Agile and the Broken Telephone Syndrome

March 3, 2017   |   Curt Schwab

An argument for cross-functional teams in a converging world.

Name one digital agency today that doesn’t profess to be Agile? But what does Agile really mean? The short answer is that it means many different things to many different people from as many different companies. As a methodology, Agile seems to have infiltrated every aspect of the web, mobile, and software development world. But, in our age of increasing convergence, what one might call a ‘mash-up’ reality, perhaps a new approach to how we work in Agile is required.

Let’s start by looking at how most agencies work. A clear majority of teams still work in silos: Strategy people have conversations with each other and the client; CX/UX focuses on user data and creating architecture and wires that solve engagement problems; Creative makes things beautiful; Developers and QA crank away at user stories in sprint increments, use collaboration tools like Jira and Pivotal tracker, and have daily standups and regular sprint planning meetings… and so on.

This is good, right? Actually, there’s a problem. Digital agencies work across numerous disciplines like strategy, UX/CX, design, development, integrated campaigns, ongoing application support, etc. Much of this activity is happening all at once, and there is nothing we can do about that. But, the convergence of data, UX, creative, development and marketing in the digital world is expanding and users are demanding all of it. This is why we need to employ all of these respective components throughout the effort, if a digital initiative is going to ultimately be successful.

Simply put, we can no longer work in silos. Small, cross-functional teams that work with clients as partners and users as a focus is the only clear path forward. It doesn’t matter if the work is technical in nature. UX, Creative and Marketing people need to be kept in the conversation because technology choices impact them. In fact, we would argue (quite emphatically) that for Agile to work, the entire cross-functional team needs to actively participate in Agile delivery in the same way developers have been doing for years.

Take the game ‘Telephone,’ (also known as ‘Broken Telephone’) as an analogy. In the game, one person whispers a message to another and the message gets passed on through a line of people until the last player announces the message to the entire group. More often than not, by the time the message has been passed all the way down the line, it has changed dramatically. Conversely, when silos are broken down and cross-functional experts are integrated, the line goes away. A cadence of short deliverables is established where everyone plays from the same sheet music. This approach reduces risk and saves time and money. There is no more tossing over the transom from one internal team to another; a lack of continuity that ends up creating a productivity gap. Ultimately, by bringing everyone together throughout the life of a project, knowledge transfer risk is reduced.

The Agile methodology already places ‘individuals and interactions over processes and tools;’ ‘working software over comprehensive documentation;’ ‘customer collaboration over contract negotiation;’ and ‘responding to change over following a plan.’ Perhaps another pillar is needed, ‘cross-functional teams over silos.’

Bottom line, if you want Agile Delivery Methodology to improve your deliverables, and solidify client relationships and profitability, a new kind of agility is required. One that is cross-functional and flexible enough to make important shifts along the way.