For the past two months, Big Sea has been undergoing a pretty significant transformation in how we approach our work.  This change is both philosophical and practical, and is already making a huge impact in our day-to-day work and in our project outcomes.  We’ve gone all in on Agile.

First things first:  What is Agile?  

Agile management is an iterative and adaptive process where small, highly collaborative teams work in a series of short cycles, incorporating rapid feedback to deliver innovative solutions emphasizing transparency among all stakeholders.

(Sounds pretty perfect, right?)

The Agile approach is based on the Agile Manifesto, which says:

We Value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

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Agile isn’t new.  The Agile Manifest was penned in 2001, and one of my favorite articles about Agile (10 Key Principles of Agile — go read; I’ll wait here) was written in 2007.  What is fairly new is the application of Agile management processes to businesses outside traditional software development.  

That’s been the trick: how do we apply the Agile philosophy to our design, content, and marketing projects?  We spent most of the summer reading and researching and bouncing ideas of fellow agency owners who’ve done the same, and we finally found our solution.

What does that mean?  

Agile is an approach to building things, designing things, and executing things that emphasizes a collaborative approach, with small cycles of development and constant iteration.  The goal is to test as we go, improve as we go, and constantly be making things better.  

For instance, in our Agile approach to web design, we will launch a new site the minute it becomes better than the existing site, and continue to improve it or get it to finished, versus waiting until every page, every word, and every piece of functionality is complete. In Agile marketing, we create high-level goals for the engagement, smaller themes and campaigns, and then plan tactics over just 14 or 30 days, with the ability to pivot, add, or subtract work based on actual results of the what we’re doing.

Until recently, Big Sea used what’s called a Waterfall approach to project management  where everything is planned and documented up front, then we progress through a series of set deliverables and milestones in a sequential fashion.  Planning, copy, design, development, testing, launch.  Seems logical, right?  

Change is the only constant.

Join the Change Dance

Waterfall methodology relies heavily on initial requirements, but initial requirements (“scopes of work”) don’t take into account a project’s evolving needs. If we realize that the project needs more than initially planned for, and request change, the project will come in late and impact budget either on our side or the client’s.  Clients are unhappy. We’re unhappy. There’s tension. Even when it all finally resolves, we’ve had to make compromises and have tough conversations and the project is more stressful than fun.

After 11 years of doing this, we’ve realized that there is virtually no way to clearly define all requirements up front without causing quite a bit of friction with clients come delivery time when we hold fast to what we’ve done and don’t allow changes.  

Marketing projects suffer the same tension.  We put together annual and quarterly plans and work at least a month or two in advance, but then our client needs something new or different or there’s a new technology we want to play with and we have to ask for more hours of time to do so and there it is again: that friction.  

In essence, we are punished for having a great idea at the wrong time.  If we didn’t think of it during the scoping or planning phase, we can’t make it happen without changes to the budget or timeline—even if it’s a better idea than what we’re working on.

Agile fixes that tension

The methodology we are using to enforce the Agile philosophy, called Scrum, is one that allows us to embrace the change inherent in the process of doing the work we do, in the process of creating something.  

Each project, big or small, starts with high-level goals.  We create user stories that exemplify the outcomes we need each project to fulfill. Notice this is the why, not the how.  How we approach these can change, and becomes the subject of some really interesting discussions that involve all of the constraints of a particular project — the technology, content, design, budget, and time.  We include the clients in these conversations: in planning what can and should happen, how long those things will take, and how important they are to the success of the project.  We embrace new ideas, add them to the plan, and pivot on execution when something’s not working the way we anticipated.

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The benefits of an Agile approach are many and well-proven over many years at software and marketing agencies:  Increased business performance, increased employee and client satisfaction and increased adaptability.  

We get to spend more time delivering great work that gets results for our clients and less time arguing over out-of-date project briefs or marketing plans because someone had a great idea during development or execution rather than during the planning phase.  

When our teams collaborate with our clients rather than work for them at arm’s length, and when everyone prioritizes frequent delivery, reflection and iteration over exhaustive scoping and planning, we can see a tangible difference in the quality of the work that we create.   

The outcomes are better, the relationships are stronger, and the work is more impactful.