Agile processes are plans that involve advance planning and organization but also allow you to quickly change course if needed. To learn how business owners create agile processes in the real world, I consulted Mary Ellen Slayter, CEO of Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based B2B content marketing agency Rep Cap and Matt Weinberg, president of interactive digital agency Vector Media Group in New York City.
Why Use An Agile Process?
An agile process can be advantageous because it mandates a close consideration of your business goals, but can also be adjusted as you gain more information or as circumstances evolve.
You need to document what you have before you can question where you should go. - Mary Ellen Slayter, CEO, Rep Cap
“The agile framework forces owners to make decisions quickly and communicate frequently," says Slayter. “The emphasis on testing frees you from best practices so you can pursue the surprising insights that are unique to your business. In the end, the risk is actually lower because you're making fewer big bets."
It's also important to realize what agile is—and what it isn't.
“Just because you're agile doesn't mean you don't have process," Slayter points out. “Agile is not about flying by the seat of your pants—it's dynamically deciding how to deploy your resources to achieve your goals."
Customer expectations are a factor in deciding how to employ an agile process.
“People expect your business to keep pace with the rest of the environment," says Weinberg. “Making sure you have ways to operate efficiently during change can give you a major advantage over competitors.
Building Your Agile Process
How should you go about creating an agile process for your business? One that can withstand regular shifts in industry and customer requirements?
In general, building a new process involves:
identifying the problem that your process will ideally solve,
talking with knowledgeable parties about the activities that need to be part of the process and
laying out the "who," "what," "where," "when" and "how" of these activities.
You can use tools like Zapier and Trello to visualize and document your process. These tools also let you modify your processes quickly and easily, should business needs require you do so.
Once you've established your agile process, talk to your team to determine whether your process is truly agile or not.
“To make agile the default, when you prepare to add a process, define its feedback loop and change mechanism ahead of time so that there's a tried-and-true way to update it as needed," said Weinberg. "The feedback loop should ideally include explicit feedback from stakeholders that you don't usually hear from, such as junior employees."
Slayter suggests first examining existing processes for agility before reinventing the wheel.
"Rather than creating a new process from scratch, put fresh eyes on your old processes and see if you can break them down and rethink them," she says. "You need to document what you have before you can question where you should go."
Agile as a Way of Life
Both Weinberg and Slayter have developed agile processes in their organizations, much to their companies' benefit.
“Our core business—content production—is managed via agile principles," says Slayter.
“The process by which our programming team interacts with project managers has changed significantly over the last few years," Weinberg explains. “We have bigger clients now, and they have expectations around fast responsiveness, so we evaluate this process often and make adjustments to ensure it still makes sense for our teams and customers."
Business owners who want to become more agile should take a few initial steps to move in that direction.
“Start with an internal project that's been stuck for a while," Slayter recommends. “Map out a loose plan to achieve the desired outcome, identifying incremental milestones along the way and designing ways to test your assumptions as you move along."
You might also communicate to your team the role innovation and experimentation has in an agile culture, and emphasize that you don't expect perfect processes from the get-go.
“For people to feel confident in suggesting new ideas and pivoting quickly, they need to know they won't get fired if an initiative doesn't work immediately," says Weinberg.
“Rather, your people should get used to being judged on how effectively they can assess efficacy and modify a process."