Thursday, February 28, 2013

How to take your Agency Agile: Interview with Greg Morrell, Co-Founder of AgencyAgile, Inc.

Transitioning any organization to Agile project management can be difficult. When you add in the complications digital agencies face (fixed priced, fixed scope, but still lots of changing needs from their clients, to name a few) it gets even more complicated. I spoke last week with Greg Morrell of AgencyAgile who spends his time deep inside interactive agencies helping them to make the cultural and methodological shifts necessary to succeed at Agile. He was kind enough to share a few insights and experiences with me.

How is Agile different in an agency environment?

Agile methods were developed in the software industry, with a basic relationship between the product owner and the team.  Agencies are much more complicated, they tend to have more stakeholders and the projects and goals are much more open ended than software or product development companies.

In software development environments, teams and their internal product owners plan work against a schedule and have some control (as well as flexibility) over what gets built and when. But agencies provide services for hire in a world of ever-changing needs and market forces, as well as the ongoing need to participate with consumers' as they interact with brands. The sands are always shifting, however schedule is usually locked in (a hard date for a product launch, as an example), as is budget, and in many ways scope.  It can seem impossible to use Agile when some of these core elements, scope, schedule and budget, are not flexible.

So when we help agencies with Agile, we focus on the things that we can impact with Agile – it actually still works very well.  We focus on things like reducing noise and eliminating needless waste.  Top on our list is maximizing the “flow” of the actual team – if they’re not delivering, then nothing is getting done.  And when we are able to address these things well, the project goes faster, and you’ll be better off than if you hadn’t used Agile.

Why should an agency go Agile?

Wow, Agile has so many benefits for agencies.  Culturally, an Agile agency is a more rewarding, engaging place to work, providing the talented teams agencies employ autonomy and more direct accountability for their collective output.  We find that agencies that can engage their clients in an Agile framework build deeper, more meaningful partnerships with their clients. And honestly, there are a lot of bottom-line benefits for the agency too: lower turn-over, less overhead, and higher project margins.

What's the most important thing for an agency to know if they're thinking of going Agile?

The most important thing to know is that it's about the culture changes more than it is about following a new process or using new tools. In our experience, it is about 70% versus 30%, culture and people versus processes and tools.  A lot of agencies we talk to say they are using Agile. Many do use pieces, but making Agile work well in an agency takes time and attention to supporting the principles of Agile. Sending PM’s to get SCRUM certification, doing daily check-ins, and using tools to manage and organize project information are not bad, but these don’t get you to change behaviors and build trusting teams that really excel. And given that some things just don’t work well at agencies without massive adjustment (such as Agile estimation techniques), we see these shops getting pretty mediocre results.  It doesn’t have to be that way, and these lukewarm results make Agile look bad…whereas it is really people not understanding how to make Agile work in an agency.

So we really need to work on the culture. That's why the first value of the Agile Manifesto is; "People and interactions over processes and tools". You need to get rid of silos in your organization and get people talking.

Another big difference is that projects that are doing Agile right typically have fewer activities that look like project management.  Most of the team members are the people doing the work, either on the business end or building something.  The organization ends up looking really flat.  Thats a big change from the hierarchical, top-down, job specialization approach agencies have grown into over the past decade.

Process is still important, but we don't get bogged down by trying to be overly prescriptive about it. You should take an iterative approach to improving it as you go.

What does this look like in practice?

Well, right now I'm working with an agency’s 12-person project with several key members offshore in Costa Rica.  It's absolutely crucial for an Agile project to have everybody on the same page.  Working with remote teams is harder, but it's still possible to get great results.  We meet daily either by teleconference or video chat. With a 3-hour time difference between locations, this means teams have to come in at some odd hours for the meeting. But we take turns, sometimes the team in Costa Rica comes in at odd hours, sometimes the team in California does.  Everyone needs to be on an equal footing, neither team is considered superior.
By the same token, we don't move on until we're sure that everyone is on the same page as far as the scope for the current iteration.  Some of our offshore team members aren't completely fluent in English, so if someone is quiet, we assume that they don't understand 100%.  An Agile team can only move as fast as its slowest member, so we end up spending a lot of time training the team in patience and communication. This can feel a bit painful at first, especially in a sprint planning session. However, once the entire team has common understanding of the work, we make up time pretty quickly over the duration of the sprint.


There you have it.  The challenges of implementing agile in an agency are significant and extend well beyond surface measures like scrum training, task boards and daily meetings. But done well, the pay off of agile is easily seen in happier employees and better results.

Greg makes it clear that the tools and processes are necessary, but the real key to agile is creating a culture of trust, creativity and innovation. Visit and follow @agencyagile to learn more.

About Greg Morell, CSM

Greg is co-founder and partner at AgencyAgile, responsible for growing relationships with agencies while guiding agency and client teams through Agile transformation.

Greg has over 18 years of interactive agency experience, particularly in client services and program management, developing deep, long-term relationships with clients in a range of industries including Automotive (VW, Mazda, Toyota, Kia, Hyundai, and Nissan, CODA and Better Place), Technology (Microsoft, Adobe), Gaming and Entertainment (FX Networks, THQ, Gaikai, XBox), and Consumer Brands (Nike, Naked Juice).

As digital agency veteran, Greg has held executive leadership roles Proxicom, iCrossing, and BLITZ Agency. Greg has led teams and built collaborative partnerships across a wide spectrum of agency types (traditional, media, digital), founded upon clear vision, shared goals, transparency and accountability.

AgencyAgile was founded in 2011 by software and digital agency veterans Jack Skeels and Greg Morrell, with the mission to greatly improve how agencies execute work, and how agencies and clients work together.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Agile Families: a TED Talk by Bruce Feiler

We're seeing the spread of Agile into so many new areas, the world is looking more an more agile all the time.

This recent TED talk brings the idea of Agile to the family, and promises to empower children the way it has workers.  Which Agile practices is your family using, and what's working?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Answer Questions in PMRobot Right from your Inbox

We know it's important not to create friction between you, your team members and your clients. Our aim is to build an agile project management tool that gets out of your way instead of adding overhead.

One of PMRobot's most popular features is Question Asking in a ticket.  It makes it easy to get the answers you need to move forward, and it puts them right where you need them.  Until now, the only problem was that you needed to go to the app to answer a question. Not the worst thing in the world, but it does interrupt your flow when you're responding to other emails.

That's why we're adding our Email Reply feature. Questions asked of you are delivered to your email inbox.  To respond, all you have to do is reply as you would to any email.  The answer will appear in the ticket and the question will be recorded as answered.  Forgot to mention something? No problem, another email reply will simply be appended after the first.

Go to PMRobot to try it out with your team members.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Antifragile Project Management

What We Can Learn From the “Farm”

A favorite parable within the Agile community is “The Tale of the Chicken and the Pig.” In the tale the Chicken suggests to the Pig that they start a breakfast joint together, pooling their resources to serve ham and eggs. The Pig is understandably reluctant, saying "I'd be committed, but you'd only be involved..." The story helps to distinguish between the stakeholders who do the work (pigs) and those who are only interested in, and supportive of, the success of the project (chickens).

Another useful farmyard parable is the tale of the Turkey, a favorite of Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s.  Taleb’s book “Antifragile” is a deep investigation into systems that gain from chaos and disorder.  

And thus begins the story of the Turkey:

Each day, the Turkey is fed a delicious meal by the Farmer. As surely as the sun would rise, she received her satisfying meals with steadfast regularity. Diligent, she did her research, reviewing her KPI with the appropriate experts, and her confidence in the Farmer’s reliability steadily increased as did her quantity of feed. Naturally she predicted that the trend would continue…
Antifragile Project Management 
Of course, we know better than the Turkey; come Thanksgiving, shortly after receiving her largest meal of all time, she met an unexpected end.

In project management sometimes we know as much about our big chaotic world as the Turkey knows about the Farmer's intentions.  The Turkey believes that she has adequate information to predict the future, much like the implicit assumption behind Waterfall methods where the initial "plan" dictates the final product.

Relying on a specific plan can blind both poultry and project members to new opportunities that arise. While the Waterfallists are busy tracking how far off schedule they are, the Agilists have noticed that half the stuff they’d planned isn't what their customers want. 

In industries where problems are open ended, like software, marketing and design, we must acknowledge that we don't know everything at the outset.

Know your pigs from your chicken’s and don’t be a Turkey. Be antifragile by being agile: develop your teams culture, processes and mindsets so that you can adapt quickly when things don't go as planned. 

Acknowledging the unknown is halfway to anticipating and overcoming the unexpected.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The First 100 Days in a new Project Management Role

Like the foundation to a building, the first one hundred days are extremely important to success in a new project management position. As a project manager, you're placed in the middle of many people—higher level managers, clients, and other staff; it takes extra effort to get off to a good start so that you can succeed in the long run.

Take it in…but keep shipping

A new company is a new cultural landscape to navigate. You must seek to understand it so that you can thrive within it. Every organization has its own peculiar DNA: a philosophy around decision making and a set of values that prioritize some actions over others. Pay attention to the language of your company’s leaders to identify those values.

It is essential to respect this time to observe and adapt to your new surroundings. At the same time, most of our readers are working in small teams where there's no room for dead weight. You'll be expected to keep your team producing without too many hiccups. This is the balancing act; breathe it all in, but don't stop the forward motion.

Improve the process by shipping

The organization that you've just walked into may be a well-oiled machine or it may be a war zone. Unless you're specifically mandated to begin process improvement immediately, keep your focus on shipping. This can be difficult, given that PMs love process. Among their kind, they can go back and forth endlessly about the best tools to use, the best ways to run meetings, and the best workflow processes.

Steve Sinofsky, former President of the Windows Division at Microsoft has an entire blog, with lengthy essays dedicated to the value of Learning by Shipping.

Never forget though that process exists to aid in the efficient creation of a great product. Keep things moving and observe keenly. Make small tweaks here and there to process and slowly but surely improve the lives of your teammates. With time you'll find yourself in a position to try out a new meeting format or introduce a new project management tool.

Serve your team and the work

Project management is not a glorious position; hopefully this isn't a surprise to you. When things go wrong, you'll take the blame; when you succeed, the accolades necessarily go to your team. Your teammates, the programmers, designers, copywriters, and analytics technicians are the experts. Your true job is to facilitate their collective brilliance toward creating great work.

All too often, managers behave as if a company exists so that they can be managers. Wrong. The purpose of your company is to do the work that it was made to do. You don't have to be subservient or obedient, but you must put yourself in the service of the work, and the people who do it.


The first hundred days in a position are absolutely crucial to your success. You're building your foundation, and there's a balancing act to maintain. Take the time to understand your new surroundings, don't stop your team moving, and most importantly, understand that your purpose is in service to the work that is to be done.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Too much going on? No problem, you can sort it out.

Now it's easier to get your priorities in order
We're always working to make what's already a great project management app even better and more user friendly.

Now you can spend less time managing and more time getting things done.

Drag and drop your tickets anywhere in the queue

You no longer have to click arrows to move the ticket from one column to the next. The updated sorting saves time, and makes it much easier to get everything laid out in just the right way.  If you haven't seen it, take a look:

About PM Robot

PMRobot keeps everything in one place, making your job easier.

No more information scattered across 7 different tools.
With PMRobot, there's only one tool to learn, and one place to search for all your files, tasks, and project information.

Questions or ideas? Contact us at


Monday, February 4, 2013

6 way to make your clients love you while staying sane

You work hard to get your clients. All those calls, conferences and coffee meetings aren’t just for fun. So you’d better take care of them once you have them. It may seem burdensome at times, but the effort invested in strong relationships and doing great work will pay back in growth opportunities.

In their book “Leading on the Edge of Chaos”, Emmet C. Murphy and Mark A. Murphy state that a 2% increase in customer retention has the same effect as decreasing costs by 10% . Making clients happy is one of the best ways to grow a business. They'll spread the word for you so you can spend less time selling, and more time doing great work.

Build your business on these 6 pillars to keep your clients and grow your business:

1. Make honest and realistic estimations of timelines

We all do it, and it happens in every industry. At the start of a project, you’re feeling good and you know the finished product is going to be great. You’ve made a list of everything involved, and you’ve guesstimated how long each piece will take. This is where things get dangerous. We can be tempted to over-promise when entering into a new relationship, but over-promising does not create sustainable relationships. Set realistic expectations for your timelines, and give yourself some padding for bumps in the road. Because even when you think you’re almost done, you’re probably not.

2. Be a great communicator

Find out your client’s preferred method of communication and use it. If they leave you a message, don’t email, call them back. Make sure your clients know what's going on, before they start to wonder about what you’re up to by providing them with regular updates on a schedule that makes sense for the project. Be especially conscious with formal reports; make your reports concise and understandable, use agreed upon metrics for success, and use visuals when possible.

3. Be Respectful

Your client may not have the same level of expertise that you do (that’s why they’re paying you), but they’re smart enough to know they need you. Take the time to educate them in how you work and what processes you use. Steer clear of jargon; cut down on the three letter acronyms that you throw around casually with your colleagues. Instead, pay attention to how your client speaks, and build that language into your conversations with them.

4. Agree on what success looks like

Doing work that makes your client happy requires great empathy. From the beginning, you need to understand their needs, and get a clear picture of what you're working towards. Once you think you know what you're building, tell your client what you'll be doing. Agree on what needs to be delivered, and how that will be measured. It takes more work upfront, but getting everyone on the same page creates a lot of trust. This trust enables you to do the work, without being constantly pestered. The extra effort at the beginning makes you far more likely to deliver a great product.

5. Set boundaries

You want to keep your clients happy -- that’s why you’re reading this article. You want to reach new heights, diveak down walls and meet stretch goals for them. But remember, they’re looking to you not just to do some work, but also for leadership and guidance. This means letting them know when their ideas won’t work, and not giving in to every demand. If they insist on a change, let them know, in writing, how their request differs from the original scope, and how you expect it will impact the project.

6. Do great work

Obviously! Of course you do great work, you always put your best into every project and sweat the details, right? Great, but not everyone does, and time saved by cutting corners could end up costing you many times over in rework and damaged relationships. By all means, extend yourself, take on big projects and grow, but be sure that you're willing to do what it takes to delight your clients with the finished result.

We can take another great statistic from Murphy and Murphy’s book “Leading on the Edge of Chaos”: organizations that prioritize the customer experience generate 60% higher profits than their competitors. With the rise of social media, people increasingly rely on word of mouth and reviews to make buying decisions. It becomes a virtuous cycle: This means doing great work and making clients happy can be an excellent marketing strategy, which means you can spend less time selling, and more time doing great work.