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.

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