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Why we’re exploring Agile working at MediaCom

How did a team with the same people, the same level of enthusiasm, the same talent and tackling the same objective, do the same amount work in one third of the time?

In his book “Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time”, Jeff Sutherland reports that adopting Scrum can improve the productivity of teams by a magnitude of two to four times or even eight times. An 800% improvement in output, is an almost unbelievable gain.

While I believed the transformation stories of the big manufacturing, government, engineering and tech companies, I was sceptical that the benefits of Scrum and Agile would apply to a relatively small organisation such as MediaCom London. After all, we’re an agency that’s grown from a very small independent business, we pride ourselves on our entrepreneurial spirit, we work with clients big and small, we’ve even structured the agency around a number of business groups with the specific aim of maintaining that small company, client-centric “agile” approach. So, I wasn’t convinced MediaCom’s size and structure provided the same degree of inherent inefficiency. That said, like all companies, we sometimes waste time in meetings that lack purpose, our working processes could benefit from improvement. But could Agile really help a thriving media agency like MediaCom, a market leader, at the top of their game? Well, we’ve embarked on a mission to find out.

Why we’re exploring Agile at MediaCom.

When MediaCom bought Code Computerlove in 2018, a digital product studio based in Manchester, we did so to add an extra arm of expertise that would help improve the effectiveness of our clients’ communications systems. What we didn’t fully appreciate is that Code had embedded Agile as a way of working in their organisation over the past two to three years. They had empowered their teams to experiment and learned how to apply the principles of Agile to their organisational needs with much success. As a media agency, this has given us a window into understanding and appreciating the benefits of Agile.

MediaCom’s Chief Transformation Officer, Sue Unerman, has long championed Agile, having seen the amazing benefits it brought to the government. As a member of the Government Digital Advisory Board, she saw close up the enormous transformation it had developing transactional websites delivered through Agile by GDS for a huge range of divisions, such as the DVLA and the Coastguard. She decided there and then that MediaCom should embrace this new way of working.

The first step for MediaCom was to gather a group of seven highly motivated individuals, passionate about transformative ways of working, to form the Agile leadership team. As the leadership team, our objective is to explore the benefits of Agile, work out how it could be applied to our organisational needs and if it proved successful, design a plan to scale it across the agency – with 1400 people at MediaCom UK, it’s a good challenge.

To ensure we are continually monitoring progress, we’ve identified three key measures of success:

  1. Improving client satisfaction, we believe that any improvement in our ways of working has to impact our customers positively, if they can’t see the benefit, why bother?
  2. Greater job satisfaction for our people. People First, Better Results is our mantra, so for us, Agile has to improve the working day for our people.
  3. Improved efficiency, this goes right back to “doing twice the work in half the time”, we want to see and be able to measure a higher level of productivity for our Agile teams.

We are still in the test phase but have already seen some very encouraging early signs of success from the eight different teams trained in and currently piloting Agile. We were very conscious of Agile initially being rolled out across a variety of teams, as we felt the experience of Agile might differ depending on team function. Having completed our first retrospective for the pilot teams, it’s become apparent that Agile can be implemented in many different ways and, regardless, the benefits remain the same: increased efficiency, empowerment and transparency.

As a leadership team, we saw immediate benefits, but this is, in part, due to how much we have committed to Agile ways of working. Using our new Agile skills, we set about re-designing how we worked together. We assigned a Product Owner, Sue Unerman, and Scrum Master, Katy Woodward, and got started with our own version of a Design Sprint (made famous by Jake Knapp when working at Google Ventures https://designsprintkit.withgoogle.com/ or https://www.thesprintbook.com/) – a great way to create solutions to complex problems. We took the output from the Design Sprint into a work backlog, all the tasks are made visible to the whole team and categorised using a Kanban (as we are all WFH this is, of course, a digital Kanban), tasks are prioritised and we tackle them across a series of two-week Sprints.

Across these Sprints each member of the team takes on tasks they feel they can accomplish in the time frame, we check in regularly with very short (15min) meetings where each individual updates the team on what they’ve achieved, what they’re doing next and highlights any blockers they may be facing. These short and very focused meetings mean the whole team has visibility of who’s doing what and the progress being made. At the end of each two-week Sprint we re-evaluate progress, re-plan the next Sprint and then we go again. We’ve also built in “retrospectives”, in these sessions we simply ask how effectively we are working as a team and identify what can be improved, these sessions are not so much about the tasks we’re working on, we focus on ways of working and team dynamics. For example, are we communicating effectively? Is the cadence and length of meetings working? Are we all showing up? Are the remote working tools proving to be effective?

Agile working has had a big impact on the team’s productivity

We have the same team of seven very motivated people, tackling the same objective, with the same level of motivation, the same level of talent, but now armed with all the tools and techniques (and mindset) from Agile. I want to be very transparent and say that measuring the team’s productivity is not as cut and dry as it would be if we were producing a unit of something that was uniform and easily counted e.g. producing a car. We are relying on the subjective views of the team members themselves, who I admit, could be biased towards success. But if we accept some bias, the team members have all reported significant improvements in productivity and work satisfaction.

We’re moving through tasks at a far higher pace, we estimate that what would have taken us 3-4 months to achieve as a team prior to using Agile, we now accomplish in 4-6 weeks. Put simply, the same team is doing the same amount of work in approximately 35% of the time. By any measure, this is a big improvement. As well as the gains in productivity, the team are reporting great improvements in work satisfaction. Prior to our Agile training, we enjoyed working together as a team and we still do, but the levels of communication are greatly enhanced and because we track the tasks we’re completing as a team we have far better visibility of the progress we are making. The visibility of heading at pace towards our objective is giving team members a great sense of reward and satisfaction. This is summed up nicely by Katy Woodward “We have never felt closer and more connected as a team (whilst being physically further apart!). Agile ways of working have given us all a renewed understanding and focus on our common goals as well as time to reflect on the most efficient and effective ways to achieve them in a truly collaborative way. Individuals are empowered, the team is autonomous, and we now ignore the traditional hierarchy in the team. We simply focus on supporting each other to get to our goals as fast as we can.”

Continuous improvement is a key tenet of Agile working, so we aim to keep improving and increase productivity further. We hope this is just the beginning.

Three key learnings for any business thinking about adopting Agile

MediaCom has a long way to go with Agile, but we’re off to a promising start. Here are three critical lessons that we have learnt so far:

  1. Sponsorship from the very top to the organisation. If you want to create organisational change, you need strong support and active involvement from the most senior leaders in the organisation. If they push for change and talk positively about Agile, success can follow.
  2. Invest in quality training. We’ve tried and failed with Agile in the past and one of the key reasons was cutting corners with training. Teams need to be supported and shown the way forward with proper training.
  3. Follow through. Once teams are trained, they need ongoing support and coaching. It takes a little time to change old ways of working and adopt the new, without support teams can drift back into old, bad habits. Ensuring teams are supported by experienced and enthusiastic coaches ensures this is avoided and the new improved habits are fully embedded.

If you want to talk to Nigel about Agile, you can email him at: nigel.robinson@mediacom.com

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