How Mediahuis adopted a “crooked,” agile work environment

By Emmanuel Naert

Mediahuis

Brussels, Belgium

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Orignially, I planned to write this contribution about the introduction of agile project management within my company, Mediahuis. Today, when digital developers and IT personnel are involved in agile work as well as marketers and business developers, there’s some novelty to this kind of working.

Now, however, Belgium and virtually all of its economy is in lockdown. I wondered whether it would be the right time to talk about an agile workplace.

It is.

All media companies in Belgium have been dichotomised: While one half (the advertising department) has lost nearly all of its revenue, the other half (the newsrooms and consumer market) are in extreme overdrive, producing excellent journalism and reaching historic peaks in subscription sales.

Talk about a split personality.

COVID-19 has disrupted the agile work plan, but the pandemic also highlights how important it is for newsrooms to be able to adapt.
COVID-19 has disrupted the agile work plan, but the pandemic also highlights how important it is for newsrooms to be able to adapt.

As COVID-19 disrupts our business, our projects remain a stabilising factor that has a horizon beyond the news of tomorrow. Our projects urge us to think about the future of our news products, the user experience we offer to our readers, and the journeys we set out for them. Without these projects, there’s only the status quo and processing an endless stream of COVID-19-related news. Without these projects, we stop thinking about the future of our business.

So how does agile working help in the age of COVID-19? When asking about the agile method, I bumped into our digital director, Stijn Vercamer. He elaborated on the subject on his personal blog (“On Straight and Crooked Lines”). He has spent a lot of time explaining to newsroom colleagues why some projects take longer to deliver than expected. He sees newsrooms and business as having a “linear” approach to things.

Linear is what we do: conceive, write, edit, publish, distribute. This process has been very successfull since launching of the Times 250 years ago. But this process isn’t apt for technological development. Products have to be amply tested, and often things don’t work as they were supposed to.

This linear thinking, Vercamer explains, is how projects used to be approached. A project manager drew a timeline, plotted the milestones on it, validated a budget and determined the deliverables. Such projects start with “code green.” There was a good kick-off, a budget, and a “go” from the board.

The first milestone was reached, then the second. But then things usually start to become a little complicated. It seems not all elements a business owner wanted were integrated in the scope, and some technology doesn’t perform as it should. Suddenly the budget is cut, and a new CEO is entering with a different vision of the project.

Teams in agile work environments are empowered to work together and make decisions.
Teams in agile work environments are empowered to work together and make decisions.

In Vercamer’s mind, that’s why we need a new line: a crooked one. Crooked projects are timelines in small sprints. Sprints have project periods of two to four weeks in which a team agrees on what to deliver and what problems to solve. Sometimes the objective is met, sometimes you make only little progress, and sometimes you have to start all over again. You don’t know anything at the start of a project, but you are sure that what everybody on the team does is of the utmost importance to reach a goal with your available assets. These projects start with “code red.” However, gradually parts of the project are delivered, and you start seeing a product that looks promising.

Working in crooked thinking is what our CEO means by agile working. As more people from the business side become involved, I was curious about what exactly this means. Gaetano la Mela, one of our agile coaches explains: “Agile is a set of principles and values that people take at heart to manage a project.”

Which people? Traditionally we see digital development teams delivering work in sprints. But the agile word is spreading: I’m a marketer working on one brand. For the last couple of months, my colleagues with other titles and I have been following sprints in app development, paywall optimisation, development of a white-label design system, and a new toolbox for newsletters.

The teams are often accompanied by an agile coach like la Mela. He’s there to create a high-performing organisation. Until recently, teams tended to depend on a manager to organise their work. He made choices on priorities, technology, timing, and budget. The quality of the project depended entirely on the quality of the manager. Agile teams are supposed to learn to make their own decisions, organise their work efficiently themselves, and determine a path to deliver autonomously. Managers still exist, but only to define KPIs and be accountable for them.

An agile coach tries to get teams to a level of autarky. In the beginning, he’s very present. He tries to build trust in the team. He also challenges the points of view and team members’ conceptions. He asks the members to think about teamwork, the quality of work, delivey speed, and tuning with the client.

He starts with a group of people — and ends with a team. When he’s done a good job, he makes himself redundant. When he’s satisfied about the work and the team’s results, he distances himself. In the end, he only reacts when he’s called for.

At Mediahuis, teams are becoming multi-disciplinary. At Het Nieuwsblad, for example, the agile team consists of the art director and editor-in-chief, the brand manager, two app developers, a UX designer, and a programme manager. None of them will bear the frustration of missing a deadline. 

So here we are, a couple of weeks into agile working and suddenly we’re struck by the coronavirus. In the last two weeks, virtually every objective for the next sprint was missed, budgets are under extreme pressure, and none of the stakeholders are able to physically meet and work together.

But even in these conditions, we set new goals and achieved a different way to work collaboratively. We are using frequent video stand-ups, more formal and explicit conference calls, and affluent e-mailing. We obtain coaching from a distance. La Mela uses a timebox, is forced to draw elaborate opinions, and draws useful conclusions.

Presumably like newsrooms everywhere, we are working at a “code red” level. But it is my firm belief that, despite the fallout of this crisis and after a couple more crooked lines, we will eventually deliver these projects as intended.

About Emmanuel Naert