Can an agile approach to communication management and practice help in a VUCA world?

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Sounds about right. I’ll be honest, I’d never heard the term VUCA before until it was mentioned in one of our IC Beyond conversations. And whilst I had worked for 9 years in an agile way, I didn’t have a name for this way of working. It was simply how we got things done, dealing with ambiguity and adapting to constant change. 

Having spoken to a lot of people and witnessed a lot of conversations in the IC world in 2020, I realised this way of working can give IC what it needs to thrive right now and be who the business needs us to be. 

Last week Belinda Gannaway talked about design thinking for communicators and how this will be supported by a more agile approach to communications and business. She set me up perfectly to dig into agile for IC.

So, what’s Agile?

It is used a lot in the world of project management, engineering, software development and start ups. In one simple image it is this. (toolsqa.com)

Agile vs Traditional. Agile = customer collaboration+responding to change+working solutions+highest business value in the shortest time

A quick google search throws up methodologies showing the 12 stages of agile development. And even as I write this in Gdocs, the software is telling me that the word that should follow ‘agile’ is ‘development’. It’s in its DNA.

And for those who love details, here’s the 12 steps looking pretty. (toolsqa.com)

12 steps of agile methodology: customer satisfaction through early and continuous delivery, welcoming change requirements, frequently delivered software, work together, trust and support, face to face conversations, working software,  sustainable development, continuous attention, simplicity, self organising teams, reflect and adjust

For some this may be new. Some of these steps might sound pretty radical – self-organising teams, changing requirements even late into development – sounds like late nights and last minute crazy. It doesn’t have to be.

Let’s break down how this can be a really helpful framework for IC using those 4 principles from the first image and explore how this can support IC’s ability to adapt, be flexible, deal with ambiguity and navigate the next phases post-Covid hurls our way.

1. Customer collaboration vs contract negotiation

Strong business partnering to fully understand customer needs and goals is non negotiable. It’s never too late to dig in here because partnership and relationships are your foundation. Relationships allow you to understand, ask questions, stay in sync and course correct when necessary. They help partners come on your ideas journey with you and for you to benefit from knowing about potential changes as early as possible. 

Not got regular meetings with partners? Get some in the diary fast. Get invited to their weekly team meeting, get some 121 time with the decision makers and key people who’ll help you find out what you need to know to do your job well. Don’t wait for people to come to you, be proactive and get out there, virtually. Virtual makes it a bit harder but the dividends this investment makes is your foundations is what everything else is built on. Make them strong, Make them solid. Make them built to last. 

2. Responding to change vs Following a plan

As a natural planner, I initially balk at this but wait, traditional project management methods can be onerous and time consuming— changes logs and a focus on ticking boxes and filling in forms don’t support a need for nimble and moving at speed. I find that having developed great relationships with partners you can be open and tell them what you need so you can successfully contribute to the success of their project. This means you find out about changes early enough to tweak and amend. See also this article from HBR: Planning Doesn’t Have to Be the Enemy of Agile.

It does mean you have to let go of perfect. Nothing will ever be perfect, accept it and move on. It also means you have to let go of a static comms plan which is where a solid strategy is vital. I once had 18 versions of a Comms plan for one single project but, each version of the plan still supported the one comms strategy I had agreed with the project lead and stakeholders. We had amazing ideas that were dropped as changes late in the game left us with no other choice. So for those thinking – nope this sounds too hard, here’s a great way to reframe it. 

Understand the business objective clearly, create a solid strategy to support and then plan for 80% fixed and reserve energy for 20% changes. If the foundations you build your plan on are solid you will be fine with the 80/20 rule. It works, I’ve done it.

If the business objective changes, that’s different and, sorry your strategy may need to change. BUT if you have strong relationships you can weather this together with your partners, as you are a team.

3. Working solutions vs Documentation

We’ve all seen this happen with our phones and tablets and TVs and frankly any tech we use daily. You can do the same in IC. 

I talked about it in my article Low Res, High Impact. You don’t have to wait for everything to be ready, perfect and fully documented before you can release a series of small impactful solutions and actually have a bigger impact on your audience. Also this can mean leaning more into less formal channels and this compliments the move away from big set piece conference style formal content.

It is where user generated content and citizen journalism etc come into play. It’s what is happening now with leaders self-recording from their homes, doing lives. It often leads to more authentic, genuine and real content which is exactly what people are craving right now. 

Think about how this can liberate you and have you and your team punching above your weight. This will also be a very helpful strategy as budgets come under scrutiny in the coming months and year. 

4. Highest business value in the shortest time vs Deferred value via longer delivery time

Ferris Bueller said it best, “Life moves pretty fast”. I come from an industry that moved fast, was swathed in ambiguity and was obsessed with looking for ways to improve the employee experience to improve the customer experience. IC played a huge part in that. If you listen to your people, use Design Thinking techniques to collaborate and create solutions together you can achieve this high impact, high value nirvana faster than working away in a silo on something that may be fully documented yet miss the mark completely. 

There’s more to it than that.

Agile can mean more than this though. I’ve just finished reading Do Agile, one of the newest titles from the DoBooks Co. 

The author, Tim Drake, argues that working on a few simple things can help you stay agile to better face today’s challenges. His smart tips are:

  • Operate from a growth mindset
  • Be open
  • Have a positive attitude
  • Ground yourself in sound principles

For those who were at the Simply IC conference last week, I think an agile approach responds perfectly to some of the challenges Sir Martin Sorrell gave in his keynote speech. One of his main points was a removal of barriers that he perceived IC create.

In my former life, we couldn’t have communicated product launches and big commercial moments, often with a lot less notice than you’d think, if we hadn’t embraced an agile approach. 

To be agile, IC needs to develop strong relationships, cultivate trust and be unconstrained by weighty sign off processes that tend to create the barriers I think Sir Martin was alluding to. Maybe he could help IC break down those barriers. His support would be invaluable in helping us adopt agile. 

COMMENTS FROM IC BEYOND

Belinda: Such a great read Jan. I agree that agile and design thinking go hand in hand. I love your really practical 80/20 rule. Agile is one of those terms that gets bandied about and while there are the evangelists, there are also the scared, as well as the misinformed who think it’s just about moving quick. There’s definitely a task to demystify and clear up some of the inaccuracies around agile. There’s something very tangible in your way of working that will help people see how to get started. 

IC teams have no choice but to be agile if they’re going to be able to support the organisation. And to be agile they need the right raw ingredients – information. Functions are working differently, goals have changed, leaders and managers are communicating differently with their teams. As you say, it’s so important for comms people to dig deeper to understand what’s changing. The biggest mistake comms can make right now is not asking enough questions. 

***

JH: 100% agree Belinda. It’s all about the relationships. If they are securely established and strong then IC can build an agile approach on solid foundations. Without them it’s very hard for IC to get the information they need to provide the support the business wants and needs. 

And we should never be afraid to ask questions. In my view there isn’t such a thing as too many questions of a daft question. If I have a question, then the audience will have that question too. Gaps or a lack of clarity lead to questioning, leads quickly to a lack of trust. The worst case scenario for IC.

***

Kevin: I remember when agile development was introduced in BT’s IT division fifteen years ago. It was revolutionary. 4000 IT projects reduced to 40 in a year with all the agile manifesto principles adopted. This included hothousing which worked really well – most of the time. There’s absolutely no reason why it cannot be adapted for internal communication planning. Betteke van Ruler has done some great academic work on how agile can be used in communication management. I think we can definitely use agile thinking much more in change management communication. That said, I also think that more traditional planning approaches still have a place for longer term planning.

***

JH: I hadn’t read this research, thanks for sharing it Kevin. I think there is space for both long term planning where the business model supports that, and agile ways of working that support speed of change and iterative approaches to business. 

I think in this current VUCA world, agile is definitely the way to go. 

And I’ve just found an article in HBR that talks about this very thing which is handy. I’ve linked in the main piece for ease too.

***

Mike: Thank you for making “agile” so accessible.  

Overall, such an approach is sensible and actionable, and challenges some of the in-built preferences of many IC folk (perfectionism, anyone?) in a constructive, non-personalized sort of way.

My main question is whether “agile” is agile enough. Is there too much process, are there too many steps, does it impose a process fundamentalism on practitioners who can already bring pace, business acumen, keen political antennae and initiative to the party? Must agile be an all-the-time approach, or can it be a default option for which exceptions can be made?

***

JH: Great questions as always Mike! I think as with all models, you take what works for you and leave the rest. You’ll note I didn’t go into an IC analysis of the 12 steps as that just seems to be replacing one onerous process with another. 

For me this is about the 4 principles that can be adapted for IC and how we can test them out and see what works and what doesn’t. 

It’s being agile about agile.

***

Trudy: Great article Janet. You mention having to ‘let go of perfect’ I can imagine many IC practitioners will have a challenge with this one. Although it contributes to the speed at which we operate that is sometimes criticised by some areas of the business. 

I love the idea of liberation and enabling the ability to punch above their weight – something that would be hugely beneficial.

I can only reiterate how important relationships are and how building this in an agile framework will have a big impact on the ability to deliver quality and at pace. It will be interesting to see how many step up and embrace an agile approach and keep it going. I believe it is something that can evolve if the principles are adapted consistently as it will take a bit of getting used to. Most important is the intention to change and work smarter during this time. 

***

JH: Thanks Trudy. I struggle to let go of perfect all the time but unless you want to go slightly mad, you have to. This doesn’t mean you’re winging it, not at all. It means you have a strong and solid foundational strategy that allows you to be flexible in the deliverables. And no ideas are ever wasted, I keep them for later projects and campaigns, you never know when they might be the perfect fit. 

I hope IC adopts this as a way of working as I really believe it offers so many positives and opportunities to drive our profession forward. 

***

Adam: Thanks for this, Janet! I agree – Belinda set you up very well. I also couldn’t have imagined a better follow up to my own comment on her article! 

One thing I think it’s worth considering is how IC teams can operate in an agile way when their organizations might not be willing to do likewise. Are there limits to how far IC can push this approach? We can talk about an agile approach to communication planning and management all we want, and maybe even employ it to a certain extent, but what happens when that bumps up against a world seemingly hostile to agile? For example – a world in which intranets must be launched fully baked rather than as prototypes or where all executive messaging must be vetted and approved rather than delivered as raw, real-time responses to employees’ questions and concerns? Furthermore, are we as IC professionals prepared to sell an agile approach to our organizations? Are we equipped to do so? 

Finally, I agree fully on the exchange you and Belinda had above on not asking enough questions being the biggest mistake comms can make right now. But I’d push that further and say that not having a plan, venue, or platform to get those questions acknowledged and addressed is just as big of a mistake.

***

JH: Great comments Adam. And yes, your comments did set this up beautifully, thanks! Some of the points you raise are definitely worth another article for the group to ideate. That could be a fun discussion.

No man is an island as the saying goes and no function can be an island in an organisation but that doesn’t want to adopt an agile approach but I believe strong relationship management, a phased approach to implementation (where appropriate), and a collaborative approach to comms can all be adopted even if the business doesn’t want to go all in on agile.

I think we’ll see an increasing number of organisations considered “traditional’ adopting models based on agile to stay relevant and competitive as this style of approach is one that their people are used to in their day to day lives. A great example of a company doing this is BT in the UK who are continuing to modernise and adapt their ways of working to compete in the telecom, media and digital industries. 

As I commented to Mike, you can be agile with agile and take what will work in your current context and build.  

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