May 7, 2018

How to Visualize Your Agile Marketing Workflow (and Why You Should) with Andrea Fryrear

This year, our special guest star on all things Agile marketing, Andrea Fryrear, will be providing Agile marketing newbies with a monthly step-by-step guide to their first year as an Agile marketer. This post is the eighth in the series. Enjoy!

As our journey through your first year as an Agile marketing team marches on, we’ve come to a very important topic: workflow visualization. That may sound complicated, but it’s essentially creating a map of the way your team gets things done.

In its simplest form, a workflow looks something like this:

Each and every Agile marketing team needs to visually document their workflow, regardless of the methodology they use, their team size, or what kind of organization they’re in.

If you're new to Agile marketing, see the first post in this series: "Take The First Step on Your Agile Marketing Journey with Andrea Fryrear."

The simple process of creating a board can reveal significant opportunities for improvement, not to mention the ongoing benefit you’ll get from seeing your bottlenecks revealed over time.

So let’s take a tour through visualization, including looking at some sample boards to get you started.

Why Visualize?

Visualization isn’t just an item on the Agile checklist that we all need to complete so we can say that we’re Agile. It has enormous benefits, both inside and outside of the marketing team creating the board.

Transparency for the Team

First of all, you gain instant transparency when you put your work out onto a board.

People outside of the team can immediately see exactly what its members are doing. That means when they come to the team with an emergency item, they understand what work they would be disrupting by demanding that the team pick it up right away.

You should also have far fewer “what the heck is marketing even doing?” conversations once you’ve got your workflow out in the open.

One word of caution about this extreme transparency: the harsh light it shines on output can make some team members uncomfortable. If someone feels they aren’t pulling their weight, they’re likely to be resistant to having their contributions (or lack thereof) revealed to the world.

Shared Understanding Within the Team

Once everybody’s work is documented on a board, it’s very easy to see exactly where the team is devoting its resources. You should get insight into how much work is really being done (it’s usually more than you think), and whether it’s actually the right work.

Maybe everyone is focusing their time on rote tasks and never getting to the larger strategic initiatives that will ultimately deliver big results. Sometimes only an accurate board can reveal this kind of discrepancy.

Identifying and Removing Bottlenecks

You might also discover, for example, that all the work is getting stuck with your copywriters and slowing down the flow. Armed with this empirical data, you can make a strong case for more writing resources on the team.

An accurate workflow visualization takes the conversation from, “we really need more writers” to “we have 65 percent of our projects stalled because we’re short on writing help.”

At the end of the day you can’t go faster than your bottlenecks will allow, so removing them one by one is key to increasing the team’s effectiveness.

How to Visualize

There are two ways you can create your visualizations: a physical board or a digital tool. Both have their pros and cons, so let’s take a look at them one by one.

Option 1: Physical Board

Agile teams have long relied on whiteboards, markers, and sticky notes to track their work, and these tools of the trade are highly valuable.

Pros: Assuming you have the requisite wall space, physical boards are easy to create. A few strokes of the marker, a couple dozen sticky notes, and you’re ready to go.

It’s also highly satisfying to physically move cards from one state of work to another, and seeing them stack up in the "done" column is a great feeling.

Cons: A physical board won’t provide you with metrics to track the team’s performance unless you’re willing to do some manual math. It can also pose a problem for remote team members who can’t update it.

Finally, if external teams need to suggest work for your backlog, a physical board can make that a cumbersome process.

Option 2: Digital Board

Using a digital tool like Workfront is another solid option for visualizing the workflow, and it instantly takes care of the remote worker and metrics problems cited above. But a digital board may not be your silver bullet either.

Pros: If you get the right tool, digital boards automatically deliver metrics around your team’s work, giving you hard data about what’s going on.

You’re also freed from the constraints of a wall, meaning you can add lots of information to a digital card that wouldn’t fit on a physical one, like attached documents, extensive checklists, and links to related cards.

Finally, a digital tool can simplify the request process so people outside the team can easily add work to the backlog.

Cons: It can be overwhelming to start with a digital visualization tool.

You may not want to take the time to onboard the team into a new system while they’re transitioning to Agile. You may also find that people outside the team don’t log in to check it, whereas it’s hard for them to miss a big whiteboard right outside the team’s workspace.

Ideal Option: Physical and Digital Boards

If you can, create a basic physical board near the team and update it every day during standup. People teleworking can have a card buddy in the office to move their cards on their behalf.  

By adding numbers to each physical card that refer back to their corresponding digital card, you get the power of the physical board with the tracking benefits of a digital tool. Your physical cards can be simple and to the point, while the cards in the digital system can hold more detail.  

You can avoid the overhead of updating work in two tools by consolidating responsibility for the digital tool. For example, the team leaders can update the physical board during standup so that it’s accurate, while individual contributors record their work in the digital tool.

Sample Boards

Now that we’ve looked at some abstract ways to track work, I want to close by offering up three sample board designs.

Whether you start with one of these or do something totally different, make sure your board accurately reflects how work gets done on your team, not how you wish it got done or how your manager thinks it happens.

Board Design 1: Nice and Simple

This simple board is a great place to start. There’s nothing fancy here, just different states that work is likely to enter on it’s way through the team.

Board Design 2: Dealing with External Review

What can happen with marketing teams, however, is that cards get hung up in that "review" column. Work may be stalled out in legal, with executives, or with some other stakeholders, but wherever it may be trapped, it’s outside of the team’s control.

They need a way to keep working without losing sight of work that may be coming back to them. In that case, you can try using a "pen:"

On this board, work goes into the "pen" whenever it’s outside the team. It stays there until it gets feedback, and then it jumps into the "ready" column.

Whenever someone on the team prepares to grab a new card, they check the "ready" column and pull work from there before starting on something new from the backlog.

If they grab something from "ready" they take it into "editing" to show that it has come back to the team from external review.

Board Design 3: Using Swim Lanes

Finally, if your team has several sub-teams that do different kinds of work, you can try incorporating horizontal swim lanes into your board.

This allows you to get a quick look at how each team is doing and creates a simplified look at complex teamwork. You could also create swim lanes for each team member if you have a small team.

The Ever Evolving Agile Board

If you’re new to visualizing your work, I recommend that you start with something like the simple board above. But don’t feel locked in to any particular design.

As you learn more about what information helps your team, you can evolve your board to include those details.

But don’t go overboard with your board design. It should be as simple as you can make it while still conveying enough information to allow people to understand what’s happening with the team.

If you’re curious about how these boards fit into Agile methodologies like Scrum, Kanban, and Scrumban, take a look back at some earlier articles from this yearlong series on Agile marketing:

See "How to Get Your Marketing Workflow in Check" to learn more about optimal marketing workflows.

Get Workfront blog updates straight to your inbox.