Agile work methods have been used in programming environments for about a decade. Now the concepts they embrace — personal communication, customer collaboration, and the ability to flexibly respond to change — are starting to permeate media organisations as well.
While attending a recent event, I saw the really dynamic CEO of a media corporation talking about the transformation taking place in the industry. I attended a small discussion group afterward only to learn that he had never heard of the concept of agile working methods.
I was really surprised by that.
At the same time, it is also symptomatic of the fast-paced and demanding changes facing media corporations. Some executives have difficulties keeping up with the developments going on in their own companies.
Along with digital products, agile working methods have also found their way into the news and media business. Programmers work using methods like Scrum, Kanban, or Extreme Programming (XP).
These are nothing new to Internet and software companies and have already been an established part of their development teams’ repertoire for around 10 to 15 years now. They go back to the Manifesto for Agile Software Development (or just Agile Manifesto) which was published by a number of software developers in 2001.
In recent years, media corporations have seen the spread of these methods in the area of digital product development. Developer teams that design and optimise the Web sites or apps of news brands started using agile methods.
Irrespective of the specific method implemented, agile software development and agile working are characterised by a few underlying values:
Individuals and interactions: The agile philosophy and its methods place a great deal of value on the way in which everyone involved shapes the development process together.
A key factor is self-organised teams which, staffed with top-qualified, motivated, and well-rounded employees, shape the way they work without a classic management hierarchy. The tasks to be done are taken up by the employees independently and do not have to be delegated by a manager. Very simple, but strictly implemented rules provide for the necessary discipline.
Personal communication always takes priority over other forms of communication. Brief, sometimes daily stand-up meetings that take place between developers, customers, business representatives, and the editorial team allow for fast reaction times. A simple and yet structured visualisation of all work packages ensures the ongoing process stays transparent.
Customer collaboration: At the core of both the mental and practical work is the customer. All developments, optimisations, and adaptations serve to fulfil the customer’s needs.
The relationship to the customer does not start and end with the initial contractual negotiations; rather, the customer is actively and continuously involved in the development process throughout. He assumes an integral role in creating the product and in its further development.
Working software: Instead of investing a great deal of resources in drawing up documents and system specifications, the focus lies in being able to present the customer with fast functioning partial solutions, known as minimum viable products (MVP), as soon as possible.
Responding to change: Instead of pursuing previously defined processes and plans, the work is sub-divided into very short time phases and subject to constant reviews.
Adapting procedures and throwing previous approaches overboard is an inherent aspect of the concept. The short intervals between coordination cycles allow for fast reactions and prevent development backlogs.
Agile working methods are often introduced into organisations as a grassroots movement, and we see product development departments bringing in agile methods seeking to find more efficient methods for their work.
But where is the relevance in all of this for executives in news organisations? Can’t we just leave such matters to the development experts and let them get on with fiddling around in their laboratories?
There are two reasons why executives should care:
Firstly, what we are witnessing is the emergence of a new and fruitful breeding ground within corporate culture. Self-organised teams with newly defined forms of leadership in particular represent a considerable change to the culture within most organisations.
These departments are often surrounded by other divisions like the editorial office, the classical publishing management, the sales department, and others, which all too often embody an older, more hierarchical working culture.
And so, in many media corporations, what you now have is the emergence of different worlds co-existing under one roof. The interfaces and cooperation are not always easy. Agile working teams complain of a lack of understanding for new working methods at more senior levels of management.
For example, feedback and reports are being requested from management that just do not go along with agile processes. Instructions are given and tracked that contradict the new working style, which is based on flexibility and change.
If the necessary management support is not in place and different working methods collide, the required effects and advantages of agile working cannot be exploited to their full potential.
It’s like a manager who gets e-mails from his team but replies to these per fax. Management whose knowledge base is not up to scratch slows down the product development process.
Secondly, in the past years, the concept of agility has been transferring increasingly from purely software development to entire organisations. The term used is “business agility” and what it means is the ability of an organisation to respond rapidly to change and adapt its own structures accordingly.
Agile companies allow for a maximum exchange of knowledge and ideas, reduce hierarchies, place the customer at the center, and pursue continuous innovation. Agile working, therefore, means a whole lot more than just nerdy development teams posting colourful sticky notes on their walls.
Agile principles can be applied in all areas and at all levels of an organisation. This may be where we will find the key to meeting the challenges currently facing media corporations.
Of course, agility is not a cure-all remedy and still requires more definition of the details. However, bearing in mind the enormous cultural and strategic challenges facing the news industry, in my opinion, every media manager should have an understanding of the agile philosophy so he does not stand in the way of his own development department, which is already using agile working methods. And so he is able to assess what principles of agility are relevant beyond the product development department and can be used to shape his own organisation in the best way possible.
Dr. Tilmann Knoll is head of management development at Axel Springer, based in Berlin, Germany. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The urgent need to change the corporate culture at media companies to attract and retain platform-agile employees has spawned new initiatives and new methods to promote innovation and transformation. INMA's Culture Change blog captures best practices of media companies aiming to change their corporate culture – and the stories and lessons behind them.
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