Agile – the next big thing for communications teams?

Last week, I had the pleasure of hosting a learning event at the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Strategic Communications and Change, on how communicators can implement agile methodologies. We welcomed a sold-out crowd to hear Tanya O’Callaghan, Senior Manager of Communications at the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), share her experiences in adopting agile among her team.

Judging by the attendance and the lively Twitter chatter following the event, agile is clearly a hot topic among communicators. My sense is that it’s because agile takes aim at some of the most disempowering frustrations faced by communications pros:

  • A feeling of being underwater, facing the seemingly impossible task of just keeping up with the day-to-day, let alone getting at the strategic value-added work we crave.
  • Chronic challenges in planning due to unplanned work being dumped on us from internal clients.
  • Internal clients who have no understanding of the time required to do communications effectively, leading to unrealistic expectations and a sense of disconnect at best, and disrespect at worst.

Tanya’s presentation provided refreshing and practical insights on how communicators can alleviate some of those aggravations. I really appreciated her call for participants to think creatively about how to break these patterns, rather than just rolling over and accepting the conditions that so often have us set up to fail.

One of the key take-aways from Tanya’s talk was the power of visualizing work through the use of a Kanban board, a core agile tool. This is a useful way to both improve project management and also set up a culture of accountability and transparency within a team. Even more importantly, Tanya described how putting up a large board charting the workflow of the communications team in a high traffic area outside the cafeteria served as a useful tool in helping educate internal clients.  The board provided an immediate, visual sense for the volume and pacing of work being handled by the communications team. This helped ground conversations about managing work demands and timelines by providing compelling information and corporate-wide context.

The Kanban board was used as an effective tool to negotiate requests, and deal with last minute demands for unplanned work. This helped drive out the default habit of shoehorning each and every piece of requested work (because communicators are too nice!) into an over-taxed system. Instead, Tanya and her team now had a solid, empirical framework to support productive discussions with internal clients on requests and timelines.  By providing clear evidence of when the team was booked up, the agile model put the onus on the internal client to consider alternatives such as delaying previous requests or making a trade-off with a colleague in the face of the finite resources available.

It’s a fantastic example of how a communications team can convey the message that “a lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on our part.”

I was fascinated by the presentation, and it got me thinking about the link between agile and strategic communications planning. As a recent article in the Harvard Business Review points out, it has in fact become vogue to see strategic planning as the enemy of agile.

I’d argue that it’s far more constructive to see strategic communications planning and agile as being complementary rather than being mutually exclusive. Planning and its core functions of understanding the environment, uncovering insights and setting direction, remain vital and highly relevant in an agile context. The essential task of what Henry Mintzberg calls “strategic seeing” is critical if communicators want to contribute the highest and best value to their organizations. After all, what’s the point of effectively executing tasks if they’re not the right tasks to begin with?

Perhaps an integrated perspective is to consider that it comes down to doing the right things (through planning) and doing them right (through agile).

Clearly the time is now for the communications community to have a conversation about agile, and the tremendous promise it brings to elevating our work and the value it delivers. In particular, adopting agile may help trigger a culture change in socializing new ways for internal clients to relate to their communications teams.

Intrigued? Check out these resources to kick-start your exploration of agile:

The Agile Manifesto – the original source on agile, from its roots in software development

Agile coach – great resources on adopting an agile approach to change

Kanbanize – an easy to use tool to create a digital Kanban board