No matter what kind of project you’re managing, there’s a direct, causal relationship between process and outcome. In other words, it’s not just what you’re working on that matters but how you work on it.
Traditionally, the project management discipline has prized control and long-term forecasting over the particulars of work in progress. But considering 46 percent of all projects still fail to meet their original goals and intent, there’s a growing demand for real-time visibility into the movement of tasks and resources.
Visual project management is a new approach (and new technology) designed to address some of these challenges. By embracing it, teams and organizations can complete projects of any type with greater speed and efficiency.
What is Visual Project Management?
For the most part, visual PM is exactly what it sounds like: a project management strategy designed to increase success through visualization of project components, such as data and tasks. Mark Woeppel, the author of Visual Project Management, describes it like this:
“Visual Project Management is a process that uses visualization of the delivery process to drive team behaviors.”
Visual features can be a valuable asset for any project style, but they’re most commonly associated with agile methods such as Scrum and Kanban. In some ways, visual PM takes its cue from the good old-fashioned whiteboard. The whiteboard has served as a roadmap, progress tracker, and collaboration tool for all kinds of development teams.
But the history of visual PM is much older than the whiteboard.
The oldest roots date back to 1896, when Polish economist Karol Adamiecki created the “harmonogram” — a floating bar chart used to show tasks or resources changing across time. Not long after, in 1912, the famous Gantt Chart was born — used first to build ships during WWI and later to construct the Hoover Dam.
Adamiecki’s “harmonogram.” aom.org
Michael Dubakov, Founder and CEO of Targetprocess, says that visual PM started to crystalize around 2010 with the popularity of the Kanban approach. “One of the Kanban principles is to visualize workflow in order to better understand what is going on and what can be improved.”
Modern visual project management software is much more advanced, but its purpose is the same: to provide greater flexibility and improved outcomes through visibility into bottlenecks, tasks interdependencies, progress, and priorities. “In the recent 5 years we have seen a spread of visual tools like Kanban boards, timelines, and integrated BI systems with powerful reporting,” says Dubakov. In all kinds of industries (especially the IT world) visual project management is now helping teams stay in sync and respond to changing requirements.
In terms of actual methodology, many of the visual tools that have proven useful combine the best aspects of Kanban and lean production with the Scrum foundation that dev teams are used to. Some users have taken to calling this style “Scrum-ban.”
Common visual features include:
- Real-time dashboards
- Graphic reports (Gantt, burndown, etc.)
- Boards (Kanban)
- Product Roadmaps
The Changing Landscape
When fully embraced, visual project management can bring some dramatic improvements to the way teams collaborate and work. As modern software continues to evolve, more teams will adopt visual tools to improve their development lifecycles, over time raising the benchmark for an efficient project delivery process.
Let’s take a look at some of the specific ways visual tools can impact the future of project management. As your organization plans products and strategies for this year, try to pull some of these ideas into the conversation.
The Ability to Isolate Problem Areas Faster
As your teams work through various projects, there will inevitably be obstacles — things that slow the movement of tasks, stories, or feature requests during a sprint. Without the necessary visibility, it’s difficult for a project manager to troubleshoot delays or recurring problems.
A visual project management solution can make spotting and solving these “blockers” much easier. You get a real-time picture of where each component of a project rests, so you can quickly identify bottlenecks and trace issues to their source. For example, let’s say you notice that user stories are repeatedly getting “stuck” in the testing phase or re-entering a later sprint due to unsatisfactory completion. By visualizing the workflow, you can isolate the root cause and then communicate with the relevant team members to initiate change.
Better Resource Planning and Allocation
Resource and requirements planning is one of the most crucial components of any project: get it wrong, and you’ll have a project that gets delivered both late and over budget. There’s a little more leeway with agile projects (since work is done in short iterations), but decision-makers still need to stay responsive to changing requirements and be able to shift priorities or reassign team members when necessary.
The speed of change demands fast resource management. The right visual tools can help you tighten your development lifecycle by maximizing your use of resources—both in the planning phase and in continued optimization during the project. A visual resource planning feature, for example, shows where your team members are assigned and what tasks they’re working on. You can also drill down to assess individual skill sets and schedule availability.
More Projects Completed On-Time
One of the first principles of the Agile Manifesto is “. . . early and continuous delivery.” If your goals are built around this principle, it’s important to remove every possible impediment and give developers maximum visibility. Without the right tools, project information gets siloed into email threads, chat conversations, and spreadsheets, and team members have a hard time remembering who’s working on what. Ultimately, this leads to redundant efforts and a longer cycle time.
Visual PM can speed progress by conveying real-time project information in a way that is easier to access, understand, and share. It also makes it easier for team leaders to track work in progress and remove impediments before they delay the product. A Kanban board — which uses “cards” to move tasks through different stages of the project — is a perfect example of visual workflow optimization.
The Spread of Project Management Solutions
Finally, the growing popularity of visual features means that project management software itself will become easier to implement and easier to use for all team members. Even smaller companies with limited experience can set up a cloud-based visual PM solution in less than a day. That means small, agile teams can become even more agile without the overhead of a consulting service or an expensive, time-consuming implementation.
With agility at a maximum, project teams can improve the customer experience by running faster iterations with fewer bugs. Thus, visual PM tools create a more sustainable, scalable development model.
There is, of course, room to grow. Dubakov points to a general lack of research in the visual PM field. “To my knowledge, there are no people who understand both domains well enough in order to lead the visual management movement,” he says. In the coming years, we can hope to see additional research and innovation in some of the following areas:
- Using visual PM tools to aid decision-making
- Different visual approaches for different sub-domains
- Visualizations for planning, capacity management, tracking, and forecasting
- Process management and problem resolution
- Closer integration between visual PM and business intelligence tools
Visual project management isn’t some radical new approach that turns the discipline upside down. It’s just a set of tools and techniques that reinforce what we already know: people work and manage projects more efficiently when they’re “in the loop,” and when they have a clear picture of how project components move and interconnect. The best way to represent and share this information in real time is not with a list, or a spreadsheet, or a series of emails, but with a visual.
Aleks Peterson is the content manager at TechnologyAdvice, a B2B research firm that connects buyers and sellers of business technology.
It’s clear that the Agile Methodology is not restricted to software development teams. Countless organizations have improved their flexibility and delivery speed with an Agile mindset, and many have successfully scaled Agile through every department. Agile is already widely used in marketing, education, and even auto manufacturing.
If you’re a non-IT team that wants to adopt the Agile mindset, you will likely encounter some resistance to change. This is good. Criticism of Agile can help your application of its values to improve. To encourage non-IT teams to embrace Agile, you should first demonstrate the value that an Agile mindset can deliver.
Don’t prescribe; encourage
The Agile methodology has (unfortunately) been fairly well-saturated with buzzwords and prescriptive practices. As Dipanjan Munshi puts it, “The process whose manifesto declared ‘People over Processes’ has now became a standardized prescriptive process in itself.”
To avoid putting anyone off unduly, don’t introduce Agile as a set of prescriptive processes. Instead, frame it as a cultural practice and a mindset for approaching work. Note that a successful Agile culture will help to increase employee independence, trust, and personal responsibility. In a traditional environment, management ends up being responsible for both failures and successes. In an Agile environment, responsible individuals shoulder this responsibility.
It’s important for Agile transformations to happen more-or-less organically. Nobody wants to put up with another vague strategy change that’s been mandated by management. This is the the sort of thing that an Agile mindset is supposed to eliminate.
Don't transform; iterate
There are a lot of practices that have formed around Agile; introduce them iteratively, and you’ll be able to the avoid the culture-shock that has stagnated many transformations. To get started, research Scrum and Kanban. Try to understand which practices might work for you, and why:
Kanban - Kanban uses a board with cards that represent work items. As a work item progresses from idea to completion, it is moved forward through the board's swimlanes. It's great for helping teams adjust to frequently changing priorities. Setting WIP (work in progress) limits helps teams to reduce context switching and avoid getting bogged down by an ever-expanding scope of work.
Scrum - Scrum is great for organizing teams and for making continuous improvements to your work process using Retrospectives. It's fairly heavy on planning (compared to Kanban), and uses fixed iterations to help teams understand and improve their velocity. Most teams utilize a Scrum Master - an individual whose job it is to facilitate meetings, remove impediments, and generally help the team get their work done.
If you're aiming for a large scale shift to Agile, take extra care when planning change. Peter Merel, a long-time Agile consultant and founder of the XSCALE Alliance, advocates the use of steel-thread squads: A small number of progressive people adopt Agile practices and measure their metrics to prove the productivity benefits. The team then divides like a cell and spreads to other teams. This allows for a natural change that doesn’t disrupt the established organization. The transformation is iterative rather than sudden; Agile is adopted using Agile.
Bridge the gaps between software development and the domain of your teams
Some Agile coaches have noted that it is difficult to link the idea of “delivering working software” to other fields of work. Opposition tends to come in the form of rebuttals such as “We’re too quality-focused to adopt this practice.” This line of thinking comes from a lack of understanding about the core principles of Agile. Keep in mind that Agile does not mean sacrificing quality for speed. Rather, it means you should deliver the highest quality you can, without getting bogged down by process or bureaucracy.
The concept of developing “working software” can easily translate to any field. It simply means the first point where you can deliver real value to your customers. Define the variables of what "working software" and "end user" means to your team. Figure out what what could be considered as one of the basic building blocks of your final deliverable so that you can get feedback at an early stage.
You also shouldn't feel obligated to use the vernacular of Agile. It was created in an IT world, and might be irrelevant or confusing for your teams. Consider changing the terminology of your tool or process to reflect the vernacular your team already feels comfortable with. For example, a marketing team might rename Features as Campaigns, a sales team might rename User Stories as Leads, etc.
Synchronize, but don’t get bogged down by ceremony
When you have multiple teams practicing Agile, you run the risk of creating what has come to be called "Agile silos." These are teams which are practicing Agile internally, but lack cross-team or cross-departmental coordination. This is not a good recipe. There needs to be some sort of unifying vision to help turn these different teams into a collaborative ecosystem. There are multiple frameworks to help you plan this out, including SAFe, DaD, LeSS, and LeadingAgile.
So, it's important to synchronize your teams, but you also have to be careful to not get bogged by ceremony and bureaucracy. A central pillar of Agile is replacing processes with interactions. Adopting the ceremonies of Agile without understanding their purpose is a huge red flag. Don't constrain your teams by trying to over-synchronize them with processes that they don't need.
“Humans are of very low value as cogs in a machine doing identical things in interchangeable ways. That's for robots. Humans are most valuable when they have high autonomy, and able to play to their unique strengths and histories, particular sensitivities, op-tempos, and patterns of privileged information. The idea of "wisdom of the crowds" in fact rests on humans having diverse, unique private knowledge bases. The madness of crowds kicks in with synchronization and imitation.” -Premature Synchronization is the Root of All Evil
One of the biggest pitfalls you can fall into is looking at Agile as a cure-all panacea that will help you do more work in less time. This is not what Agile is about. It's about breaking out of the rigid structures that constrain individuals from completing their work in the best possible way.
Learn the various techniques and strategies that Agilists have accumulated over the years, and pick the mixture that works best for you. Above all, don't lose sight of the values in the original Agile Manifesto.
Agile methods are being increasingly adopted by marketing departments who recognize the need to become more dynamic and responsive in today’s fluid digital landscape. Unfortunately, as is usually the case with Agile, the subject matter available online for this topic is already inundated with buzzwords and vague claims that Agile will help you improve your productivity, without many details on the practical aspects of implementation.
Agile has never been a cure-all panacea, and viewing it in this manner is destructive. However, if you can manage to dodge the endless stream of buzzwords and half-baked content marketing, you might find that agile is exactly the solution you need. Or, maybe you won’t. You won’t know until you try, but even a failed transformation will encourage new ideas and help your team to grow.
Jurassic Park lazily reimagined with buzzwords.
Disclaimer: not all online materials regarding Agile marketing are filled with buzzwords and shallow content. Check out these articles from PWC, Flite Agile Marketing, and David Baddock for some additional perspectives.
Scrum it up:
- Hold daily Scrum meetings so that your team can share what they did yesterday, what they’ll do today, and discuss any blockers they may have.
- Experiment with working in sprints (2-4 week iterations of highly-focused work). But, if your marketing team is small, make sure you don’t neglect work items outside the scope of your sprint. You have a lot of ground to cover.
- Establish sprint reviews to discuss what was accomplished during the latest iteration with colleagues and stakeholders. Explain your current campaigns, review metrics, and secure internal feedback.
- Establish regular retrospectives where your marketing team can talk among themselves about how the last iteration went, discuss team morale, review the current agenda, and make plans to improve.
Kanbanize your work:
- Establish a Kanban board with a backlog of work and custom swimlanes (to-do, planned, in-progress, rejected, done, etc.) that reflect your process. Make sure your board is readily available online for any remote workers. Transparency and open communication are vital.
- Experiment with using WIP (work-in-progress) limits to maintain quality and focus. Multi-tasking is a myth.
- Every time you move a card further into the workflow, circle back and try to think about the item from the point of view of your target demographic.
- Consider making it required for team members to leave a comment on work items every time they advance it further into the workflow. This is not for the purpose of documenting work for management. It should be an introspective practice to help each team member stop and reflect on the item. Marketers tend to be in a rush, which leaves room for mistakes.
- Use visual encoding to make your board easier to comprehend. Color code according by responsible person, task category (social media, blog posts, SEO), or level of work (Task, User Story, Epic).
- Planning your work to deliver “just-in-time” can help you to avoid the pitfalls of Parkinson’s Law (i.e. work expands to fill the amount of time allotted to complete it).
- On the same token, when you make estimates, make sure you give yourself some extra time for securing feedback from colleagues.
- Don’t let “almost done” work items pile up. Prioritize the items that deliver real value, produce an MVP (minimum viable product), share it with team members for feedback, refine the work, and finish the task.
Test, measure, repeat:
- Focus on small iterations and actionable new ideas over “big-splash” campaigns and unrealistic goals.
- Actively test new strategies, stick with what works, and repeat the process
- Fail faster. Don’t be afraid to drop a tactic that’s not working, no matter how much effort has already been put in.
- Never miss a chance to gather metrics on your campaigns. Using tools like Google’s URL Builder can help you measure what links are driving the most traffic to your website. Google Analytics (or some form of it) is an absolute must.
- Data’s useless if it you can’t understand it. Make sure you take the time to properly analyze it. Consider using a data visualization software, such as Vizydrop (our free side-product, also integrated with Targetprocess) or Tableau (a great SaaS product with 14 day free trial).
Facilitate collaboration and feedback:
- Establish an internal communication channel for feedback and suggestions. Use this channel to encourage employee engagement on important social media posts to increase post reach and demonstrate brand community to your audience.
- Make it easy for colleagues to contribute their thoughts to your brand. Get in the habit of asking for blog posts from other departments. Initiate conversations with quiet team members to get their perspective.
- Establish a practice of bringing in one member from another team every week to contribute their ideas to your campaigns. You’d be surprised how many good ideas people keep to themselves, and it’s enormously helpful to get insight from a domain outside of your own.
- Add a feedback widget to your online content. A simple “Was this article helpful?” can go a long way to securing metrics on what was most effective, and what areas need improvement.
- As a marketer, you shouldn’t be managing social media, but rather facilitating it. Do what you can to make social media an organic process that everyone contributes to. Consider holding an internal workshop to establish guidelines.
- If possible, integrate your social media channels with your internal communication tool. Create a public channel where all posts will appear so that everyone in the company can contribute.
Take and manage risks:
- Establish a rotating Risk Management role. Assign one person per month to dedicate some of their time to actively seeking out new risks (threats and opportunities). Have this individual act as a devil’s advocate (see “10th man rule”) during meetings. This role can reduce the potential for groupthink and help your team stay responsive without damaging their focus. It will also help your team members grow their personal perspective.
- Give your team the freedom to try new things. You’ll never get ahead of the competition by sticking with strategies you read on LinkedIn. Don’t copy innovation; be the innovation. If you fail, it’s no big deal; at least you learned.
- Experiment on social media. A post that goes through two management gateways before being approved probably won't push anyone's buttons or make you stand out. Copying the style of competitors is similarly safe, but will leave your brand looking average at best. Don't be afraid to try new social channels and tinker with your brand voice.
Stop working so hard:
- You can’t expect your audience to enjoy your content if you don’t even enjoy creating it. Make sure your team is happy with their jobs, and comfortable with the domain.
- At Targetprocess, we use Orange Time (optional time to work on self-education and side projects) to encourage employees to stay engaged at work and learn how to do their jobs better.
- Eliminate Muri (excessively hard work) from your routine. If there are some necessary tasks which your team finds excessively difficult, try approaching the work from a different angle, or use Orange Time to learn how to better facilitate the tasks.
- Measure your working habits, and try new personal strategies. I personally lose focus during the last hour of the work day. I no longer try to do difficult tasks during this window. Instead, I use this time for education, drafting tomorrow’s social media posts, and connecting with colleagues.
How to change your culture
Agile is not about what tool you use or what framework you adhere to; it’s almost wholly about your mindset and culture. Agile transformations need to happen both in the minds of your team members and in the actions of your management hierarchy. Changing the way people think is a monumental task, but there are some themes you can use to encourage this mental shift.
Focus on delivering value:
Many marketers have an unhealthy obsession with lead generation. Website traffic is driven by constant visibility via content marketing, social media, and good-old-fashioned spam. Of course, lead generation is vital for any business, but developing tunnel vision for this activity is dangerous. These lead-generation methods will not lose their relevance anytime soon, but the motivation behind executing them should revolve around delivering value.
Take some inspiration from journalism: deliver valuable information to your audience and empower them to make the best possible decision in order to make them feel like valued members of your brand community. Demonstrate the value of your product by delivering some of that value through your campaigns.
Encourage freedom, responsibility, and trust:
If your company has a solid culture of trust, giving employees more freedom will enable them to be more responsible. For example: you might not like the fact that your employees use Facebook at work, but you probably won’t get upset when they respond to a late night message on your company’s social channels.
As Michael Dubakov said in his his recent article on the future of Targetprocess: "A culture of trust in your company will slowly return a person’s trust in themselves, encouraging them to experiment and make mistakes."
If you can trust your team to be responsible, give them the freedom to work in the way that works best for them. Without this trust, freedom has the potential to backfire, so make sure you’re honest with yourself about the state of your company culture.
Pitfalls to avoid
- Lack of trust between team members
- Lack of shared vision
- Lack of transparency and communication
- Securing metrics but not using them
- Disregarding feedback and metrics in favor of your "gut instinct"
- Assuming that your management tool or process will guide the transformation for you
These are just my personal thoughts on how to bring an Agile mindset to your marketing and public relations campaigns. If you have any strategies of your own, I'd love to hear them in the comments.
Earlier this year, Realm Digital brought their company culture of embracing new technology to life by consolidating their suite of software tools and introducing Targetprocess to manage workflows.
Previously, Realm was using a host of software for their Scrum-based Agile development, including Harvest for time tracking, Mantis for bug tracking, and Float for resource scheduling (to name a few).
They needed a solution that could help them to both improve their Scrum process and unite the different functions of their various other software tools. To ensure that their business processes remained agile and lean, CEO Simon Bestier championed the migration to Targetprocess.
Now that they’re a few months in, their marketing manager sat down with Developer Kyle Mulder and newly appointed Project and Operations Manager Hans Croukamp to see what kind of a difference Targetprocess has made at Realm Digital so far.
Q. Kyle, what has been the most noticeable change in the way we approach projects since Realm moved over to Targetprocess?
Kyle: After switching to Targetprocess, the most noticeable change has been that we now set achievable two week sprints. Thanks to the effort-based point system that Targetprocess uses, we can now see what project teams are capable of accomplishing by checking out a project’s sprint velocity. This enables us to set realistic targets for our sprints, rather than packing them with too much work, resulting in a sprint not being finished.
Q. Do you think the entire Realm team has embraced Targetprocess and all it has to offer?
Kyle: While I’d like to believe that we have fully embraced Targetprocess, I still think there are a lot of hidden features and functionality in the tool that could come in handy to ease our workflows and minimize the amount of other applications we require on a daily basis.
Hans: Targetprocess is vastly different from any other project management software I’ve worked with before. From a project management perspective, I find the different customizable views, dashboards, and reports to be extremely helpful. The buy-in from the team is very positive and the tool greatly assists us by presenting a 360-view on every project. It is quite a powerful tool and can be customized in numerous ways. The more you play around with the tool, the more you find the features and views the platform has to offer.
Q. Which Targetprocess feature, in your opinion, adds the most value, but is underused?
Kyle: From a Developer and Team Lead point of view, the most valuable, yet underused feature, would be using the “relations” functionality with User Stories. The ability to relate multiple stories a big Feature is quite useful.
We also often use Burndown Charts to review a sprint’s progress and get insight into how much effort is remaining to complete a User Story . There is also a sub-tasks functionality, but these provide estimates based on hours, rather than story points, which is less useful for us.
A Burndown Chart in Targetprocess
Hans: The customization of views and boards is probably the feature that I use the most. I can’t necessarily say it is under-utilized, but the more I dig into the views, the more I find value in the details. I can also see the “eureka moment” for colleagues and clients when Targetprocess is used to explain the status of a project.
If I had to highlight something that I do think has tremendous value but that we’re currently not using to the full extent, it would be the ability to see points and work allocation per person/resource.
Q. Hans, is there anything you can think of that can make learning how to use Targetprocess easier?
Hans: Targetprocess is a comprehensive tool with different functionality for different people; Project Managers, Account Managers, Developers, Management, etc. We all use the tool slightly differently.
Although I love the videos on the Targetprocess YouTube channel, it really takes you awhile to understand the tool as a new user. I do believe that breaking the learning process down and approaching it from how each person in their respective role will use the tool can help – rather than to trying to comprehend everything the tool can do at once.
I also think it might be good for them to raise 'Targetprocess champions' – people from different companies who can share their experience with the software. The recorded Webinars also really helped me when I started learning what the tool can do.
This post was submitted by Realm Digital, a global digital strategy and technology partner located in South Africa. The company specializes in digital solutions including web and mobile development. For more information, visit their website at www.realmdigital.co.za.
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