Business Agility is here to stay for marketeers

by: on 12 August 2015

The real meaning of agile working for agencies? There are two members of that team specifically employed to say ‘no’, according to Joe Harrod from Havas helia

If a team commits to Agile delivery, it doesn’t mean they’re going to leap around like mountain goats, pirouetting at will to execute whatever random thoughts percolate down from on high.

‘Agile’ and ‘Business Agility’ must be the most misunderstood words in the marketing lexicon. I’ve seen business leaders seize on the word ‘agile’ with alacrity, and carry their fundamental misconception in the wrong direction for weeks and months. If a team commits to Agile delivery, it doesn’t mean they’re going to leap around like mountain goats, pirouetting at will to execute whatever random thoughts percolate down from on high. It means that two members of that team will be employed specifically to say ‘no’.

Business Agility means running a team that is focused on the shipping of a finished product, with collective responsibility and a high degree of autonomy. Any changes to features or delivery have to be agreed on a fortnightly basis. This can feel like a slow turning circle, and the fact that the team is responsible for signing off their own work, and that they refer to outputs as the ‘minimum viable product’ can make those with fiscal responsibility think that they are paying for an onerous and inflexible process, with a shonky result.

Having worked on both sides, I can attest that this kind of Agility often feels like it is being deliberately obstructive. There’s so much talent in the team, but they can’t be called upon? They won’t even take meetings! They use off-putting language like ‘blockers’ to talk about me, and describe themselves as working ‘at the edge of chaos’! What am I paying for here?

The answer is that Business Agility reduces risk and improves outputs. It may be hot right now, but Agile is here to stay because it’s based on common sense.

The approach now described as Business Agility grew out of software development. It is designed to give project teams autonomy, speed up the pace of development, and provide regular visibility for all stakeholders via weekly or fortnightly ‘product demonstrations’. A project is split into pieces that can be dealt with quickly, loaded into a ‘backlog’, and then tackled by team members with a focus on building something that works, then testing and refining down the line. Changes or new features can only be suggested before or after a two-week ‘Sprint’. The ‘Scrum Master’ makes sure the team can work. He is the naysayer par excellence, supported by a Product Owner who alone decides if work is up to scratch.

In practical terms, being able to make changes on a fortnightly basis is a lot more flexible than putting across a brief and waiting months before seeing a beta, and then realizing that the brief was wrong. Clients can take a long time to warm up to the way Agile works, but everyone agrees that regular checkpoints reduce risk and wasted time for all parties.

It should be said at this point that Business Agility is something of a false construct. It’s often contrasted to a mythical system known as ‘Waterfall’ where clients set a task then waited months until the production team spat out a misshapen version of their idea. If there’s ever been a business owner prepared to wait for weeks at a time without checking on the shape and progress of an investment they must have been either mad or very busy indeed. The vast majority of Waterfall-style digital projects enjoy plenty of client scrutiny.

It’s also worth saying that all of Business Agility is not for everyone. At Havas helia we certainly don’t use it for rapid response marketing, and we feel free to pick and choose the best bits like daily stand-ups and weekly client feedback for our work. There are also many creative types who loathe Agile. For long form projects, and innovative design or software, the requirement to parcel out work and give daily reports on progress can be inimical to genius. Plus, some people just don’t like teamwork. In work-life terms, Business Agility offers both freedom and constraint. The ability to say no to your boss is a rare thing. The necessity to report on something every day is a creativity-sapping chore.

Business Agility has many applications, but it also takes time to set up, and it can take months for a team to find their way of working. For this reason, it doesn’t fit with campaign marketing. The doctrines of an owned list of tasks, daily accountability and client visibility are all healthy, but the formal process of fortnightly feedback and testing will absolutely fall apart under the pressure of sudden changes or just-in-time requests.

But for classical marketing Business Agility is a perfect fit. A responsible marketing agency doesn’t just deliver a sales message. They provide insight into consumer needs, refine products and propositions, and build a better value exchange between clients and customers. For this work, a team that constantly creates and tests is an invaluable asset.

Business Agility means building based on business priorities, and testing, then improving features or functions that work, that have appeal, that spark interaction. If you accept that the challenge for modern marketing agencies is to be as close to a given company’s bottom line and the business objectives as more functional channels like Google Ads, then a creative team that incorporates client and consumer priorities and feedback into every fortnightly iteration is an essential asset.

In the media space, Business Agility is here to stay because it gives the client ownership – and makes the agency a vital creative engine. 

By Joe Harrod, content strategist director, Havas helia