Scott Pennock

Digital CX Transformation | Principal Delivery Lead at Praxent | 13+yrs Senior Product Management

Say Goodbye to Ivory Tower Scrum: 3 Keys to Adapting Agile at an Agency

The three keys outlined in this article will help product managers in agency settings implement Agile more effectively.
Most modern tech companies rely on Scrum and Agile to create flexible, efficient and results-based digital customer experiences.
While the core principles behind the Agile framework provide needed boundaries for effective and on-track project management, I've learned that restricting teams to all “ivory tower” protocols can actually be counterproductive and even impossible at times.
This is especially true for product agencies, as opposed to product-based businesses.

What are Product Agencies, Exactly? (And Why Pure Scrum Doesn’t Always Make Business Sense)

In my 13 years of experience in senior product management, I’ve learned that business objectives should drive methods, not the other way around.
In their purest forms, Scrum and Agile were designed for product-based companies operating full design and development teams on their own. These mature companies have reached the point in their business life cycle where it is most cost effective to build and maintain their products in-house.
Their teams usually have multiple types of leaders, all employed under the same roof: product owner, product manager and Scrum master. The company’s sizable workload justifies this level of investment in human capital.
Product agencies, on the other hand, help product companies that don’t yet have the bandwidth, capital or business economics to move production in house.
To remain effective in an agency setting, agile methods must adapt in response to these simple facts:
  • Multiple teams work across multiple projects, and individuals often fill multiple roles.
  • Clients don’t have the budget to pay for by-the-book Agile development. That’s why they are hiring an agency.

The 3 Keys of Adapting Agile

A product agency's aim in using Agile methodology is to address the unique needs of established but digitally immature product-based companies. Agencies have to design and build software a cost that’s lower for their clients than building and retaining an in-house team.
Over the years of working in this context, I've learned to adapt Scrum and Agile to each unique client and project while staying true to the principles that best serve business and user goals. Along my journey, I've found there are three general keys to making Agile work in a product agency setting.

1. Adapt to client needs.

Paying customers don’t care about what the Agile handbook says. They just want to do what will achieve the best long-term results for their user base while earning most value for their investment.
Adjusting Team Sizes & Roles
Each role in Agile is critical to performance. These roles include developers, delivery leads, product owners, product managers, Scrum masters and more. Each role assumes accountability for a particular focus in the product development life cycle. If one role is missing, that area of focus will be neglected, producing a negative ripple effect on the whole project.
That being said, sometimes a project or budget is small enough that it doesn’t require a full-time team with a different leader assuming each position. We’ve found it’s helpful to train team members and leaders across disciplines and roles. That way, one leader can assume multiple roles if needed.
Another sometimes helpful adjustment is combining full-time with some part-time roles, such as part-time delivery leads or part-time developers, as needed.
The goal and challenge of adjusting team sizes and roles is to maximize value to the client without compromising on the quality each role delivers.
Needs-Based Scheduling
You save teams time and clients money by adjusting the recommended Agile and Scrum schedules based on what’s truly needed.
For example, with part-time engagements, I alternate daily standups and use Slack to stay in touch with developers between meetings. This helps my teams meet the objectives intended for daily standups by compromising on face-to-face time.
Alternating Scrum and Kanban
Scrum and Kanban are two different types of Agile development. My teams generally default to Scrum, but sometimes we pivot to Kanban based on a client's need.
For clients who are transitioning from development to maintenance, switching from Scrum to Kanban is an obvious step that saves time and eliminates unnecessary meetings and processes.
Instead of milestones and sprint goals meant to manage consistent progress toward an MVP deliverable, Kanban runs on ad hoc delivery expectations with teams or individuals working on one story at a time.
Merging Product Owner & Product Manager
In digitally mature product-based companies, in-house product managers find and prove product market fit. Their job is to determine what product concept and design best meets customer needs in the market while achieving positive unit economics.
In-house product management is ideal because it places the work of user research and product concept validation into the hands of people who are generally already familiar with the customer experience.
Most companies who hire a product agency, however, often don’t have the expertise or the staff to do user research or other jobs that would fall under the product manager role. In these cases, we step in to coach and implement core concept and validation activities like user research, forecasting lifetime value of a customer, defining MVP and creating product roadmaps.
In an agency setting, this means some product owners also become product managers and product strategists. (Sometimes, these multi-talented leaders are also Scrum masters.)

2. Balance specialization with SWARM.

Specialization is key to Agile: each core focus of production is intentionally driven forward by a leader dedicated to their focus area. Without balance, however, overly focused roles can lead to narrow-minded thinking, isolated work, and territorialism, all of which stifle innovation.
Specialization yields the best results when complemented by a team that is swarming to deliver.
Cross-training individuals allows teams to fill in the gaps of a project, making sure that every critical piece of the Agile machine is intact. This requires each team member to understand user experience, business requirements and big picture vision.
Build Shared Vision: SWARM Design with Development
Even across design and development, each specialized team member must be able to problem solve and step in at any given point to provide insight to their teammates.
Radically effective products are the result of radically collaborative teamwork that’s centered around the user.
Helping design and development teams to align around shared vision for the user is one of a product manager’s hardest responsibilities. SWARMing design and development teams together can help overcome common barriers that designers and developers face when collaborating. SWARM cultivates cross-disciplinary understanding while bringing needed technical input into design plans and needed design input into development.
For a full picture on how SWARM works in a product agency setting, check out “Human-Centered Design: How Designers, Developers & Businesses Work Together.”

3. Take care of your team.

Don’t rule your teams with a Scrum iron fist. It will lead to disengagement. Teams need to be empowered toward forward-thinking, results-based problem solving. Sometimes this means bending the Agile rules.
Here are five ways to help agency teams be successful with Agile:
1. Be sensitive to team needs. Closely monitor teams for signs of people being overwhelmed, lost or confused. Meet these needs as soon as they arise.
2. Make sure you plan ample time for on-boarding with new projects. This is a critical step when positioning a project for success.
Take the time to truly learn the client’s needs, the user environment and the business requirements. Then, clearly communicate the user experience and business requirements to teams all the way down the line.
3. Prepare well for team merges with potentially ambiguous roles. When merging your team with a client’s internal team, there are usually multiple touch points that require thought and oversight.
Plan on allowing time for those touch points to ensure smooth communication and collaboration. Deliberate preparation will protect both teams from being entangled in confusing dialogue and becoming unproductive.
4. Communicate often in multiple ways. Rely on Zoom meetings for face-to-face conversations across time zones. Utilize Slack for quick question-and-answer to keep workers from being blocked for a long time.
Keep communication friendly and personable, encouraging vulnerability. This is critical, especially when working with multiple teams and multiple clients. If everyone feels comfortable, you’ll avoid icebergs down the road.
5. Use backlog grooming and sprint demos to provide space for development teams to meet clients and present their work. This personal connection strengthens client trust in teams while allowing developers to get credit for their work, which boosts morale.

Know Your Numbers for Effective Agile

Don’t neglect to do your project management math. Agile is only effective when what you’re getting out of it is greater than what you’re putting into it.
Free your teams from blind adherence to protocols that sometimes just don’t make sense. Adapting Agile to business context will help you earn client trust, retain customers, balance the books and cultivate innovative company culture.

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