Can Scrum work for creative teams?
That was the question I was asked at the end of 2019. And from 2019 to 2021, I coached the creative department of a large global non-profit to implement agile project management across their creative department.
It was a fun, challenging and rewarding journey. I've logged my experience here to extend my learning and share it with those on a similar journey. This guide is part story because Scrum is lived out with real people doing real work, and thus the context is important. The guide is also part principle summarizing the key takeaways from experience.
Discover what it looks like to apply the principles of Scrum to creative processes like graphic design, videography and web design.
The process began with research to understand the nature of the problems we needed to solve. It moved into defining initial solutions and adapting them to the nuances of our organization. Then finally came the rollout process and ongoing operationalization.
One of the things I love about the agile approach is that you don't have to get it perfect the first time. We saw that play out multiple times throughout the design process itself. We'd start solving the process, get feedback, adjust our goals and approach, and repeat.
The team continues to make adjustments seeing the fruit of increased clarity in priorities and expectations, a healthier and more collaborative design environment, and greater effectiveness in our production capacity and processes.
So let’s begin the journey.
The story will flow mostly chronologically through my experience while highlighting key themes and insights along the way. Here’s the storyline.
Every good story doesn’t begin where you think it does. There are backstories to Scrum, me and the organization I was working with. Understanding these was critical to navigating the unknowns of implementations and adaptation.
If you’re thinking about or currently trying to bring an agile approach to creative work, take time to learn the story that got you there.
If you're like me and you love problem-solving, it's so tempting to jump straight into finding solutions. But often, we must slow down and, before finding solutions, find problems.
This was true in my creative Scrum journey as well. I had an intuitive sense of where the problems likely were, but I knew working the research process would bring clarity, deeper understanding and shared awareness across the team.
Most of my research came in the form of interviews, which was a lot of work but rich with qualitative data. The heavy lifting came more in facilitating the synthesis and socialization of that data with the team.
You can read more about the process in the post.
If you’re going to lead a team or organization through an agile transformation, by definition, you won’t know the whole journey or the exact path you’ll take when you start.
But it's vital to have a shared vision of the destination.
Outcomes serve as the description of the destination you intend to arrive at. The description is concrete and specific, with a texture you can feel. When someone describes the outcome, and you can close your eyes and see it, you have a well-defined outcome.
I facilitated the leadership team to draft this vision of the future.
A year from now… Creatives will be working together in collaborative teams. Their leaders have clarity about what their team is working on and how to help them further develop their creative skills. The team is internally motivated and owns getting its work done. Stakeholders across our organization feel like we're part of their team and would describe us as a joy to work with. We're not just producing creative designs, but we're collaborating with others to solve problems. As a group, we are agile enough to respond to changing priorities and the needs and realities of our creative teams.
You can read more about how we took this vision and broke it down into clear outcomes that would guide us through the process.
If you're going to run Creative Scrum in your organization, you're going to need alignment from a wide variety of people. Two key steps in this part of the journey are:
The tunnel of chaos is the point in a process when you’re unsure which way to go or what to do, you can’t yet see the end, and you can no longer see the beginning.
People have different paces and processes for change. Be observant of how people are responding. Implementing Creative Scrum likely means lots of change. Hang in there. It's worth it.
Here are two strategies that proved effective for our team.
Both of these felt slow but were essential to bringing everyone together.
There may be some precarious moments and facilitation challenges, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
The agile manifesto leads out with, “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” Building agile teams is centered around people, and people have stories. If you’re going to lead effectively, you must take time to learn those stories.
Leaders who can take an empathetic approach will be at a major advantage. Empathy involves a posture that seeks to understand and honor the experience of another person. It involves looking deeper than just what we see on the surface.
But when we have empathy, it changes our mindsets as leaders. When someone makes a mistake or does something that would normally upset you, you can respond with compassion rather than react with frustration.
Whether you’re new to a team or you’ve been there a while, take time to learn or reflect on the backstories that brought you to where you are today. Let that understanding empower your leadership with empathy.
People don’t operate in isolation. They are part of a more extensive system. And systems are usually more complex than we initially perceive. I want to reiterate some important considerations to make if you are designing multi-team systems:
It’s popular when designing products to relentlessly focus on the customer. There’s a good reason for this. They are who you are trying to solve problems for and deliver value to.
Systems, however, are composed of people and interactions. When we narrow our focus to one set of people, we risk truncating the “customer base.”
When designing creative Scrum, I had to take into consideration the clients, the stakeholders, the partners, the creative teams, and the leadership. Each group wasn’t just a key customer. If I ignored any of them, I wouldn’t lose a portion of the system; I’d lose the whole thing.
This is a lesson I learned the hard way from years of designing in-person experiences and taking a nearly exclusive focus on the guests while marginalizing the hosts.
I’m trying to stay off the soapbox, but I really don’t like the term user. It's a very transactional and flat representation of a person.
You may be an outside consultant, but you'll likely be around for a while. Make a long-term investment in building relationships as you go through the process. The trust and empathy will actually pay off in both the short and long term.
Take the time to allow the team to own the process and learn to become a self-organizing team. It will feel inefficient at first but look at ownership as a long-term investment.
Self-organizing teams are an essential concept in Scrum, and it was a non-negotiable in creative scrum. We needed our teams to experience both agency and accountability to be at their best.
When they began to realize they had the freedom to decide how to reach the outcomes and were going to be held accountable for whether or not they reached them, you could feel the shift.
They began to own the process, own the product, and own their professional development.
The leadership was initially nervous about giving away more control, but the paradox is that when you give away this kind of control, you do much less pushing and much more guiding.
Life has natural cadences: days, weeks, months, seasons… We are designed to live in rhythm, which is why the rhythm and cadence of agile approaches like Scrum help teams get and stay in sync.
Two vital fruits of rhythm include
While some people can be resistant to change, more often than not, they want things to be better. Just taking the time to understand their struggles and goals goes a long way. People want to be heard and understood, and they can tell when you’re listening to understand and help.
Once you understand where people are coming from, identify how you can help them reach their goals or resolve their pain points. Describe the better future you want to work toward together.
Now take all these descriptions of a better future and collect them into a single list. As the list grows, you’ll find many benefits applicable to more than one audience.
This list is your success bucket. Before attending a meeting or drafting communication, review your success bucket and look for a better future you can call people to.
Buy-in takes both time and patience. People are different when it comes to change. Some welcome it, some fight against it, and some proceed with cautious optimism.
We had a lot of meetings. Just listening to most meetings, you could tell who was catching on and who was missing it.
We had a lot of meetings. Early in the process, our descriptions of the process were general, with few Scrum terms. I created a glossary of Scrum terms so people could use it as a cheat sheet. As team members became more familiar with Scrum, the descriptions could be more technical and specific.
You need to help people see it. Draw out how the process will work or script out how a Scrum event will go. I kept a slide deck presentation that changed countless times to help fill in new gaps of understanding.
There will be challenging points when you make a significant change or build something new. But hang it there. It’s worth the effort and endurance.
Perhaps you have heard about Scrum but are not exactly sure what it is. Or maybe you know some about it but are not sure how to apply it, especially outside a software development context.
Everyday Scrum is a guide exploring and explaining the key elements of Scrum for everyday people. You can learn the essentials of Scrum so you're ready to go deeper with Creative Scrum.