once upon a time...

by Phil Jewitt

About 18 months ago I was invited to a meeting (and I have a history with meeting invites!) Just a little project to replace Leeds City Council’s intranet and website! There were over 20 people sat round a conference table. We all gave our names and roles and then I thought I heard someone say “and I’m the Scrum master”

“Course you are pal” I thought, “and I’m the Gate Keeper and this is Ghostbusters 4, now let’s crack on cos I’m a busy man”.

They went on – “Phil, what do you know about Scrum?” I paused, wondering if I’d come into the wrong meeting, perhaps even passed through the Stargate on my way in.

Turned out ‘Scrum’ is a type of ‘Agile’ working approach that is used in technical build projects. The process uses short ‘sprints’ of work that are tested and released and gradually build up to make the whole project. The 'Scrum master' is one of the key roles in managing the project.
They wanted me to explain this new Agile way of ‘scrums’, ‘stand ups’, ‘impediments’ and ‘sprints’, 'product owners' and ‘retrospectives’  to ‘the business’

I then suggested that the whole world and his dog might not need to understand it or even know about it.........tumbleweed moment!

So this is where my analogy toolbox came out to retrieve the situation otherwise the project team would think I might not be the man for the business engagement gig. Now this toolkit gets a lot of outings, as I’m a story teller and sometimes things need converting into real money for people to understand.
I picked out the one about the swan gracefully swimming across a lake. What you see above the water is the elegant movement, what goes on under the water might not be seen but is no less important. I explained that sometimes you don’t always need to see or understand things to participate. The outcome we needed was to engage people with the project rather than blowing their brains. And let’s face it, IT project comms often result in ‘grey matter splatter’. Fact.

Introducing a new production methodology for probably the biggest project we have undertaken for a long while could have been construed as nuts. So big credit to our IT management team for running with it, but even bigger credit for recognising they needed help with the engagement side.

Those in the development team embraced the new Agile approach and meet every morning at 9.30am for the scrum stand up meeting where they explain what they achieved yesterday, what they will attempt today, who they need to work with and what impediments (anything that stands in the way of the team's productivity) the scrum master needs to take away and delegate to ‘be removed’. Fortnightly sprint and management planning and retrospective meetings keep things real.

Those of us in what I call the ‘support team’, (business change and engagement) have had to act as the transmission between the development team and the business part of our organisation. Capturing requirements for build and testing various iterations and currently organising new content capture and identifying and training publishers.

My specific role was to get the rest of the business to ‘plug in’ at the times it needed to. In effect, the feeding and caring for the ugly duckling before it could become the swan.

18 months down the road we have a few weeks left until launch. It would be fair to say there is a smattering of organised panic. In introducing a new methodology there have been lessons learnt along the way - eggs and omelettes etc. If we had started a swear box at the outset, it would have been filled and I would be a fair few quid down. But there is a lot to be proud of too. And for me, oddly it may seem, this is not all about the products. They will be there for all to see and judge and will be the foundation for further online transactional services and staff engagement.

For me, this has been about how it has been done. How we have broken down organisational barriers, worked together (buzz word – collaboration) and delivered what needed to be communicated to those who needed to know (okay, so comms bread and butter!) – but the trick in this project was to hold back on providing too much technical detail at the times we needed input. To capture people’s imagination, we created various analogies. We talked about pancakes and Yorkshire puddings (similar ingredients, different product – aka web and intranet). We talked about ingredients for a meal (web content types) and use of fridges, freezers, larders, cupboards (libraries and term stores) and there were some rugby analogies too.

And I’ll admit I have been tongue in cheek re the Agile terminology and I’ve pushed the creative boundaries with the analogies. But I think people have engaged rather than switched off.

The project has started to get attention from other teams and managers in the organisation, looking at how Agile principles might be used in areas perhaps not technical or software related. But most importantly, I think we are gaining the trust of people who perhaps in the past have not trusted in house project teams to deliver something worthwhile.

In Agile PR, more of us need to be the ‘Story teller’, to prove our worth and add value to the projects we work on.

Phil Jewitt is senior communications manager, strategy and resource, at Leeds City Council

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