Question:

I was reading this article and it’s like you were in my head.

We are a digital marketing agency and we have a small team of 4 people handling around 20 clients. We’ve tried Scrum and, like you said, the time spent in the rituals are ridiculous and they quickly got sidelined. We are so disorganized that we literally start each day not sure what to work on or what’s the most important for a client or deadline or objective.

I’ve looked at Kanban – but was afraid it was just another Scrum-like chaos. We’re currently using Target Process – but even with all it’s flexibility, we’re still struggling.

How did you break down the work? Do you assign the features/deliverables to staff members to work on, or the tasks that make them up? Where do the dates go – the deliverable or the tasks under them? How do you get organized each day and stay that way?

Any advice is appreciated greatly.

Ed Says:

Thanks for being so open and honest about your situation. The good news is you’re not alone – the scenario you describe is very common. Let’s break down your question into three parts:

1. The Process

Getting the right process in place underpins all else. But the instinctive response of searching for a process to adopt is usually very underwhelming – as you note from your experience.

This is why I warmed to Kanban. It’s not a set of rules and rituals like Scrum, but rather a set of principles. These principles have their origins in manufacturing but over the last 15 years or so have been adapted to knowledge work.

The key point to remember is that’s there’s no perfect process. You need to start with where you are now, agree that getting to an optimal way of working will require a constant effort (and change), and then take the first steps. In Kanban, these first steps are:

  1. Visualising your workflow (value stream)
  2. Limiting work in progress
  3. Managing flow (the rate at which work is completed)

There are three more principles (making policies explicit, using feedback loops, and experimental evolution) but these first steps deliver the greatest value in my experience.

Getting organised comes from a shared understanding of all the work and its various states. This starts with the visualisation step. Each item should have a single named owner who is responsible for its success, plus a named person who’s responsible for the current (or next) step towards completion. Relevant dates, if required, go on the work item too.I’m also a big fan of the regular review, e.g. a daily stand-up in Scrum parlance. You can vary the frequency depending on the nature of the work: daily can work well for larger teams, especially if the work is fast moving. I’ve found weekly to be just as valuable and less disruptive – especially for a smaller team like yours. The frequency can always be increased if needed, such as in the closing weeks ahead of a large project launch.And don’t worry about the label. Call it Kanban if you wish, but really you’re developing the bespoke process needed for your situation.

2. Breaking Down The Work

My greatest learning here is to remember the people involved:

  • Clients want work that delivers value. They don’t really care how it gets done as long as they get back more than what it costs them.
  • Your team want to use their skills to deliver great work and make people happy.

Externally, you don’t want or need to involve the clients in the intricacies of your process. They don’t care. What they value is having a good understanding of what will be done, what the outcomes will be, what input they need to provide and when it will likely be realised. Your process should do all these things and make their life easy. Internally, you need a way to break the project down into specific deliverables – and by that, I mean pieces of work that the client deems valuable and is happy to sign-off as done. I discuss this more in my article about scoping documents.

I’ve found it really valuable to involve the delivery team in the development of the scope. That way they can influence the plans from the outset, without getting bogged down in detail, resulting in greater ‘buy-in’.Deliverables at the feature (outcome/benefit) level satisfy both the needs of your clients and team. Your clients get excited about the benefit, and the team member responsible for the feature has a full sense of ownership. They’re responsible for the planning, delivery and handover/completion, allowing them to use their individual strengths to the greatest effect. They don’t get this with a prescribed list of tasks.

The approach places the project manager in more of an orchestration role, freeing up their time to effectively manage multiple projects concurrently.

3. The Tool

The tool should always fit the task, not the other way around. Any tool is only as good as the understanding of the people using it; it can’t do the work for you (yet!).If I were starting from scratch, my first choice is Trello. It’s easy to understand and doesn’t get in the way.

You’re already using Target Process though, which is also a great tool. I’d recommend sticking with Target Process for now as it already captures your work and is set up. It’ll be more than capable, and you can always switch later if needed. Don’t worry about the bells and whistles, they only add value once you’ve got a real handle on what your process is, it’s working well, and you are looking for further incremental optimisations.

Best wishes,

Ed

Ben Says:

The real challenge here seems to be less about the process and more about project portfolio management – if no one really knows what they should be working on, then the actual process for getting work done is a secondary issue.

So park for a moment Scrum, Kanban or Target Process and try starting by creating a consolidated view of all the projects, a one-pager that outlines the projects, the resources required to deliver them, and the key milestones. It’s also useful to include revenue, and a client ranking (how important are they to the business), that’ll help establish what projects needs to be prioritized, for what clients, and help enable some prioritization.

The next step would be to grab a resource scheduling tool – a few to look at would be 10k Feet, Hub Planner and Resource Guru, and start resourcing the team to different projects, as defined by the prioritization.

Finally, as well as being assigned to a project, the team needs tasks. It could be as simple as using Trello, Asana or a tool like Outplanr – it doesn’t really matter as much as there’s a plan for each team member, and that rolls up into a plan for the entire team to deliver the project.

Good Luck!

Edward Kay

Edward Kay

Edward is an experienced digital project manager who’s passionate about delivering great projects and the processes that make them happen. He has been responsible for the successful planning, management and delivery of high profile web projects including WWF’s adoptions and donation platform and the primary University of Oxford website. Edward is the founder of Tall Projects, a digital project management consultancy based near Oxford, UK. Tall Projects delivers complex web projects alongside operations consulting for digital agencies and other knowledge-work businesses.

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