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Why Agile Working is Good for Your Arts Organisation

At Spektrix Conference 2018,  Annie, Team Manager (Support and Training) at Spektrix and Abbie, Spektrix Software Engineer, presented three Agile Tools which sales, marketing and fundraising teams at arts organisations can use to shift their ways of working towards more Agile processes.

What is agile?

A "team" in the Agile sense is a small group of people, assigned to the same project or effort, nearly all of them on a full-time basis. A small minority of team members may be part-time contributors, or may have competing responsibilities. - Agile Alliance

Agile has become common in the world of work  - it references a framework used mainly by engineering and technical teams to complete projects efficiently and on time.

The Agile Alliance describe it as: “The ability to create and respond to change in order to succeed in an uncertain and turbulent environment”... which sounds quite relevant and useful for many arts organisations operating in the current cultural climate! The idea of being a successful and adaptive team is something that many of us strive for, but why should arts organisations in particular care about Agile... isn’t that an engineering thing?

Delivering value

Whatever type of organisation you find yourself working in, “success” is often about delivering value - whether that’s encouraging customers to buy tickets and thereby increase revenue that can help your organisation thrive, or adding new functionality to your application which improves customer loyalty and advocacy. It’s all about a common end goal - delivering value to your customers. Being able to adapt in the way that you work, means that you can keep delivering the value, even if circumstances change.

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that Agile tools are being used across different sectors by all kinds of organisations and teams. In 2018, it was reported that “over a third (37%) of surveyed marketers report using some form of Agile to manage their work. With 61% of traditional marketing teams reporting plans to start building Agile into their workflow within the next year.” (State of Agile Marketing 2018, Agile Sherpas 2018), while research from PWC suggests that Agile projects are 28% more successful than traditional projects. 

Translating Agile to the arts

18 months ago, the Engineering team at Spektrix introduced Agile working and it’s made a really positive difference to the way the team works together. As a Team Manager in the Support Team, I am always looking for ways to improve teamwork, project management and prioritisation – Agile working got me thinking: could theSpektrix Support teams borrow some of the tools the Engineering team were using to help add similar value for our users?

At this year’s Spektrix Conference we presented three Agile Tools which have been instrumental in shifting both our Engineering and Support departments to working in this way.During my time at Spektrix, I have worked with venues who suffer from siloed teams. I think these Agile practices can help cross-team communication, collaboration and help focus the team on delivering a strategic goal or change that needs to be implemented. These tools are Kanban boards, stand-ups and retrospectives. These three tools are a great way to introduce Agile practices into your teams and organisation, so whether you just start by incorporating one of them into your ways of working, or aim to use all three, have a read of the below and see what you can adopt into your daily practice. 

1. Kanban Boards

The first tool we looked at was Kanban boards,  which are visual workflow tools. Each “board” is split up into columns, which represent different states of a workflow. Most commonly, a Kanban board will have the columns titled, “To Do”, “In Progress” and “Done”. Within these columns, team members can place cards or post-it notes with action points or pieces of work, and the cards are moved between columns to reflect their current state of progress.

The idea is that your Kanban board represents the work that your team (whether that’s a physical team or a temporary project team) has committed to work on for the next week or so. Your team should review them regularly to help keep you on track.

Each card also has an assignee - this can be a person or a department - and you can also add due dates for those time-critical actions. Kanban Boards are a great way of making sure work is not missed and to encourage mutual accountability and project visibility.

There are various online tools for creating your Kanban Boards, and we find that Trello works really well for us. If you have in-person meetings or want to make your board more visible in the office, you can use post-it notes to create a physical board, like we did ahead of the conference:

At Spektrix, Kanban boards are a staple of the Engineering team, and the busy Support department uses them as a way to track project progress and all our client visits. We use Trello so the Kanban board is accessible whether you’re working in our London, Manchester or New York office. Creation Theatre have been working in an Agile way since 2012 and are using Kanban boards to work through a backlog of tasks. By creating a board with a list of to-dos they found a way to make sure work is never missed - even if someone leaves or is off sick!

You could think about when it might be useful to use a Kanban board in your own organisation - for example, you might want to have a Kanban board in the weeks leading up to a new season on-sale, an important fundraising event, or creating marketing collateral for your new show.

2. Stands-ups

Stand-ups are incredibly quick meetings where you check in with your department or team. Each team member shares an update on what they worked on yesterday, what they are doing today, and whether there is anything stopping them from continuing their work today.

A stand-up is designed to be a status update, rather than a full meeting - updates should be relevant to the whole team so everyone has oversight of what is being worked on. Frequent stand-ups can also help a team to identify, challenge and tackle anything that is blocking a project being finished on time. Stand-ups work best when they are kept short and sweet; anything which needs further discussion should be parked and picked up outside of the stand-up.

3. Retrospectives

The final Agile tool we spoke about was the retrospective, or “retros”. Retrospectives are really great for encouraging honesty and providing an open and safe space to discuss and reflect on delivery, ways of working, and processes. Typically, a retrospective will focus on a defined period of time, eg. 2 weeks (or “Sprint”, aka “Iteration”), or a specific project that has recently been completed. Holding retrospectives enables the entire team or department to talk honestly about their experiences by asking them to reflect on the project; what they’ve learned, what they liked and what didn’t seem to work so well.

There are many ways to run a retro - you might want to throw in an icebreaker at the start to get everyone feeling comfortable to share, or sketch out a timeline of the previous project with some key events highlighted to refresh everyone’s memory. Next, you want to pick an activity that will help people to reflect and evaluate  - it could be that you use the project timeline as the focus. One format Spektrix Engineering team has found beneficial is to have everyone think of two things that “went well” and two things that “didn’t go so well”; write them on post-it-notes and lay these out somewhere on the wall, or if using a virtual board, in two columns which you can vote on. You can easily use online tools such as “fun retro” if you’re not co-located. Normally we don’t go above three votes each, and then we take some time to discuss the most-voted-for topics and see if some clear action points or best practices for the future, can come out of those discussions.

During a retro, it’s really important to keep discussions focused on outcomes and good practices and to make sure that someone in the team is accountable for seeing them through. Retros also work much better if you follow the little and often approach - hold a retro frequently, every 2-4 weeks, or at the end of every short project and keep them to 1-1.5 hours. This means that your teams have lots of opportunities to adapt functions in a way that is achievable and has buy-in from the whole team, without retros becoming a chore. Retros can encourage a team to get more used to trying stuff out and reflecting on this quickly and frequently.

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

One of the values listed in the Agile Manifesto is, “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools”. We’ve been talking about delivery and how agile practices help a team to continuously deliver value, but what’s so great about Agile is that, when we focus on the health of a team and individuals in that team, this can help a team to become a high performing team. In Spektrix Engineering, the shift they had to make in order to take ownership as a team - and where Agile has really supported them - was challenging as it would change practices that people were familiar and comfortable with. I talk about this in the context of retros, because the solutions and suggestions that come out of retrospectives often help to remove frustration from the team, to tackle things that are causing friction and to break down silos that naturally tend to form - whether that’s in a team, or during a project. The result is a clearer idea of how the team can keep delivering value.

Christmas Show Retrospective

So, how could you use retrospectives in your organisation? Let’s consider the holiday season. Everyone is busy at Christmas, so realistically December isn’t the best time for you to gather your teams and properly reflect on the success of your Christmas season. However, think about planning a retrospective for early January and giving key stakeholders and teams enough notice to plan ahead and prepare. Your Sales team will be incredibly busy during November and December, but what anecdotal information on your customer base and audience feedback could they gather? Marketing will want to prepare and decide a framework to analyse figures, customer demographics and measure the success of any new initiatives -  maybe you want to measure the impact of priority booking this year? Development teams may want to think about how to successfully increase donation ask next year by measuring the success of donations across sales channel this year.

Key takeaways

In summary, Agile working can help your teams build trust with one another, encourage project visibility and foster a sense of ownership and accountability on both an individual and team level. The key takeaways to share with your organisation is that

  • Agile is a framework, not a set of rules.
  • Agile working can help you break down silos and further your ability to continuously deliver value to your customers.
  • Agile is there to adapt and flex to what suits you! By working together and adapting, you’ll discover your own branch of agile working.

If you want to find out more about how you can use Agile ways of working in your arts organisation or on an upcoming project, get in touch.