products. And if you want to be a KitKat or an Oreo, or someone who’s really good at that stuff, you’re going to need more of and editorial framework in which you can respond to things.

In a complex or large organisation the best way to do that is to have a pre-agreed structure where ‘if this happens then these are the parameters which we work in’. It’s not pretty but…

To be honest, the route that I would really say is best, is to have an editor, who, if they make the wrong decision, gets sacked. Simple as that. Because that’s how newspapers have worked for years and it generally works pretty well and not too many editors get sacked. And every so often one gets sacked, but if you get someone from a journalistic they’ll probably accept that that maybe goes with the territory.

This guy, this is BuzzFeed, he’s giving away a plane ticket around the world to anyone with his ex’s name, because he recently split up with his girlfriend. Now if I ran an airline, or the airline that had that ticket, there’s a world of opportunity. There’s a world of potential risk as well. But i could try to take advantage of this situation because we have something which has gone viral, that people are looking at and there’s a small window of opportunity in which to capitalise on that. And so your process which underpins how you react to things in the media is really key.

3. We live in the age of context.

I put it in the title of the presentation. i guess here there’s a technology push and a consumer expectation.

This is an app called Happyour that some friends of mine have created. They’ve looked at things like Groupon and they feel that what Groupon is asking people to do is fundamentally broken

Because it gets a retailer to do an incredibly special deal for the promise of winning long term customers but in reality what it does is to drive consumers to wait for incredibly low cost deals and not build loyalty with specific brands. Because you just wait for the next time that , I don’t know, ten sessions of waxing is on offer, and you go to a different salon.

Whereas Happyhour realised there was something fundamentally fair about the Happy Hour concept – when a pub did a happy hour it was because it was one of their quiet times. And the consumer knew that and the consumer never expected a pub to do happy hour at 10pm on a Friday night, or Saturday night. So it was a fair deal; you come here early and you get a special price on your drinks.

So Happhour lets retailers create a happy hour and it redresses some of the fairness and it gives it to people in context, because it learns what people like and it knows where they are.

These things are iBeacons -this is an iBeacon right here. This thing transmits a low-energy Bluetooth identifier and these have been put in the Apple iStore and they’re all along Regent Street and they’re in Camden Market. And what they do is take location past physical location. Because it can move or it can be attached to something.

This thing just broadcasts but you can make the apps on your phone respond to it. I’ve got some other friends who run a food pop-up, which moves. It’s called Hotter Trotter – it’s pulled pork – and say this is attached to their van, it can just be going ‘Hotter Trotter – Hotter Trotter – Hotter Trotter – Hotter Trotter – Hotter Trotter’ constantly. And you can make an app respond to this.

So this could be in the homeware section of a store, and another one in clothing, and you’d be able to tell when someone moved between the two departments and send them offers as they go.

But what’s about to be launched is a sticker version. So you could attach those to a particular pair of shoes say, and you could see when they tried on an item in the Paris store and then remind them when they revisit the London store that they tried something on a previous time. And you could log what size they are.

And, okay, maybe people don’t want this right now, and maybe it’s a bit creepy, but, to be honest, Apple want this. And actually, people don’t turn on Bluetooth on their phone – it will have to get superceded. But the idea that context, and having experiences where things just happen to sort of be what you wanted, will start to become what people expect.

4. Creative is more data driven than ever before. And you need to take actions on data.

The next slide just represents data, so let’s not dwell on it.

But the way in which we use Google Analytics, or other analytics packages, or join data in multiple places using tools like Tableau – is solely for the purposes of taking actions on data. And that’s a big change – I think the people that work in more creative and communications roles were very much at the ‘art’ end of things a few years ago and now they’ve moved towards the ‘data’ end of things and making decisions based on that.

5. Teams around you are working differently.

So if you’re in a comms team, your software team are doing this. You know you have one of those moments where you have to find a photograph for your presentation? You’ve gone with a format of photograph followed by statement and… anyway…

6. The way media is consumed has changed. And will continue to change.

Every year Manifesto goes into a school in Edmonton where we work with children and try to get them interested in a career in digital. And as far as they’re concerned – we were hanging out with 15 and 16 year olds – Facebook is completely dead to them. When I told them that I had my first mobile phone when I was seventeen they couldn’t even conceptualise a time before mobile phones. And what it was like to get your first one which could only make calls – you couldn’t even text, it wasn’t a thing.

But for them, at the moment, WhatsApp and SnapChat are what it’s all about. So if you’d planned a three year strategy for communications that you’d built into a plan, that was quite specific, SnapChat wouldn’t have been in it three years ago. It wouldn’t even have been on your radar.

And it’s for those six reasons that I think you have to have an Agile approach to the way you do communications.

So here’s a couple of ways in which Agile can help and then I’ll hand over to Cameron.

You need to get the right people together: you need someone who understands what’s valuable to your organisation; you need someone who gets what’s feasible – whether that be technical or from a communications delivery point of view; and you need someone to represent the user.

And if you get a small group of people together and get them to engage with stakeholders, you can really start to build up a backlog of what’s powerful and what’s valuable to your organisation.

You need to set a vision and make it visible. This is one for ECMC which we’re working on at the moment – the Experimental Cancer Medicine Centres.

What it does is – it’s by a guy called Roman Pilcher – it helps you set a high level vision, you say who your target audience is, what needs or goals you’re fulfilling for them, what features the product has, and how you create value for your organisation.

And finally, take what you need, inspect and adapt. So the purpose of this is you change your whole approach so you’re constantly learning. I tell the team here – and you know, we’ve done projects for some of the people in this room – I tell the team that every project is only a practice.

And I don’t mean we produce low quality work – we do wonderful work – but if you always have the approach that the work that you’re doing is to learn something to take into the next piece of work then it’ll be more successful for you.

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