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Agile Marketing: Sprint 11

In this week’s retrospective, everyone expressed how good the week felt. Across the board it was positive. Everyone felt productive based on a general lack of interruptions, which was great to hear.

For sprint 11, held from 3/11/2015 – 3/17/2015, we completed a total of 444 points.

That’s a slight uptick from our previous velocity and is most likely due to the contribution of a newly hired team member. It looks like we’ve started to turn on the corner on her training and she’s starting to add additional capacity for the team.

Last week I wrote about how we had not properly adjusted our velocity to account for this new hire’s training, but after talking in our retrospective, it looks as if we’ve now adjusted appropriately. That included some time devoted to training, as well as some velocity adjustments to account for that training. 

But as the team also vocalized, some of our capacity increase was also due to a week with less interruptions and fires that took us off our initial sprint plan. Instead, we planned our sprint, executed on the plan, and were more productive because of it.

The takeaway from this week though is the continued need to empower new hires.

We touched on it last week, but as a group we took some time to talk about training in our sprint 11 retrospective. We discussed how at times we were putting off interns and new hires for tasks they may not be able to do. They would ask if a task was something they could do and we would push them off to something else, instead of taking the time to teach them.

Having a cross-functional team with people who can wear many hats is what makes our team successful. We should encourage their initiative instead of stifling it. We should applaud their effort instead of turning them away. But that means sacrificing our own time and energy, which can be a challenge for many people.

It is easy to look at the short-term loss of time or use the common ‘It will take me longer to teach you how to do than just do it myself.” But the long-term benefit of getting these newer folks ramped up with skills and knowledge is where the true value is. The sooner they are working autonomously and contributing to the team, the sooner we open other employees for larger, more complicated tasks and projects. That is when we will reach new levels of productivity.

As a team, we decided that we are all accountable to help our newer folks learn new skills. We all understand this is a short-term individual sacrifice that will help us all benefit in the long run. We agreed to not say no. We will all supply coverage if one of us ends up sacrificing time and is no longer able to complete a time-sensitive task or project. We will work together to encourage their ambition and help them get up-to-speed faster.

 

Agile Marketing: Sprint 10

It is pretty crazy to think we are 10 sprints in already. I guess it does feel like our sprint zero Agile marketing training session was forever ago. And while it still feels like we are new to Agile, it is already pretty much ingrained in our team’s culture and processes. I can’t really imagine us ever not applying Agile marketing concepts in the future.

So, now for the recap of sprint 10, which ran from 3/3/2015 to 3/9/15.

This sprint the team was able to complete 366 points of work. Weather was friendly to us for one of the first times this year and there wasn’t any product or vendor training scheduled. However, the sprint’s points are pretty much on par with our recent productivity. The main reason, a new hire.

There is a lot that goes into on-boarding a new team member. There’s the usual HR paperwork and process training, but in an Agile system there are a number of more abstract concepts that you have to explain as well.

Autonomy can be a challenge for new hires

For one, working autonomously in a self-organized team can be a new experience. Everyone wants to be free to work and make decisions, but not everyone is comfortable doing it, especially when you are new to a company and/or team. Some thrive. Others struggle. This was a major factor we took into account when hiring this time around. Luckily, our new Marketing Specialist is vocal, excited and not afraid to ask questions. She is going to fit right into our Agile marketing system.

Devoting Ramp-Up Time 

One of the challenges in this system is that we didn’t actually devote specific tasks in our sprint to training our new Specialist. So, at times, people were training instead of devoting time to point completion. That’s not a huge issue, but we should have better accounted for this in our velocity for the sprint. That’s a tip for any of you about to go through an Agile marketing hire.

Another new thing we experienced was the challenge of encouraging a new hire to take items from the taskboard though they have limited process knowledge or a limited skill set. We hadn’t really accounted for that when planning the print before their start, which is something I’d do next time around.

So, what resulted was an occasional organic decision making process of what they should tackle next with various team members. While maybe a little less structured than I would have liked, I think it helped show the group decision making process and autonomy from day one.

Regardless, the team has another sprint under their belt, a new hire we are extremely excited about and a couple nice takeaways from the week.

 

Can Working Remotely Actually Help Agile Teams?

Agile Marketing: Sprint 9

In the last sprint, sprint 8, I talked about how weather forced our team into learning how to conduct daily stand-ups and our sprint planning meeting remotely using the Cisco WebEx Meeting Center platform. Wouldn’t you know that record snow hit again during this sprint which ran from 2/24/15 to 3/2/2015.

And it wouldn’t be an ASPE sprint if we didn’t voluntarily make our lives even more difficult. Ice and snow stranded the team on Tuesday and our entire team was scheduled to attend the High 5 Conference in Raleigh Wednesday and Thursday. It was imperative that we be productive on the three non-conference days, weather be damned.

We utilized our recently developed online meeting and collaboration Agile Marketing process, which saved us time and kept everyone on the same page. The challenge was that a continued lack of face-to-face time had the potential to hurt collaboration and productivity as a team.

Surprisingly though, the team was actually more productive in the three non-conference days working remotely than they typically are at the office. Collectively the group completed 364 points during this abbreviated sprint. We spent some time in our sprint retrospective talking about this.

Meetings, distractions hurt productivity

This is not an earth shattering concept. Part of agile’s philosophy is making meetings strategically to distribute information, talk through challenges and align work. The goal is to make that time efficient and productive, unlike most meetings. Being early adopters of Agile Marketing principles, our team already did a solid job with meetings, but the incorporation of daily stand-ups, planning meetings and retrospectives have definitely had a major impact. It’s further encouraged daily and on-the-fly collaboration that has made us a better and more productive team.

Non-Agile teams in your organization can hurt productivity

Working remotely eliminated a lot of meetings and distractions from people outside our team. While they understand how our team’s processes have changed, their own processes have not yet adapted to keep up.

The marketing manager and I both know this firsthand. We spend much of our days in meeting and talking with internal stakeholders about their needs and projects. The triage of fires, “emergencies,” and problem solving for these folks eat much of the average day for us. That results in us personally not contributing as many direct points to the team’s total for each sprint, but it also allows the team as a whole to focus, stay on task and be more productive (not to mention happy).  So, working remotely actually allowed the two of us to contribute more directly despite the short week. While necessary, this reiterates the productivity hit that results from meetings and distractions.

For instance, I personally was able to shoot, record, edit and post an internal process tutorial video that had been on the backlog for some time. I honestly was having trouble getting started, but being remote, I was afforded the time, space, not to mention peace and quiet to get it done. I really don’t think that 40 point task would have gotten completed if I hadn’t been forced to work from home on Tuesday.

With that said, my hope is that as time goes by, other internal teams will start becoming more Agile and will get a better firsthand understanding of how and why we work the way we do. Often others accept our responses about point totals and full sprints, but I don’t know that they fully understand. I think that will change as Agile spreads and scales throughout our organization.

A change of environment (forced or voluntary) can help productivity

I’ve always had mixed feelings about working from home. Being face-to-face and within view of teammates breeds collaboration, discussion and debate, but that’s not to say that you can’t also do that remotely. Technology has definitely made it easier. The challenge will always be people and their time. The spontaneity of that random discussion of a problem or thought dies when you have to schedule, email and connect to a video conference, and none of us really like to answer our phone anymore.

However, I think this sprint showed me directly how a day outside of the office can have a big impact on my personal productivity. It also gave me much more confidence in the fact that our productivity and collaboration as a group is much more a cultural characteristic than a product of our environment. It actually may be good occasionally to mix things up and get a change of scenery. That little change of environment for the day may actually increase creativity and productivity if it’s done strategically.

At the end of the day our productivity and collaboration comes from this amazing group that we’ve built. Together or apart, I believe in them. They will make it happen…and Agile Marketing has helped make that possible.

Agile Marketing: Sprint 8

Stay flexible…Stay Agile

In this latest sprint, one of our big takeaways was the continual reminder of how important it is to remain flexible in an Agile marketing environment. We faced one of the most common Agile challenges, how to collaborate and be Agile as a distributed team.

This latest sprint was joined by winter storm Pandora who decided to surprise the entire East Coast. Even here in North Carolina, we saw a mix of ice, snow and rain that shut down many businesses for a day or two. But our team managed to soldier on.

As a company, our culture is built on collaboration. We encourage this through the environment and processes that we’ve built. For our team, much of that depends on proximity and face-to-face interaction to breed that collaboration on a daily basis. And with much of the team stuck working from home due to the road conditions, we had to find a way to conduct not only our daily stand-up, but also as luck would have it, our sprint planning meeting. That meant finding a way to conduct a planning poker session remotely. 

Using Cisco WebEx to conduct a planning poker and sprint planning meeting as a distributed team. 

As a long-time Cisco WebEx partner, our group is pretty comfortable inside of their online meeting platform, so we decided that we would leverage their Meeting Center tool to conduct our planning poke and sprint planning meeting.

What we ended up doing was listing the planning poker numbers (1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 20, 40) on the online whiteboard. We then ended up having each individual indicate their ‘vote’ for the task points and discussing if necessary. How this works in WebEx is each participant can have a unique pointer that contains their name. The marketing manager would introduce a task, just like they would in any other sprint planning meeting, and then each person would move their pointer to the number of points they believed was correct for that particular task. Negotiations would occur and a number of points would be set for each task.

It was pretty organic and just kind of happened.

At first, some team members typed their point number on the white board. Others drew it. And some used the pointer. Eventually, most everyone gravitated to the pointers because of the simplicity and how easy it was to see everyone’s vote. Each method had its own pros and cons, but we eventually normalized to use the pointers.

It was great to see this develop naturally and how easy it was to stay collaborative. The last few sprints we learned how important these planning poker and sprint planning meetings were, and finding a way to make them happen despite being remote definitely contributed to our success in this sprint. We will probably default to this method if we run into a similar problem in the future.

 

 

Agile Marketing: Sprint 7

It’s the Little Things That Make a Big Difference

The last two sprint were a good reminder for us. It was just a few weeks ago that holidays and training threw us for a bit of a loop, and sprint 7, which ran from 1/27/2015 to 2/2/2015, did the same.

Our big project for 2015 is the integration of Marketo. We are super excited it is hands down the largest technology purchase the company has ever taken on. We have a great opportunity, but a successful rollout is absolutely critical for the team. There is a lot riding on the project.

Part of the rollout is the initial training and getting everyone up-to-speed on this new software product. None of us have any Marketo experience, so we are starting from scratch. Of course, that means this week and next, team members will be attending 12 hours of training spread over 4 days. As luck would have it, training times are set for different intervals of the day, and due to some weird timezone communication on Marketo’s part, some team members will be in training during our usual 9am sprint stand-up meeting. Nobody’s fault, but lesson learned again.

The stand-up is sacred.

It has a huge impact on the group’s morale and their success, and we need to protect it. That’s something our Scrum Master and Marketing Owner are going to have to remember.

Other little changes are also continuing to show value. We’ve continued to denote tasks on the backlog that are added during the sprint. We are doing what we can to protect the plan we set for the sprint, but it is the nature of marketing to have these time-sensitive items popup out of nowhere. One interesting thing we are trying is to keep track of these points that get added during the sprint to see how they affect our velocity and the number of points that are left on the board at the end of the sprint. This week 330 points were complete, with 24 of those being points that were added during the sprint.

One exciting change is that we actually had to make our taskboard larger. We basically were running out of room on the backlog and done sections. This is a good problem to have.

Overall though, we learned again that the stand-up is sacred. Going forward we need to protect its time slot. We also learned that straying from the process can hold us back. We don’t get as much done and we aren’t as efficient. So, while it may seem like we can cut corners here and there, it is really those little things that have a big impact on our success.

Agile Marketing: Sprint 6

Many Hands Make Light Work

In the sprint retrospective for this sprint there seemed to be a general feeling of content and enthusiasm. This was a pleasant surprise as I was half expecting that stating “Happy workers. Happy management. Happy stakeholders.” last week was going to jinx us.

We discussed how the team is continuing to do a great job of helping each other out and focusing on the most important team needs and tasks, and not our own individual ones. This is especially evident in one team member who had shed many of her previous role-based siloed tasks and made a sacrifice to the team. She has set a wonderful example and the rest of us need to reciprocate that.

We also see the intern thriving, which makes me very excited for the next crop of folks who will hopefully be joining the team soon. I love the idea that we will be able to get these folks ramped up quickly and contributing much like she has. Our intern program has always pushed them to be doing the same work as the marketing specialists and it is awesome to see her doing just that.

In general, the team continues to churn out work and there is a great team dynamic at the moment. I could not be happier.

For those keeping score at home, this week we completed 337 points worth of tasks.

 

Agile Marketing: Sprint 5

The Classic Marketing Request: “We Need a Last Minute Push Out This Week. Make It Happen!”

As I started typing that first line, I started to ponder whether these opposing forces our team faces are the norm every week or if I’m just more acutely aware of them because now that I am documenting them every week.

Either way, sprint 5 (which ran 1/13/2015 to 1/19/2015) was no different and may have actually been the biggest challenge we’ve faced since taking on this transition, but facing it with Agile actually made things relatively painless.

We’ve all heard those words before

It really is the classic marketing challenge. The month is half over and product and/or management comes to marketing with an “emergency request.” Someone is not in love with some metric for the month and must have a last minute push put out as fast as possible. We’ve all received this request before…and will receive it again.

Mid-week, so January 15th exactly, we received that exact request. In the past, we would have looked at our already ridiculous to-do list, commiserated and reluctantly got something out, usually with some individuals bearing more of the burden than others. Other projects would suffer and other stakeholders would be neglected.

But this time we tackled it with Agile

The request came mid-day halfway through our sprint, so our tasks and velocity had already been set and was already well underway, not to mention, our stand-up for the day had already occurred. There was never really any previous discussion of how to handle this kind of a scenario, and adding this project was clearly not doable with our velocity and current workload, so something had to give.

We created a sprint within a sprint

So, using the Agile marketing methods that were already working for us, we created a kind of sprint within a sprint. The marketing manager and I met with the stakeholder and devised a plan. We outlined what we thought were the tasks needed and outlined them on a separate whiteboard while the team was at lunch.

We rallied the troops and had an abbreviated Agile planning meeting as a team. We talked through the situation and what was needed and solicited their input on anything we were missing. Everyone got on the same page and we tasked out this mini-sprint. From there we whipped out the Planning Poker cards and estimated everything that was now going to be added to our plate. After some negotiations and clarifying a few tasks further, it came to 120 points of new additional work that we had to complete.

Our new Agile estimating points were the key to our success

It is really interesting to actually be able to quantify this project in those terms. That’s something we were not able to do in the past, so the amount of work needed was very subjective and differed from the team and stakeholder perspective. When the campaign ends, we are excited as a group to actually be able to put the revenue produced against the points for the project and compare that to other tasks and campaigns.

Another exciting outcome is that as a team we were able to collectively decide what points no longer made sense. Each team member didn’t go back to their desk and make their own call about what from their to-do list needed to get bumped. Instead, as a group, we looked at the tasks already in place and put these new tasks wherever they fell in the team’s overall priority. Everyone could see everything that needed to be done and where it was in our team’s priorities with a quick glance at the taskboard. Things shifted and we were all on the same page in minutes. Time was not wasted on things that weren’t an absolute priority for the team and everyone was able to band together to collectively tackle this new project.

And by quantifying the points needed for this new project, it was fairly easy to identify an appropriate amount of tasks that now probably weren’t going to be completed within the sprint. They were going to be sacrificed. We could all see that and we all agreed that they were the right ones to go. This helped make us more productive because we simply swapped some tasks for others. Our to-do lists for the week didn’t grow. Collectively, they were the same, so the team didn’t waste time reconsidering priorities as tasks were completed. They saw the whole picture and attacked. They weren’t worried about whether the right things were getting done or how they were going to get everything done in a limited amount of time. It also gave the marketing managers plenty of insight into this new project as it progressed, but also what was going to be sacrificed. For tasks close to certain stakeholders’ hearts, we were able to be upfront and honest with them about the pivot being made in this week’s sprint.

Happy workers. Happy management. Happy stakeholders.

As you can imagine, we got the emergency request filled and are starting to see the results come in as I write this. Time will tell whether the numbers will justify the amount of time and effort and the opportunity cost of the tasks that were sacrificed. But positive is the team took to the change well, despite the impact the project had on the week, and it helped bring us all together. Most exciting though, overcoming this sprint 5 challenge helped everyone buy into Agile even more. It helped reduce stress for everyone, showed the power of our new processes and is giving us a tool to better justify work and return with stakeholders.

Even in this firestorm, we have happy workers, happy management and happy stakeholders.

Agile Marketing: Sprint Four

New challenges: training and vendors

With a new year came new challenges. Sprint 4 ran from 1/5/2015 to 1/12/2015, and to kickoff the new year our company held a one-day training course for our entire company. Half our company attended training in the morning on Tuesday and Wednesday. The other half attended in the afternoons. This meant our team was cut in half those two days and none of the morning folks could attend our daily stand-ups.

To work around this, we simply had a stand-up of sorts in the morning for the afternoon group and a second one at lunch for the morning group. It worked fairly well. We adapted to the situation and made it work. It created some disconnect between the groups, which slowed productivity and collaboration some, but all-in-all was successful.

The bigger challenge was a lot of tasks got held-up in the Blocked column because of a couple vendors. The direct mail side of our tasks has a very linear process due to the nature of how it works. You can segment your audience and create your pieces, but they can’t go into the USPS mail stream until names are output and pieces are printed. Our group juggles all of these pieces of the puzzle and the vendors responsible for them to make sure they all come together at the printer. But, they can’t control what happens at the list vendor level, nor can they control the printer’s press schedule.

They did what they could and managed their work accordingly, but a lot of tasks were stuck in Blocked.

The key to our Sprint 4 was remaining Agile and flexible

Having all of those tasks blocked meant that if our vendors did not get their part done, we did not have enough work in the sprint. This meant we had to do a no-no in Agile and that was add more tasks to our sprint throughout the week. The downside was, if our vendors did get their part done, we would now have committed to more work than was possible because we had gone above our team velocity by adding these new points. Unfortunately, there was no other choice.

But that’s exactly what is nice about Agile. It is flexible. We talked as a group. We reiterated business priorities so everyone was on the same page and understood that the blocked items were of highest priority if they were cleared. We all also agreed on what was low priority and understood at the end of the sprint not everything was going to be done.

We took each day as a came. We adjusted work and our tasks as things developed. We remained Agile, instead of falling back into our old habits.

Productivity benefited and 736 points of work were completed as a team

By adjusting to our changing requirements and the uncontrollable world around us, we were able to keep productivity high. People weren’t sitting around waiting on things that might not come. Time wasn’t wasted with having to keep revisiting business needs or what was the next highest priority.

We worked collectively as a group and attacked the tasks at hand that could be completed. Even with the training and vendor disruptions our productivity remained high. Having an extra hand from our guest intern definitely helped as well (we are sad her last day was Friday). But again, her contribution these two weeks is not only noticeable, but also quantifiable.

We continue to further evolve our mindset to one that puts the group first, not the individual, and the expectations we set with stakeholders continues to improve.

 

Agile Marketing: Sprint Three

Holidays continue and a surprise guest

Our last sprint faced some challenges as it ran over through the week of Christmas. We had planned for it by running a two week sprint that allowed us to come in Monday morning of the second week (12/22) and be off and running even with half the team out.

Unfortunately, a three week sprint didn’t really make sense, so this week’s sprint (12/29) is far less prepared. It was a three-day week and was again a skeleton crew. As a result, we missed a few stand-ups and cut some corners in our processes.

However, a surprise guest helped make us extra productive

Despite these challenges, we were actually able to produce a large amount of work…520 points to be exact. Much of this was due to a surprise guest showing up at the office at 8am Monday morning.

We were happily surprised to have an old intern show up Monday morning to try and get some work before heading back to school for her Spring semester. She was originally scheduled to work the week of 1/5, but some schedule changes had actually made her free to work this week. Even with a short week, her contribution is noticeable in this sprint’s points. She’s a great worker, especially having been an intern between school for two-years, meaning she needed very little training. She took to our Agile changes quickly and was off and running. It’s great to now actually have a quantifiable number to show her effort and work, instead of just the intangible value we know as a team. We can point to that number and show how valuable she was. I’m excited to see how much more she will add with a full 5-day work week next week.

The ability to quickly implement incremental changes continues to provide value

Our latest retrospective identified a few more changes the group wants to implement. They seem small to an outside observer, but these incremental changes continue to prove their value.

For instance, this go-round, we added initials to Post-Its as we added them to the Work In Progress column on the task board. This allowed team members to know who was working on what when looking at the board. We also implemented different color Post-Its for tasks that repeat, i.e. daily, weekly, monthly. The color helped to identify these tasks more quickly, especially the daily ones.

In general though, we had another productive sprint despite the challenges with holidays and people being out of the office. We continue to learn, grow as a team and adapt our processes to the needs of our team members. We continue to prove value and be transparent with each other and our stakeholders. Our team velocity is growing and Sprint 4 should be great with a full team and extra help.

Agile Marketing: Sprint Two

Our second sprint was a mixed bag of challenges and successes.

We faced our first major obstacle: how to account for holidays. 

Going into the end of the year holidays, the group decided to try our hand at a two-week sprint. We typically function in one-week iterations, or sprints as they are called in Agile, but with half our team out the week of 12/22/2014, it made sense to try and plan up front. The idea was to estimate and set all of our tasks for the week of 12/15/2014 and 12/22/2014, so that it would be easier for team members to walk in the door on the second week and be off to the races. This made sense considering Christmas falls on a Thursday, so our office would only be open for two days that week.

This is all very logical on the surface and we were marginally successful. However, what we didn’t account for was that we were attempting to make changes to our processes with a large portion of our team out…not the best way to implement change.

Retrospective lessons learned are adding value

But while we faced challenges, we were also improving as a team. One thing we are already starting to see is that our weekly retrospectives are already adding value. By sharing what we liked, didn’t like, what we need and what we’d like to see changed each week, we are adapting to this Agile marketing transition a lot faster than I would have thought.

For instance, our sprint one retrospective brought to light that we needed a review column and a few other changes to our task board. I personally had created the task board we used for sprint one, and as is typical for me, I cut a few corners on things that I thought were unnecessary to try and keep change to a minimum. Having all sat through the same training with a more traditional task board than the one I made, it was clear in the retrospective that there were value in a few of the things I cut. With just a few lines drawn on the whiteboard, we implemented those changes in sprint two and are before it. It was great to see how easy change could be, and more importantly, how open the team was to it. Since the retrospective is done as a group, all team members openly discussed the changes before they went into effect thus giving them more ownership of them. Instead of dragging their feet, people embraced the changes.

Agile MarketingAgile marketing helps empower your team

The other really great thing from this sprint was how it empowered team members. With folks being out, other team members stepped up to facilitate the daily stand-up meetings. The group that was in the office self-organized and got to work. They looked at where items stood and used the business priorities that we have set as a group to take on our project backlog.

While we have always done this well as a team, it was exciting to see that we now had a process that helped to breed this mentality. It is no longer just an intangible thing that just kind of happens, but is instead a repeatable way of functioning as a team.

Hyper-productivity continues

According to our task board, 497 points worth of tasks were completed. A point in this case, comes from the relative estimating process in Agile, called Planning Poker. To give you an idea, a one-point task from this first sprint was to update pricing on one of our course pages (which equates to a code update on 4 total web pages). Being relative, the value of one point is relative among team members and could be different for different teams. The real value of these points comes in using the points as a way to estimate what can be done for a team in any one sprint.

So for now, until we have more data to go by, we can now say that in a given sprint, our team can complete 497 points of work. What’s great about this system is it automatically takes into account weekly meetings, lunch, bathroom breaks, general social time, etc. because it is not looking at things at a micro level of hour or day. It looks at the team as a whole for the entire sprint.

I continue to be excited by our transition to Agile marketing, and with 2015 only days away, I’m looking forward to the new year.

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