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Beyond the organogram – The rise of agile in charity marketing and comms

12 February 2021

Whether they were building team structures around it, wanting to adopt some of its practices, or simply curious about it, ‘agile’ is a word we heard a lot in our interviews with comms leaders around team structure and culture.

Having spoken to comms leaders already working with an agile methodology and experts in the field here’s a short introduction to this way of working to help you get started…

Agile – what is it?

Agile is a framework that puts audiences at the centre of communications and organisational development. It’s flexible enough to handle quick pivots in strategy, direction and output.  And it is thought to be particularly effective in breaking down silos and promoting cross-functional working. 

Familiar with practices like daily stand ups, task/scrum boards and user stories?  All of these originate from the agile methodology. But agile working is not just about specific practices.  It places huge importance on the ‘agile mindset’ which is guided by certain principles. 

How does it work?  Some agile principles:

  • Adaptive planning
    Core, cross-functional groups are formed (often called ‘scrums’) and they set objectives, metrics and a timescale (normally no more than 12 weeks). Instead of making, and sticking rigidly to, a delivery plan, the expectation is that things will adapt and change over the course of the project.
  • Iterative development
    Work is developed incrementally in short, successive cycles.  The goal is that every few weeks a new output, or portion of an output, is produced. Instead of being overwhelmed by the end objective, groups are encouraged to break the work into small, manageable tasks and focus on a few at a time. 
  • Continuous testing, communication and collaboration
    The group has frequent, brief, updates (this is where stand up meetings feature). Outputs are tested throughout the process and learning fed back into development, so the improvement process is ongoing. There are transparent and regular communications both with target audiences and within the group. 
  • Trust and autonomy
    A group should have all the cross-functional skills it needs to operate as an autonomous unit. Project groups have, within agreed parameters, the ability to take decisions without lengthy, internal sign off processes.
  • Learning and reflection
    At the end of the development cycle, there’s time allotted for analysis and reflection. Risk is an inherent part of marketing and comms outputs – not everything lands well or flies.  The principle of test and learn, rather than seeing what doesn’t work as failure, is fundamental to agile.

Potential benefits of agile working

The Children’s Society has been applying agile working in recent years. Joe Jenkins, Executive Director of Engagement and Income Generation, sees it as key to his goal of being able to encourage work across functions and respond rapidly to opportunities: “When the mindset and behaviours have fallen into place, we’ve delivered some of our best work,” he says. “Proving that we can be more than the sum of our parts when we unleash the potential of our staff to join forces.”

Having run a number of pilots over the last couple of years, Prostate Cancer UK has decided to embed ‘agile’ throughout the charity and the aim is for the majority of staff to understand and be using the principles by the end of 2021. Ali Day, Director of Communications, explains: “We’ve been using design sprints to get to a minimum viable digital product within just five days, which enables us to get out to testing much more quickly than in the past. During the pandemic, this has enabled us to quickly deploy new types of online fundraising events and to keep pace with the rapid digital adoption we’ve seen among our most important audiences.”

Any pitfalls?

The common view is that certain things have to be in place for agile to work. 

“You don’t have to have all the metrics and KPIs in the world, but you do need to clearly set the objectives of an initiative and the metrics to determine success, capture the relevant data, measure it and adjust your approach,” says Kristofer Gravning at Aleron, a strategy consultancy that has worked with The Children’s Society among other organisations.  “Making development decisions based on data-driven evidence rather than subjective or individual experience is a core principle of agile.”

A leadership culture that is comfortable with exploring greater autonomy and decision making at every level, within clear parameters, is also key.  If agile working is rolled out at an organisational level, your workforce will need training, continual communication and support to embed the practice – not everyone will respond immediately to this style of working.

And Kristopher Gravning cautions that scrum groups require adequate resource: “Best practice is for core members of the group to have 50% of their time allocated to it for the allotted time period (max 12 weeks). If you don’t resource it properly, the problem is that it becomes an add on – team members are not released from their day-to-day tasks and the agile project becomes a burden not a release.”

Simple ways to start

  • Daily stand ups – regular, brief check-ins allow teams to share what they are working on and flag any roadblocks or synergies. Keep it tight. Take follow up conversations outside the stand up.
  • Data not opinions – no matter how limited or basic your access to data is, use it. Identify which metrics you have to measure response to outputs, check them regularly, and adapt your approach accordingly.
  • Collective review and learning – carve out time and approach reviews in a spirit of collaboration and curiosity.  Ask – What went well?  What could have gone better?  What could make things even better next time?

“Whether your entire organisation is embracing agile or if you’re the lone team that recognises the potential, you can make progress today – by being prepared to test, learn, and test and learn some more!” says Joe Jenkins.

This is the final blog in the Beyond the Organogram series which looks at comms team culture and structure. Check out instalments #1#2#3 and #4 here.

Photo: Boba Jaglicic on Unsplash

Selina Fox

director, RandallFox

Selina Fox is a director and co-founder of RandallFox. RandallFox specialises in strategic comms support for charities with the goal of helping teams develop greater clarity, focus and direction so that they can make more of an impact. Services provided by RandallFox include supporting team development and structure; strategic planning; audience focus, research and message development; facilitation and coaching. 

Contributors

Thank you to the following for sharing their experience and expertise and helping to shape the ‘Beyond the Organogram’ blog series: Caroline Bernard, Head of Policy and Communications, Homeless Link; Annabel Davis, Head of Communications and Marketing, Mind; Ali Day, Director of Communications, Prostate Cancer UK; Lucy Devine, former Director of Communications for a national equality charity; Daniel Fluskey, Head of Policy and Research, Chartered Institute of Fundraising; Joe Jenkins, Director of Supporter Impact and Income, The Children’s Society; Felicity Lowes, Head of Health and Social Care, Ellwood Atfield; Matt Horwood, Director of Communications and Campaigns, akt; Laura Mason, Head of Marketing and Communications, The London Wildlife Trust; Dan Metcalfe, Head of Brand and Communication Campaigns, Wellcome Trust; Kate Nightingale, Head of Marketing and Communications, Crisis; Annabel Prideaux, Practice Lead (third sector), Taylor Bennett; Claudine Snape, Deputy Director: Communications; The National Deaf Children’s Society; Kristopher Gravning, Manager, Aleron; plus contributors who wished to remain anonymous.