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Every digital agency I’ve come across seems to claim they’re they’re doing agency agile in some shape or form.

The challenge today is what do we mean by an agile agency? The term agency agile has been used in so many contexts it is now largely meaningless.

hillary clinton says she doesn't know about agency agile

Agency agile – who knows what it actually is?

On one hand it can refer the original intentions of a flexible, adaptable approach that values outcomes above all else. At the other end of the spectrum it can be a label for a chaotic workplace with  no processes at all. It sounds much more credible to say you’re ‘agile’ than expose the reality of ‘making it up as we go along’.

This is not intended as a criticism. Digital is still an industry in its infancy. We’re still trying to work out the ways to manage and deliver our best work.

The Challenge With Scrum For Digital Agencies

Many digital agencies I’ve known start with Scrum when trying to find an agile process. On the surface, this is a logical choice. You’ll find mentions of Scrum everywhere when you start researching agile methodologies. (The term Scrum is frequently – but incorrectly – used interchangeably with agile as if they’re one and the same. They’re not. Agile is so much more than Scrum.)

The appeal of Scrum is clear. There are lots of fancy terms and buzzwords sound impressive to some: sprints, backlogs, retrospectives, velocities, burndown charts, Scrum Master, Product Owner… There are a plethora of training and certification options. Above all, it can be seen as a golden ticket. Follow this recipe and your chaos will magically be transformed into a utopia. What’s often missed is that Scrum’s roots lie in software product development. Scrum is a great option when you’re a team at a software vendor with a clear focus to deliver a specific product.

But Scrum starts to fall down when you have external dependencies to manage. When you’re working in a digital agency, almost every aspect of your work has external dependencies – your clients. This generates considerable waste. Project managers end up in complex political negotiations at each sprint planning session to ensure their projects get included in the sprint. I’ve seen sprint planning meetings in agencies take a whole day and involve the full team. Considering that sprints are typically two or three weeks long, this is 6-10% of your entire team’s capacity. What a waste of time and effort!

Not only that, but these sprint plans often start to unravel a day or two into the sprint. Clients change their minds or are delayed in providing required information. Unexpected events pop up such as new business opportunities or technical issues with a live system. These all result in frequent renegotiations that waste more time and resources.

An Important Lesson To Learn

There are many agile methods and practices available. I realised this back in 2010 after struggling to get the expected benefits from Scrum and doing some deeper research. This led me to Kanban and lean thinking. Some of their practices appeared to offer improvements on the approach we were using.

I started to experiment. First with a small, predictable project and then progressively with larger and more complex work. This started with the way I was breaking individual projects down – I switched from user stories to feature descriptions and then to value-based deliverables. This made work easier for clients to review and accept, making projects easier to manage.

I began challenging our processes and the way all our work was managed too. This led to us scrapping sprint planning sessions in favour of quick reorganisations at the daily stand-up. We soon dropped the concept of sprints and moved to a flow-based Kanban approach. Further improvements came from across the team making suggestions for how we could be better, and then giving them a go.

The results spoke for themselves:

  • staff were happier as it was easier for them to do their best work and mostly self-manage themselves
  • this freed up PM time to comfortably handle more projects in parallel and focus on the outcomes that mattered
  • there were significant improvements in the quality of our work, delivery times, client relationships and outcomes achieved
  • and at the same time, we trebled the revenue per head in our team in a little under three years.

Upon further reflection, it’s become apparent that the lightbulb moment came from daring to experiment. I made changes and observed their effects.

Process improvement efforts prior to this had been looking for a ready-made process we could just adopt – like Scrum. I now understand this doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist because our industry is still in its infancy so we’re still working out how our businesses should work. It’s also true that every business is unique. Operational processes that work in one agency aren’t necessarily transferable to another.

10 Ways To Integrate Agency Agile Methods In A Digital Agency

I consult with a variety of knowledge-work businesses including many digital agencies helping them improve their operational processes. Based on this experience, here are my top tips for integrating agile methods into the agency setting:

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#1. Accept that there’s no ‘one true way’ and nothing is set in stone

Every organisation is unique. Agency agile success comes from building upon the ideas of others and adapting them to your situation.

#2. Foster a culture of incremental change and continuous improvement

While the rate of change is naturally higher at the start of process improvement work, it’s a mistake to ever consider it ‘done’. Agency agile requires you to constantly adapt and test your working methods (kaizen in the lingo). This is why ‘big bang’ managed change initiatives rarely deliver lasting results.

#3. Define the outcomes that really matter

[Tweet “Remember that clients mainly value return on their investment. #agile #projectmanagement”] They don’t care what your process is or is called as long as it makes it easy for them to get the results they desire. Equally, remember the reasons and motivations why your agency exists.

#4. Measure quantitatively

There’s no need to go overboard but it’s important to take normalized measurements of your work. Without these measurements, you’re effectively working blind.

When I led the development team at an agency, my measurements included the ‘revenue per head’, ‘revenue per client’, ‘opportunity cost per client’ (i.e. the value of unbillable time spent per client) and ‘timesheet completeness’ (hours recorded out of hours worked). I sampled these metrics monthly, reporting the results to both my team and the company directors. This never failed to provide valuable insights on where to target our improvement efforts next.

Most of these data points rely on accurate timesheet data, and I’m aware this can be a challenge. I’ve found explaining why timesheets are important and what the information is used for (and not used for) to be a huge help in getting them filled in.

#5. Measure qualitatively

Numbers are important but don’t forget softer measures that are equally valuable for agency agile. These include perceived quality of projects, client satisfaction, and staff engagement / happiness / wellbeing.

#6. Question everything

I don’t mean in an annoying way that irritates everyone around you but in a personal mindset of ‘how could this be better?’. If you’re attending (or chairing) a regular meeting that seems to achieve little, put your agency agile hat on, think about how it could be improved, or if it’s even necessary.

#7. Break projects down into ‘units of value’

For example, the news section of a website or email marketing element of a campaign. This makes the work simpler to manage and cost, and for clients to accept. If you do this consistently across projects you then build up a data set of the time and cost typically associated with a deliverable, making future projects easier to price. It’s far more valuable and accurate than costing by skill type (design, front-end development, back-end development, PM etc).

#8. Visualise your work

The fancy term is ‘value stream mapping’. The important bit is building and maintaining a clear picture of the state all work so everyone’s on the same page. Agile tools like Trello and Jira are great here, but the humble Post-It can be just as good if you’re all in the same location.

#9. Limit your work in progress

In other words, ‘stop starting and start finishing’. The outcomes that matter come from finished work. High quality work comes from focussing on the task at hand and getting it done. Having too many items in flight lengthens lead times and reduces quality. You can use a creative agency project management software to track your WIP and project progress.

#10. Capture your processes in an operations manual

Businesses are complex. It’s simply not possible (or beneficial) for people to remember everything about how the business works. You, therefore, need some way to capture your processes in a clear and accessible manner.

These aren’t lengthy tomes. They’re mostly checklists for how to approach a situation with a few supporting notes that improve over time. Their use ensures the value of your process is built into the agency – not just in the heads of a few individuals. A good operations manual makes situations like staff on-boarding, business continuity planning, disaster recovery, and simply sharing out work in busy periods so much simpler.

On a practical note, a set of Google Docs linked together plus a separate ‘table of contents’ document is a great approach. Far more flexible and effective than a fancy intranet.

Wrapping Up

Astute readers may detect strong influences of lean and Kanban in this agency agile list. That is no coincidence. But to come away from this article thinking lean software development or Kanban is the right methodology for your agency is missing the point. They provide useful tools but are essentially just labels.

Your processes are unique to you. The goal is to have a unified way of working across your agency. This ensures a consistent experience for clients and staff. It provides the solid foundations necessary for continuously improving quality, creativity, happiness and profit. The only brand name you need to worry about is that of your business.

And remember: success comes from you taking action when you encounter poor processes and inefficiencies. There’s no need to wait for a specific change agenda. When something’s not working well, challenge it and try something else. Start today. If you don’t you’ll still be in the same situation tomorrow.

What Do You Think?

What do you think of these agency agile methods? Do you have other ideas for integrating agile into agency process? Share with us in the comments.

Find out more about how agencies transition to agile here.

By Edward Kay

Edward is an experienced digital project manager and entrepreneur. Working in digital tech since the early 2000s, he has successfully delivered a large number of demanding projects, including the main University of Oxford website. He is the founder of Tall Projects. Tall Projects are app integration specialists – helping clients connect their systems and maximise the value in their data. They have particular expertise in the membership and association space.