Now Run! – Starting an Agile Marketing Sprint

Posted 12/5/2015 3:28 PM by Jeff Julian

The most exciting event on an Agile Marketing team is the first day of a Sprint.  Well, at least for me it is. 

There is a brand new board waiting to be used, a team with fresh ideas and a clean slate, and a Content Owner ready to see a new batch of content ideas on order.

In fact, there are very few things can bring me down on the first day of a Sprint.  But that doesn’t mean it is easy.

Selecting the Right Tasks to Begin

When you kick off the Sprint, the christening event is the Standup Meeting.  Named by the action the team takes, they are invited daily to stand up and report their status to each other and the ScrumMaster.  Since the only status we will have on day one is what we are going to work on, the meeting should go pretty fast. 

But how do you pick the first tasks?  Here are some examples of the criteria I look at when selecting the first or next task to work on:

  • Looking down the chain – First you have to get the ladder before you can clean the gutters.  You might even need to get a water hose and a long broom to help you out before you get the ladder.  Several tasks in content development are based on a series of steps.  When you have a step that must occur before another piece of work can begin, make sure you review the estimate for the initial task along with the estimates for the remaining work.  Knock out as many tasks that are blocking others from being worked on at the beginning of the Sprint to ensure you have ample time to put all the pieces together.
  • Know what you are good at – I always tell my agile students that they will have a major, a minor, and some core talents they possess.  Core talents should be across the entire team so leave these tasks on the board for the days when it is hard to find something else to work on.  Minor talents are areas you are getting better at, but have a slight edge over the others.  Maybe that edge is the amount of resources you have gathered during research, connections to friends, or just more completed work under your belt.  Then you have your major talents.  These are the skillsets you are the best, or one of the best, on your team when it comes to this type of work.  Everyone needs one major, a few minors, and several core talents on a team of Content Developers.  What’s yours?
  • Collaborative tasks – Being on a team means we need to do work together.  When possible, if there are tasks you need to work with someone on, it is best to get those accomplished in the first few days of the Sprint.  Your schedules will most likely align and the pressure to get done has not set in on the minds of the team.  “Let’s try that next time” will be thrown out over and over if you wait until the last minute due to the urgency.
  • What looks like a challenge – If something looks like it might be challenging or we just were not that sure about an estimate, this might be the perfect task to take on.  The Sprint is all about being an honest view of your remaining work.  The team should make sure all unknowns are known as quick as possible to help us determine the schedule we need moving forward.  Take some time at the beginning to get those question marks converted to periods or exclamation points.

Keeping Up with The Estimates

Each day you work on a task, you are moving items from Open to In Process, then In Process to Complete.  Sometimes we were right on the money and other times we are high or low. 

If we see a pattern on either spectrum for a type of task, we need the ScrumMaster to document this for our conversation during the Retrospective Meeting.  If the change is significant enough, it may require us to revisit some of the estimates we have on the Content Backlog.

To keep track of these numbers, you have a few options, and the way you capture information matters.  However, there is a universal rule I follow for my teams when it comes to updating estimates: If the task is left in the In Process column for more than one day, we need to update the estimate based on what we think it will take to finish and not how much time is left after I subtract my actual hours.  The team going home, getting rest and clearing their mind, then returning the next day is a powerful event when it comes to understanding what is left.

With a paper tracking system, you can use two marker colors.  One to capture the actual time spent on a task and the other to capture the original estimate and the updated estimate.

In a digital tracking system, you can typically track actual time and estimated time together on the same tasks.  Platforms like JIRA have add-on plugins that will make this easier if you invoice or compute internal time associated with project cost.  At AJi, we currently use the Tempo plugins for time entry and planning inside of JIRA.

Don’t Dismiss the Hidden Values of the Standup

Do we really have to gather every day?  Why can’t we just update the cards on our own when we go home? This seems like a waste of time. Can we stop doing the Standups?

I have heard this cry over and over, year after year from developers about wanting to end the Standup Meeting.

This will never happen while I’m part of the team but if we gave the developers their way it wouldn’t be long before they will be singing a different tune. I don’t know what is taking him so long? I can’t get my work down because Bob in accounting keeps bugging me! I don’t know what it took me 24 hours instead of the 8 I estimated. And my favorite, I didn’t know what to do next so I just worked on something else. 

Are you kidding me?!?!?! Yes, the Standup meeting is time consuming. Let’s look at the numbers.

If your team makes an average of $30/hr (roughly $60,000/yr) and the overhead for desk, machines, space, and other cost are about $15/hr for that developer, then 20 minutes for a standup and the time associated with getting up and getting back to work will cost you $10/day per resource.  If we have a team of 5 working on a Sprint for 3 weeks, then you have cost of $750 (10 * 5 * 15) per Sprint for Standup meetings. 

Sure, we all would like another $750 in our pocket, but in the grand scheme of a business, this is not a significant amount of money.  If fact, think about those 6-figure managers who go to 3 hour-long meetings a day.  Those meetings cost over $350 per day for each resource at that level. 

The killer app would be a cost calculator that once the meeting gets over the $250/hour mark, the table automatically lifts and requires the team to stand.  Standing almost always cuts the fluff and gets to the point.  Plus, your executives start to become pretty healthy over time.  But I digress.

But there are hidden benefits beyond status that are found in the Standup meeting.  Here are just a few:

  • Updated project status – Looking at some cards on a screen can be beneficial for seeing where the Sprint is, but for a developer, what is not documented on the board, but discussed in the meeting is where you learn most about the status.
  • Getting help – I am struggling with this task is one of the first responses you will hear when someone goes to report their status if the card doesn’t move.  It is hard for us to admit the need for assistance and I highly suggest teams set some guidelines to tap out and get assistance.  However, the Standup is typically that forced trigger when someone doesn’t want to admit it.
  • Getting your gold star – Face it, we all love appreciation and delivering work.  Most of the time Content Developers are not aware of the effectiveness of their work and how much value it has to the audience. If I build custom tables, I want to see the customer’s reaction to the table when it’s delivered to their house and hear stories of how it will be used.  When you don’t get that appreciation in the creative space, it can wear on you really quick. So go to the Standup, be proud of your work, and get the at-a-boy you deserve.
  • Public shame – Yes, I said it, public shame.  If we struggled, we just didn’t focus or dropped the ball on something, the shame that comes from admitting the failure is very powerful.  When it happens and you have to admit it in front of the team, you are refocused and make it a priority to not happen again.  If it happens day-after-day, you might be ready to excel somewhere else doing something else.

Remember the Next Sprint

Finally, as a ScrumMaster, your daily routine is beginning, but it is your job to clear the way for the next Sprint.  Here is a list of action items you have during the Sprint:

  1. Planning the next meetings – Don’t forget to get the Retrospective, Demonstration and Review, or the next Sprint Planning Meeting on the books if you haven’t already.
  2. Get out your brush and scissors – Make sure you plan some time to work with the Content Owner to groom the backlog.
  3. Definitions of Done – Start defining or revisit the quality controls we use to make sure a Content Item is complete based on the different types we work on.
  4. Prepare projections – Have some tools or reports ready for stakeholders and make sure they are delivered on a regular basis.  Typically, they are not asked for, but when delivered, they are reviewed.  An uninformed stakeholder is the last person you want asking you for an update.

Hey Content Owners, you’re not out of the woods either.  Here are your action items for the Sprint:

  1. You guessed it, groom that baby – Get in there and make the decisions about priority, what needs to be on the backlog, and what needs to go. 
  2. Survey says!  - Take some of the recent content you have created to a few personas and get their feedback.  Was it valuable?  What is it missing?  What do they want more of?
  3. Deliver status to your stakeholders – Just as I suggest to the ScrumMaster, work together to make sure you are providing relevant information about the internal metrics for the team and the external metrics of the content.

4.     Listen up! – Have a new product launching or in development, another successful project, customer complaint, or any other event that could change a priority of your content based on the work of other departments?  If the answer is yes, make sure you make it a priority to go ask questions and listen to those departments.

Up Next…

In my next post in this series I will talk about ending a Sprint.  We will discuss completing your work, demonstration, and retrospectives.  If you started with this post, make sure you check out the other post in this series:

  1. Put On Your Game Face - The Basics of Sprint Planning
  2. Some Assembly Required - The Tools
  3. Content Developers, Cross-Functional Teams, and Commitment
  4. Breaking Down The Tasks
  5. This Post - Go Run! Starting a Sprint
  6. How do I End My Sprints Well?
  7. What Do I Do When Things Go Wrong?!