agile work management
May 29, 2019

5 Ways to Take Agile Work Management to the Next Level

By Danielle Howard, Senior Solution Architect at Workfront, and Brent Bird, Director of Campaigns & Content Strategy at Workfront


Just after the turn of the century, in 2001, seventeen software developers met at a resort in Snowbird, Utah, to discuss such emerging concepts as rapid application development, unified process, extreme programming, and feature-driven development. Together they published 12 guiding principles that would revolutionize software development, known as the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. Similar revolutions were taking place in manufacturing and aerospace at the time, and it has been just within the last decade that the marketing world got its own Agile Manifesto.

As young as these methodologies may be, there’s no question that scrum, Kanban, and other Agile approaches have changed the way millions of knowledge workers engage with and organize their work. Whether you’re relatively new to Agile or deeply involved in a scrum team, we have five simple tips that will help you take your Agile engagement to the next level, excerpted from our recent presentation at Workfront’s annual LEAP user conference.

1. Expand Your Agile Mindset

Remember that Agile as a methodology is more about having a specific mindset than it is about organizing your work a specific way. There’s definitely a difference between doing Agile and being Agile. To be more Agile than you are now, it will require a mental shift for you and for everyone on your team.

Start by revisiting the principles outlined in the Agile manifesto, and look for areas where you’re currently missing the mark. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you focus on making progress in sprints rather than hitting hard deadlines?
  • Are you more concerned with small iterations than big projects and campaigns?
  • Are you committed to continuous improvement?
  • Do you allow teams to self-organize and self-select their work?
  • Are you allowing individuals to be on more than one Agile team?

Your answer to each of these questions should be YES. If you have one or more NO answers, that’s exactly where you should start as you aim to improve your Agile approach.

2. Allow Teams to Self-Organize

True Agile is about putting all of the power into your team members’ hands. It’s about teams that self-organize around certain projects or initiatives until they’re complete, only to disband and regroup around a new project or initiative.

Within each of those Agile teams, every individual member should also be self-selecting both WHAT work they do and HOW they get it done. This is a big change from a top-down approach, where everything is prescribed for team members. But there’s also a big payoff, as creativity and individual initiative tend to expand exponentially throughout the organization, enabling more work to get done more efficiently.

To start moving this direction, it’s important to go beyond traditional hierarchy and think more creatively about how to structure your teams. While project-based teams are the most common, this is certainly not the only approach. You could try:

  • By project or campaign: individuals with different but complementary skill sets are grouped together, each contributing a specialized piece to a collective goal.
  • By skill set: all copywriters, designers, or web developers are grouped together, and every team member is capable of completing any given task.
  • By target market, persona, industry, or client: a cross-functional team is organized to support a specific type of customer, with each individual offering a unique and specific contribution to the collective effort.

Just remember to involve your team members as much as possible in deciding which type of team structure will work best for a given project or situation. If you find yourself dictating how a team should self-organize, take a moment to see if you can spot the inherent contradiction there.

3. Give Kanban a Try

While scrum is arguably the most common Agile approach, it’s also more complex and carefully structured than Kanban, which originated in Toyota’s automobile manufacturing factories in the 1940s. The name means “billboard” in Japanese, referring to the practice of posting project progress on large, centralized Kanban boards.

Kanban’s biggest advantages include:

  • It’s an easier entry point for those unfamiliar with Agile
  • It requires fewer meetings and less planning than Scrum
  • It’s considered a “rapid-delivery” framework, in contrast to scrum’s “iterative” framework
  • It fits more easily into mixed-methodology situations like Scrumban
  • It teaches team members to focus on a few highly important items at a time

4. Build Out the Backlog

The work backlog is an essential feature of any Agile approach, from scrum to Kanban. But many teams don’t think about organizing their work beyond assigning them to either the “active project” or “backlog” bucket. This results in some real missed opportunities, and it can complicate the process of transferring items into your work-in-progress (WIP) column.

Consider organizing the backlog the same way you organize active projects. For example, here’s one way units of work are often named and organized:

work hierarchy

And here’s another:

agile hierarchy

Whatever work management software you used to manage your Agile processes, make sure your backlog reflects the same hierarchy of work—and the same terminology. This gives everyone, both inside and outside the team, full visibility into how your pending stories or tasks (or whatever you call them) roll up into the overarching picture, providing more complete context and smoother workflows for all involved.

5. Fully Utilize Available Reporting Tools

As anyone familiar with project management well knows, Agile processes can be accomplished entirely with a whiteboard or a Kanban board and a plentiful supply of sticky notes and sharpies. But this poses visibility challenges for dispersed work teams, offsite employees, and organizations that allow flextime. When you power your Agile processes with work management software, not only are your visibility challenges solved, but you also have access to automated reports. Use them.

Reports can offer immediate insights into a current or a past sprint. Consult your dashboard to access such essential metrics as resource allocation, team productivity, individual or team velocity, how sprint hours are allocated to individual team members, and even estimated progress vs. actual progress in a sprint (past or present).

Beyond these built-in, out-of-the-box reports, today’s work management solutions also allow you to build custom reports that will track whatever metrics matter most to you—and deliver them to you automatically.

Ever More Agile

If you value individuals and interactions over processes and tools, if you’d rather respond to change than follow a plan, if you trust testing and data more than opinions and conversations, and if you believe engagement and transparency works better than official posturing, then you just might be Agile. Now use the five accessible steps we’ve outlined above to make the most out of the methodology—whether you’re new to scrum and sprints and WIP limits, can boast years of experience, or find yourself somewhere in between.

[Read the Complete Guide to Agile Marketing]

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