Creative teams are stronger with Agile

Embracing agile is awkward at first but will generate significant gains over time.

Agile can empower creative teams, but it has a steep learning curve that feels unnatural at first. SevenDesign runs on agile, and we would love to share our thoughts on what we’ve learned about this system.

Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done. 5/12 Principles of Agile

Our team was first introduced to Agile in a meaningful way by a German startup client building a large and very complicated B2B marketplace. It was a daunting project with multiple client stakeholders, an expanded design team, a long laundry list of functional requirements and aggressive deadlines.


The Agile Manifesto focuses on your team on what counts

However, we had a great product manager on the client side with a Masters on Agile methodologies that helped us implement Agile. The product manager was uniquely focused on the quality of the process, over immediate deliverables. He understood a product of this size and complexity needed the benefits of agile to be designed at the next level.

Breaking away from waterfall and integrating agile into the creative process was painful. It felt unnatural to start, but once we grasped the fundamentals of the methodology, it significantly improved creative.

What we learned from this engagement was adopted lock stock and implemented company wide. Here are some thoughts for other looking to adopt agile:

  1. Agile 101
  2. Creative benefits
  3. Getting started
Story development with the client, a great way to generate buy-in on the direction of a product.

1. Agile 101

The best architectures, requirements, and designs
emerge from self-organizing teams.
11 /12 Principles of Agile

Before getting into how it can help, it’s probably worth going over the terminology and basic methodology as it can be confusing and often misused. For those wanting to do more reading, I’d highly recommend reading the agile handbook.

Sprint: A repeating and fixed increment of time during the creative team’s work occurs. It’s typically 2 weeks but can be any length of time that works for your team. Within a sprint certain agile rituals (meetings with fixed agenda and outcomes) repeat like clockwork. A sprint is used to complete stories assigned to the team.

Rituals: A ritual is a meeting with a specific agenda and outcome that repeats at fixed times within the sprint (see more below).

Stories: A story is just a task. It can be written from a users’ perspective as a user story (i.e. ‘as a user, I want to …, in order to…’) if that is useful, but there is no rule here. Just write in a way that feels natural and provides clarity to the team. Examples are ‘create wireframes’, or ‘draft content for page X’, or ‘create logo sketches’, etc.

Backlog: A collection of stories that are waiting to be worked on by your team in future sprints.

Story points: Story points are assigned to a story and is a measure how complicated a story is to complete [how long it will take to complete, how many people it requires to complete, etc]. It is typically measured on a Fibonacci scale from 1,2,3,5,8,13. Story points are allocated by the whole team in key rituals and are used to measure capacity and productivity. All stories require story points to get the most out of agile.

Epics: Epics are a collection of stories. An Epic is your overall objective that your individual stories are aiming to achieve.

Team velocity: With multiple stories, and story points attached, you can measure your team’s velocity i.e. how many total story points they can complete within a sprint.

Cadence

Our team uses the following rituals to provide coverage on execution planning, forward-planning, and retrospectives.

A typical sprint cadence.

Day 1: Sprint planning
Get together as a team to review and agree on the stories that will be worked on in this sprint. Ensure that everyone is aligned on how to execute and what the deliverables are. Typical conversations here are:

  • Immediate objectives & deliverables: What stories are we looking to complete this sprint. What deliverables are attached to these? How do we execute? Are we on the same page in terms of approach?

Day 7: Story development
Pull heads out of the weeds, step back and develop upcoming stories. Ensure that you are moving toward the bigger picture. Develop well-written stories for future sprints and assign story points to stories. Typical you’ll discuss:

  • Creative planning & resourcing: How are we tracking towards the bigger picture? What stories do we need to write to get us there? Do we have the right folks on our team? Do they have availability?

Day 10: Retro
Get together as a team to discuss what went well and what can be improved. The most overlooked ritual when you get busy, but the one that will drive agency improvements in culture, process, output and morale.

  • Improving creative & problem solving: Were there any issues in last sprint we need to address? Is there anything we can be doing better? What was the quality of the creative?

Other rituals to plug-in:

Day 3 & 8: Design-review
Depending on your situation, having design or content review rituals with department heads can provide a great quality control gateway.

Full-team Participation

The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation. 8/12 Principles of Agile

The key benefits of agile are unlocked by having the full team and client participate on core rituals; sprint planning, story development and retros. Having writers, PMs, designers, and strategists in the same room may feel expensive at first, but longer-term keeping everyone on the same page it will improve buy-in, co-ordination, communication, efficiency and team morale.

Agile will fail without proper team participation.

2. Creative Benefits

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly. 12/12 Principles of Agile

With full team participation in core rituals, Agile is a hyper-inclusive process. Most benefits result from improvements in communication and alignment that take place over time when the full team is continually meeting around core rituals. There are some aspects of agile that yielded surprising results:

Agile’s flexibility better suits the creative process

Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile’s processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage. 3/12 Principles of Agile

Some creatives may learn more from prototyping, others by drafting a product map, others by pulling insights from user interviews. Activities upstream can drive insights downstream, and vice versa. The creative process is fluid.

With waterfall projects, where distinct stages are completed step by step, in order, toward completion, there is a hesitancy to rethink past decisions and deliverables, especially if certain milestones took time to finalize. For example, when developing product UI your team could find a great way to evolve the brand, or wire-framing could drive updates to your sitemap. These new insights would revise past creative and in these scenarios creative teams can be hesitant to go back downstream as the rigmarole that goes into revisiting past milestones in a group setting is daunting. Waterfall can often limit good decisions.

Agile breaks up an inflexible waterfall processes that may not suit your creatives working style. If key epics are in place, milestones set, and the team is making good progress towards these, the joy of agile is in its flexibility to adapt to new insights quickly, sprint by sprint. Agile recognizes that good creative evolves and iterates on past work and provides a framework to support that evolution.

Retros accelerate creative growth

With retros taking place twice a month, there is a constant dialogue within the team members on how to improve individual and team creative performance. New sprints provide your team with a fresh canvas to test, adapt and improve the way they work. Over time, the cycle of outperforming the last sprint will drive significant creative and cultural changes. It becomes simply part of the team culture to look at what we can be doing better.

Participation improves creative depth

Decision-making through a singular lens, or driven by a singular discipline, will lead to one-sided creative. When there is no representation from a particular field, such as content or engineering, it is easy to overlook key considerations in your creative approach. Ensuring a cross-discipline team is meeting regularly exposes creative teams to a more complete set of perspectives. Pressure testing ideas in a group setting will also improve the team’s thoughtfulness and decision-making process.

Agile solves for complexity

When it comes to large, complex and long-term creative projects, the agile process will guide your team to the finish line. When creative challenges appear overwhelmingly complex, with solutions not immediately apparent your team; the constant cycle of sprints, iterations, revaluation of epics and story development is a powerful process that will get your team there.

Teams can react more quickly

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. If a particular approach isn’t generating great returns the team thought it would, agile provides a system to pivot next sprint. For example, perhaps the team has moved too soon into wire framing and realized it needed a way to validate which wireframes work best for the user. Agile provides a quick way to pivot back into foundational UX research or user testing if necessary without much overhead or time lost in unfruitful work.

Agile doesn't just apply to digital projects. Great results can be seen in other areas such as branding.

Organizational benefits

As an organization, SevenDesign has benefited significantly from agile, especially in these areas:

  • Culture: Agile introduced a route for our company to constantly reflect upon and improve performance. It made giving and receiving of feedback more common place, and improved the spirit in which it was given and received. Overall, I would say that the company has a much more positive and performance driven culture as a result of agile’s repeating feedback loop.
  • Efficiency, communication & co-ordination: Getting full-team participation in key rituals on a consistent and ongoing basis will ensure that your team is constantly communicating in the best way possible face-to-face. It dramatically increased our team’s efficiency and co-ordination.
  • Creative output & speed: The improvement we saw in efficiency, communication & co-ordination, combined with constant performance feedback has generated a significant lift in creative quality and quantity. The team has stronger participation in planning the creative approach in ‘story development’, co-ordinating the execution in ‘sprint planning’, and monitoring and evaluating their performances in the retros. This co-ordinated, democratic and feedback driven dynamic has had a clear impact on the resulting work.

3. Implementation

As mentioned, getting used to agile will be a bumpy ride, but worth it. Here are a few tips.

Read the agile handbook

Get to grips with the fundamentals of agile and the principles it is rooted in. While it was clearly developed for software development, the flexibility and model it advocates can be applied extremely well to creative teams.

Use clubhouse.io

Clubhouse is amazing and their design team needs medals. Most agile SaaS can help your teams derive the most from agile, but clubhouse takes it to a new level. It has great learning resources for newbies and a well-designed interface to allow for collaboration around stories.

Commit to the fundamentals, then dial back if necessary

For new organizations looking to switch to agile, we would recommend committing to the fundamentals for a time then dialing it back to what works best for you. Your organization may not see the benefits of agile if it starts watered down version. It will be easier to dial back on rituals once you feel your creatives have mastered the fundamentals of the new system and understand what works for them.

Thanks for reading the article. Really curious how other creatives use agile. If you have any questions please feel free to reach out to me at Dominic@SevenDesign.com.

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