Like most agencies, Blend has been through its fair share of project management trials and tribulations.
Over the years we've used a dozen different software tools, ranging from free to ridiculously expensive, and tested several times that number looking for the right one.
None worked for us, most becoming a chore to use, until we changed our methodology. When Blend went inbound in 2014, our work gained a clarity that it previously never had.
Everything we did, for ourselves and for our clients, gained a measurable purpose - a clear reason for doing it. Everything became transparent and scalable - it was awesome.
This heightened clarity gave us as better understanding of our utilisation, capacity and value. While it didn’t resolve our project management challenges altogether, it made us look at them in a different light.
And that's when we went agile.
After reading Scrum by Jeff Sutherland and doing some research we realised that agile was perfect for what we needed to do. We quickly adopted parts of the methodology and software that is specifically built for it.
The result was another transformation at our agency and the solution to many of our project management problems.
So, what makes agile so right for us? Here are the three big reasons we've gone agile.
1. Perfect for inbound marketing
Inbound marketing, most marketing in fact, is more like building software than it is like building a bridge.
While an inbound marketing strategy will have high-level, long-term objectives, the best way to achieve those objectives can change daily.
Thus, planning in detail for any long period of time, as you would do when building that bridge, is wasted effort, because the plan becomes out-of-date from day one.
At the same time inbound, like many projects, has some core tasks that need to be repeated regularly.
Things like blogging, content creation, social posting and SEO need to be performed monthly. But what they look like each month doesn't become clear until closer to the time.
Populating a plan with blank placeholders for tasks like these may feel like progress, but it isn't.
Agile solves both problems by splitting tasks into two groups, the backlog and sprints.
The agile methodology, consisiting of a backlog and a repeated sprint cycle.
The backlog is a long list of tasks that we need or hope to do. None of these tasks will be done, however, until they become part of an active sprint.
A sprint is a time box of fixed duration. At Blend our sprints are month-long.
At the beginning of each sprint, we add the most important and valuable tasks from the backlog to the sprint, up to the limit of the resources available.
The backlog is constantly being added to and groomed so we can always select the tasks that are going to move us toward our objectives most for completion in the next sprint.
The result is that we constantly focus on doing work that achieves our high-level objectives, responding to changes and opportunities as they occur, without wasting effort on meaningless long-term plans.
2. Perfect for our clients
A good client relationship needs requires a balance between several, sometimes competing, factors.
Inbound marketing results require sustained effort - making retainer agreements best.
Retainer agreements introduce the need to maximise utilisation every month - something which can be difficult to ensure when unexpected delays or events can hold up the completion of work.
Clients also need visibility of utilisation.
They don't, however, want significant chunks of the time they pay for spent on detailed reporting.
Clients also demand flexibility and inevitably need their agency to respond to some requirements at short notice.
And they don't just want their retainer spent on doing 'stuff', they want results.
Agile helps us to meet all of these expectations and build strong client relationships that last.
Using a points-based model, instead of tracking and billing in hours, has streamlined our planning, execution and reporting.
Individual tasks are estimated relative to one another using points on the Fibonnaci sequence - this sequence eliminates haggling over small differences in complexity, a task is either an 8 or 13, never a 9, 10, 11 or 12.
The Fibonacci sequence used for points estimation in agile.
Working in sprints and using points lets us ensure we always prioritise the activities that we believe will drive the greatest results for the client and, when things change, we can respond quickly by swapping out points or re-prioritising the backlog.
Points also make measurement and reporting on the work we have done a breeze. And they let us aim for maximum utilisation by giving us the tools rapidly compare tasks to one another and the available resource.
3. Perfect for our team
The agile methodology fits with the way we want to run our agency.
The main thing we disliked about other approaches to project management, and the tools for them, is the endless lists of tasks that they produce.
Every task in an endless list needs its own deadline and there is never any light at the end of the tunnel.
That’s not how we want it to be at Blend, so this approach never stuck.
Working the agile way gives each team a fixed amount of work to complete with a clear end in sight, at the end of the sprint.
While there may be individual deadlines for certain tasks, we predominantly focus on completion within the sprint. This creates a sense of feasibility at the outset and of accomplishment come the end of the sprint.
Working as a team on a sprint, which is made visible through a shared display in our PM software, fosters shared responsibility and a collaborative approach. This is aided by daily stand-up meetings, which maintain constant team awareness over progress and potential problems.
An example sprint board with tasks organised in columns and swimlanes.
Adopting agile solved many of our project management challenges and made choosing the right software easy.
It also turned out to be not only perfect for delivering inbound success, but also for building stronger client relationships and building a happier, more efficient team.