Observe, orient, decide, act: how Articulate Marketing make agile and traffic plannning work
Plans are irrelevant but planning is essential. Instead of trying to micro-manage people’s schedules and getting lost in multi-page Gannt charts, at Articulate, we take an agile approach with pair-writing. We work in weekly sprints and we have stand-up meetings each Monday to allocate work and set priorities. We track progress by measuring, sharing and celebrating deliveries to clients.
There. That’s everything you need to know about how we do traffic planning.
Naming of parts
But let’s unpack that paragraph fully so that you know what it means, how we do it and how to work well with us.
Here are the parts of our planning philosophy and some of the terms we use:
- Traffic. We use this word to mean the flow of work in the agency and how we manage it to get the right results to the right clients at the right time.
- Agile methodology. My background is in software development (back at Intelligent Games) and we also created our own online application (Turbine) so we’re inspired by Agile software development. For example, we aim for customer satisfaction by rapid delivery of useful content. We refactor our own processes regularly to adapt to changing circumstances. We put our faith in self-organising teams, face to face conversation and trusted, motivated individuals.
- Pair-writing. Writing is an essentially solitary activity but behind every great writer there’s a great editor and we try to capture that dynamic with pair writing, which in turn is inspired by the extreme programming movement. It means that there are two people assigned to each project and typically both are involved in interviews, research and then one writes while the other edits. Ego-less feedback produces better work.
- Sprints. How do you eat a whale? One mouthful at a time. It’s the same for large projects – better to break them down into smaller, bite-size chunks where you can deliver something valuable in a matter of days. We plan a week in advance; which is about as much forward thinking as most writers can cope with. After all, it’s easy to imagine what you’ll write tomorrow and the day after. This kind of intuitive day to day planning is better than management by deadline.
- Stand-up meetings. We borrowed this term from Pivotal Labs (one of our hero companies). While meetings are important for team communication we try to avoid having too many meetings or making them too long. We use these meetings to discuss the week ahead, availability, client issues, priorities and then the heart of the matter: what needs to be done and who is doing it. I tend to take the lead in allocating work based on previous experience with the subject matter or the client but also with an eye on employee development and future needs. Sometimes, it’s easier to let people pick the projects they prefer. It’s relatively informal.
- Delivery tracking. As we complete our assignments and send them to clients, the delivery is tracked in a big spreadsheet (with pivot tables and analytics) and also shared and celebrated on our Yammer site. We have a delivery checklist that also triggers invoicing and other follow-up activity if appropriate. Shipping work that clients love is what matters and we celebrate it. If a client gives us good feedback or we see the work in the wild, we also Yammer that.
- We are our own client. House projects, such as blog posts for Bad Language and Turbine, are included in our traffic planning alongside client work.
The tools we use
Basecamp is our primary tool for project management and collaboration. We have a ‘Traffic’ project where, each week, we capture the results of our stand up meeting in a discussion. This is available to everyone in the company. We create a new Basecamp project for each piece of work as it comes in and groups of tasks for the steps required to complete it. After the stand-up meeting, we’ll assign those tasks to different people as well. This is a snapshot of a typical writer’s assignments for a week:
We use Skype for video conferencing – now you can have up to 10-way calls free. Being able to see people while talking has made these calls more collegiate and friendly.
To report progress, we use Slack. It’s also free (although there’s a paid version with extra functionality). It’s like a private Facebook for your business and we really like it. Using Zapier, we automatically publish blog posts to Yammer and I manually update it to share other client deliveries.
How to work with our traffic planning process
I’ve written before about how clients and agencies can build great relationships and what to do at the start of a new one, but understanding our working process and rhythm can really help clients get the best work out of us. Here are a few tips:
- Timing. Give us your brief on or before Friday the previous week. That way we can plan it into the following week’s sprint in a very smooth, efficient way. It gets you to the top of the to-do list relative to last-minute pop-up tasks.
- Briefing. Give us a good brief so we can quantify it and plan it efficiently. Download our briefing checklist.
- Pop-up tasks. There’s always a little bit of scope for pop-up tasks – small, urgent projects that crop up without much notice. For example, we can defer some blog posts to make room. But there’s always a risk that we can’t do it and pop-up tasks tend to go to the bottom of the list of priorities in any case. So, if you can give us a few days to put it into next week’s sprint, that’s so much better.
- Delivery timing. We’ll usually have a good idea of when your task will be done after the Monday meeting and I’m often uncomfortable about committing before then. Now you know why!
- Learn to love Basecamp. It’s incredibly easy and its the way we prefer to track progress, discuss projects and share feedback. It will pay back the time you invest in it by giving you a clear view of exactly what’s going on with your project.
We’re aiming for a minimum-viable bureaucracy. This means having enough process to keep everything running smoothly but not so much that we can’t respond boldly to changing circumstances or new opportunities; even if it is just a ‘pop-up’ urgent task from a client on a Friday morning. Because it lets us do exactly this, our traffic planning process is at the heart of Articulate’s working practice.