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Using agile principles to deliver a publishing project

In 2018, Amy was leading on the development of a brand new maths programme at a UK-based global education company. In this article, she explains how Oriel Square helped her use agile principles to develop, articulate and deploy new processes to deliver a key publishing project.

Project background

The new programme we were developing was going to have multiple print and digital components, and to ensure that the content we developed met customers’ needs, market research was to be embedded throughout the development process. My manager was interested in agile principles and at the beginning of the project and asked Oriel Square director Sam Derby to run a  series of workshops with the teams who would be responsible for delivery of the project. 

Developing new processes: training and workshops 

The workshop turned out to be instrumental in building the wider team’s trust and confidence in me.

An initial whole-day workshop with the editorial, design and marketing teams also included all managers, which turned out to be instrumental in building their trust and confidence in me to run the project autonomously. This session introduced how agile or lean principles – derived historically as much from manufacturing as from software development – can be used as the basis for the development of publishing processes regardless of whether you are publishing print or in digital formats. 

We then mapped out the workflows for the project, including approvals and, crucially, how we planned to keep the wider business informed on our progress. This was followed by a 1-day workshop with the editorial and design team to workshop how to take these agile principles and embed them in the project.

The final stage of training was a half-day one-on-one session in which I reflected on what we’d implemented as a team, what needed tweaking, and tools and strategies to develop long term planning (the backlog) and prioritisation. 

Deploying new processes: how I used agile principles to run a project successfully

Developing a culture of work ‘flow’ using two-week sprints

The first change was agreeing as a team on the work that needed to be completed in two-week blocks or sprints, breaking the work down into tasks and then sizing these tasks, so we had a clear idea of the steps and the time required. All the tasks were assigned to the team based on their capacity. 

The impact of this small change very quickly helped the team to use their time efficiently.

To help us organise work, we set up a KanBan board on Trello with three simple headings: Backlog, In Progress, Done. 

The impact of this small change very quickly helped the team to allocate time during the day to their tasks, and use the task sizing as a guide to help them to use their time efficiently. This process also helped them to develop their prioritisation skills used in daily stand-ups: the next step.

Daily communication and feedback

Very quickly the long to-do lists disappeared.

The second stage was introducing daily stand-ups so each person in the team gave an update on what they were focusing on for the day, tasks completed and any blockers delaying the completion of tasks. Very quickly the long to-do lists disappeared and were replaced with post-its restricted to three tasks only. Keeping these lists focused and achievable set the team up for success, and work began to flow, as tasks were clearly agreed at the start of the sprint and if there were any blockers, we used the stand-up to problem-solve these. This also reduced emails and became the main daily communication, as well as an opportunity to give feedback and reassurance to the team.

Sprint planning sessions

Planning work in six-week blocks helped to map out the synchronicity between different tasks happening during this period of time. We began by writing down known tasks on post-its (writing, design work, user testing) and then organising these on three large whiteboards. These tasks were then transferred onto the backlog so the direction of work was visible to everyone. Planning in shorter bursts was manageable. Regular retros of what went well, what went less well, and suggested improvements were embedded in the project. 

Communicating to the wider business

An impact of these demos was that it built confidence in the team.

At the very early stages of the progress, we instigated bi-monthly demos in which the team gave project updates. The demos were inclusive to anybody in the business but we actively encouraged the heads of sales, marketing and publishing to attend so they had an opportunity to be informed, and ask questions. An impact of these demos was that it built confidence in the team, it gave all team members an opportunity to share their work. It also provoked interesting discussions, and in the later stages once the project was launched.  It became a platform for sharing knowledge and best practice about subscriptions.

Evolving the approach

This approach is also used with a large team of freelance editors and writers on the project, with Trello used as the main channel of communication for content development. 

It takes time and effort to embed these principles, but the approach creates autonomous and empowered teams, and due to the daily stand-up and regular problem solving, it develops crucial skills such as prioritisation,  communication, self-management and an overview of the project’s big picture in ways that working in isolation would not provide.  

The approach creates autonomous and empowered teams.

One measure of its success was a comment made by the digital project manager during the project:

“I can’t believe how much work your team gets through. By using this approach, and developing key prioritisation and problem-solving skills, work will flow.” 

Digital project manager working with Amy

If you are interested in finding out more about how Oriel Square can help you develop and improve your publishing process through the application of agile principles and practices, get in touch with us here.