“Agile working”: Must-have or passing trend?

Stefan Huber

Stefan Huber is Chief Operating Officer. He is in charge of the Content, Service & Delivery Unit, assists customers with advisory services and content know-how, and gains new creative input while climbing indoors and outdoors.

In a world that feels like it’s spinning faster and faster, with machine learning algorithms driving us along and real-time communications barely giving us time to catch our breath, Heraklit’s famous saying seems more relevant than ever: “The only constant in life is change.” We must adapt, deliver results faster and more flexibly, or we risk falling behind the competition.

With traditional methods and processes, we are increasingly reaching our limits – perceived and real. Many see “agile” as the answer. What started in software development is spilling over into many other business areas and, in certain combinations, is becoming a hyped buzzword. (Agile Sales, anyone?)

As a technology company specialized in native content distribution with a one-stop-shop approach, Content Garden covers many different areas – from software development to content production, campaigning, project management and sales. Agile methods are not only used in our Tech Unit, but in varying degrees in other areas too. Time for a reality check.

It starts with a manifesto

In software development, agile approaches have been used since the 1990s; incremental development was practiced well before that. This “new” approach became really popular at the end of the 1990s, and in 2001 the values and principles of agile software development were laid down in the “Agile Manifesto“. In four guidelines and twelve principles, 17 developers formulated what they considered to be a better way than the classic Waterfall approach.

Prioritization within the Agile Manifesto

Specifically, these principles state that

  • people and communication take precedence over processes and tools;
  • quality of work takes precedence over documentation and management;
  • collaboration with customers takes precedence over contract negotiations
  • responding to change is more important than following a plan.

Win-win: A simple calculation

In software development, this means that incremental development – where an agile team delivers software in small chunks at a time – continuously involves customers more closely in the development process. This makes it easier for them to make changes, while developers can focus on software quality and respond more quickly to change suggestions. A win-win situation.

Agility: Potential for many industries

It’s easy to break this down to other industries as well. After all, with the increasing speed that some projects, as well as customers, demand, and the fact that changes to plans often cannot be prevented and are part of the process, it is important to equip yourself for these circumstances in the best possible way. Agility is the answer.

But agile is not just agile. There are big ideas in the guidelines and principles, such as teams that are self-organized and largely free of hierarchies. This requires a “basic agile attitude” that must be carried throughout the entire company and where perhaps not everyone can or wants to join in. Complete frameworks have emerged for software development, such as the widely used Scrum. Too often, teams fail to implement this as well, and people only think they are “doing Scrum”. It is even more difficult to transfer these concepts to other areas. On the other hand, there is a richly filled toolbox of methods that can make a big impact in areas away from technology.

The power lies in the method

When you start to get to grips with the topic of agile, it’s easy to lose track of the big picture. Here is a brief overview on the most common methods:

  • Task Board: Overview of current tasks
  • Task Pulling: The independent taking over of tasks in one’s own area of competence
  • Sprint: Time-limited, repetitive unit in which a work package is processed
  • Scrum: Popular agile framework, with fixed distribution of roles, defined events and iterative processing of (partial) tasks in time-limited time periods
  • Sprint Review: Critical discussion at the end of a sprint
  • Stand-ups: Daily, short status meetings (mostly) in a standing position
  • Kanban board: Vertical columns map the sequence of work steps
  • Timeboxing: (Really) Fixed timelines
  • Planning poker: Dynamic method for estimating effort
  • Definition of ready: Clear definition of when a task can be started
  • Definition of done: Clear definition of when a task is considered finished
  • Osmotic communication: Structures and an atmosphere that encourage exchanges and brief conversations among team members keep information levels the same
  • Story Points: Unit of effort estimates
  • Personas: Fictitious users of a product’s target group
  • Retrospective: Team event in which a past period (usually the last sprint) is reflected upon. Often in the form of exercises and with moderation.
  • Action items: (Also) Output of a retrospective. Tasks that are intended to improve problems addressed in a retrospective and that are jointly agreed upon.

The gardeners & their agility

Away from our Tech Unit – which is fully committed to Scrum – agile methods have gradually found their way into Content Garden, especially in the areas of project management and content production. Here we face a high number of campaigns and with growing team size, our biggest challenges were and/or are speed, information transfer and predictability (of deadlines and resources).

Daily Stand-up: Short and informative

First and foremost, one method that has proven particularly effective for us and contributed to higher productivity is our daily stand-up. In a joint stand-up between project management and the content unit, the status of the individual campaigns – from briefing to production to the review phase – is discussed. Each person provides as brief information as possible on the topics that concern him or her. A compact summary is given of what happened yesterday, what needs to be done and where there are problems. Usually, this takes place while standing (hence the name), in Corona-related home office times probably mostly while sitting. The important thing is the concentrated form. In a maximum of 15 minutes, both teams are up-to-date and can concentrate on their work. The content unit also has its own daily stand-up meeting, in which the production status is discussed in more detail and tasks are distributed.

Kanban boards: Effective classic

Nowadays, hardly any productivity tool can do without a kanban view. We also use this classic. In both standups mentioned above, Kanban boards help us to maintain an overview, record information and display the status of a task or campaign. In the content unit, where we use a variant with swimlanes per content manager, the board helps us to determine deadlines for content and to identify bottlenecks in production in good time. Before Corona, these boards were deliberately kept physical. In the meantime, we have become quite comfortable with the digital alternatives.

Maintaining an overview with the backlog

The Kanban boards also introduced the consistent use of backlogs, which in turn is strongly based on the concept of “definition of ready”. In general, this involves recording all tasks that arise (in our case campaign bookings). According to a defined scheme, it is then determined whether all requirements are met to process this task. In the case of a campaign, for example, we need a content briefing in addition to the order, which must contain certain information in order to be able to start production in the first place. This enables fast, systematic checking and dramatically reduces later communication efforts. Only what can be completed is started, and everything that is needed is requested at the very beginning. Once a campaign is “ready”, it is assigned to the next available content manager. In the daily stand-ups, the backlog is also discussed and tasks are distributed. This creates a system that allows us to work through campaigns with different requirements, deadlines and briefing progress in parallel and flexibly.

Estimating complex efforts simply – with Story Points

When it comes to resource planning, estimating effort as realistically as possible is essential. Here we have adopted the concept of Story Points. This involves estimating tasks relative to each other. The evaluation by points is then done in jumps (e.g.: 3, 5, 8, 13). This gives us a good feeling for the different demands of individual campaigns. By tracking turnaround times, we can now determine delivery dates much more accurately.

Communication is the key to success

Today, we can look back on a well-established system of some agile tools in the areas mentioned. However, the introduction did not take place overnight, but is the result of gradual trial and error and adaptation – in other words, it is actually an agile process itself. We also fished out this regular reflection from the agile toolbox. Retrospectives use a variety of exercises to identify problems, capture sentiments, and define so-called action items for improvement.

There are still areas at Content Garden that are little or not at all permeated by agile methods. Perhaps this is also the case in your company. However, it is important not to blindly follow a trend, but to find individually tailored, agile solutions that allow you to flexibly face changes in the work process.