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Vitaly Tsymba: The Way to Make Scrum in a Non-IT Company

I have been involved in marketing for almost all my life. Before I started to promote YouTube channels in One2, I had been managing the customer service department in the PROMO agency. Innovations always attracted me, so encountering the Scrum methodology was a matter of time.

My path to project management

In the advertising agency, I became the leader of a department consisting of account managers. There was no project management system. We were not in time for fulfillment of our contractual duties or performed work with poor quality. Thus I became a troubleshooter to address negative customer feedback. It was a dead-end road: failing to prevent a problem, I handled its aftermath.

I started to look for some set of tools to address the situation. At that time, I was not aware of Agile or Scrum, not to mention the ways to use the Scrum methodology in non-IT teams.

I became a troubleshooter to address negative customer feedback.

How we chose the project management methodology

At first, we looked at Kanban. It is particularly good for flow problems like bugfix or processing of applications in a call center. But to introduce Kanban, you need a highly motivated and well-organized team. It was not about our case.

We also considered Waterfall. It is good for IT teams because clear sequence of stages requires less codes, and you are on the rise. The same project in Scrum will look completely different:

a working thing —>adjustment —>optimization

Waterfall’s reliability hides its drawback — a high risk to disrupt deadlines. Businesses want to obtain results as soon as possible rather than to wait for a whole year to get persuaded that the strategy of choice does not work. Scrum is not free of this «trouble».

Which Scrum tools will suit a marketing agency

Scrum offers a lot of tools to boost motivation:

  1. Scrum boards. Scrum boards show task statuses and can guide you to trouble points (e.g. too many tasks are on the stage of discussion with customers). We made the scrum boards available for our customers to enable them to track task statuses. It profoundly relieved our account managers from the load.
  2. weekly standups. All team members take turns to present the last day’s results, to make a promise for the current day and to share problems. Due to such daily standups, you can understand what is going on in the company and find the way to make the work more efficient.
  3. planning. It makes the work process transparent for the manager and for the customer. We invited definite customers and decided together what tasks to set for the following sprints.
  4. retrospective. We can understand mistakes we have made and ways to correct them (e.g. how to increase the number of simultaneous tasks in progress without compromising the quality).
  5. product demonstration. It presents the team’s progress done over the sprint. Each team member shows his/her part of the product. Product demonstration makes it possible to make modifications quickly, to improve the product and not to waste time on early presentations of the finished product.

My work used to consist mainly of analyzing negative customer feedback. After Scrum was introduced, we started enquiring for customers’ opinions to understand if our movement direction was correct. We have upgraded the consumer support index (NPS).

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What are disadvantages of Scrum for non-IT teams?

Scrum has three main shortcomings:

  1. Business processes become more expensive. We have introduced the product owner position, since no team member would cope with such important role. Such specialist is an expensive one. Neither the product owner nor the Scrum master creates value directly; they are beyond the team instead, and essentially they pertain to the category of overhead expenses.
  2. There is no convenient project management service in Scrum for non-IT teams. We used to utilize Jira, but its adjustment often requires involving a specialist.
  3. The IT terminology in Scrum is not adapted for non-IT companies. For IT companies, there are detailed guidelines outlining the ways to make Scrum work. They explain the terminology: increment is a functioning product, demo is demonstrating the ways the product functions. In our case, it was unclear how content writing affected the product operation. And what is increment in SEO? If we have written a text and posted it on the website — is it a functioning product? It took us more than three months to adapt the IT terminology for our needs.

How we failed to introduce Scrum

We started introducing Scrum from teaming up. And immediately we made two mistakes.

Mistake No.1. We included context advertising and SEO specialists in one team. The logic is as follows: they all drive traffic to customer websites and increase sales, which means that they are welcome to work together. The team is united around one client.

How we solved the problem: after some time, we divided specialists by values and products. Some customers got several account managers and teams at once.

What we understood: a team should be united around a business purpose. Such team is self-sufficient and able to create value for the customer by itself.

Mistake No.2. We failed to define at once who was to act as Scrum master and product owner.

How we solved the problem: we supplemented the existing group accountant position with the Scrum master function. Before that, he was in charge of the team’s productivity and uninterrupted delivery of values to the client. We employed a separate person to be the product owner.

I often encounter two mistakes in companies that also introduce Scrum:

  • The teams are combined around one funciton. A department is just renamed into a team. The problem is that if a customer needs a website, the team should have a programmer, designer and manager. No marketing department comprising brand managers will create a website.
  • Companies are afraid of destroying the existing structure. The following example was real. One account manager handled several projects each of which was supported by different SEO specialists. The projects were distributed depending on the SEO specialists’ workload. Assume that a specialist has obtained 10 projects for work with different priority. Priorities are set by the project manager, and this company had several of them. In the best case, the SEO specialist fulfilled the most comprehensible task, in the worst one — the task of the account manager who shouted most of all.

Uniting into «the right» teams is a painful process.

Why do we need a Scrum master?

Toyota has an interesting case to examplify the Scrum master’s role. In the factory, some workers were assigned to assist a mechanical engineer to optimize the work. The mechanical engineer was paid an hourly rate which was high enough, thus the performance had to be increased, and the costs had to be reduced. It was noticed that the mechanical engineer looked for the right spanner — then an apprentice was assigned to provide him with spanners. It was conceived to facilitate the process even further: stencils for tools were painted on the floor, and the apprentice laid them out in the morning before work.

So, a good Scrum master ensures 80% of success in Scrum introduction. If you lack a person who could assume this role, find the one who is interested in further work in this field. As a last resort, look for a Scrum master in IT companies.

The Scrum master has the following non-obvious functions:

  • Feeling where the team underperforms, where it is possible to accelerate, and where it is better to slow down. It is like a shield against pressing deadlines and chaos.
  • Being in charge of the team’s sense of safety. It includes protection from a customer who wants «to make everything for yesterday». For instance, we encountered such problem: account managers were compiling reports for customers for a long time. At the Scrum master’s instigation, we have set up automated reports generated on a real time basis. Now the customer does not have to wait for the end of month to understand how things are going. All parties are satisfied.
  • Upgrading the team’s level for using Scrum by voluntary choice.
  • One-to-one communication with each team member. About the employee’s problems and troubles. In such way, junior specialists will reach the middle level faster, and middle specialists will grow into seniors. Staff turnover will decrease.

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Why do we need a product owner?

We did not understand at once who was to become the product owner and what he/she would be in charge of. We came to a conclusion that the product owner is a technical specialist having good knowledge in the product and capable of elaborating context and SEO strategies, conveying them to the client. In other words, this is a strategist who says what needs to be done.

What does our product owner do?
  • forms backlogs;
  • removes and sets task priorities;
  • adjusts strategies based on data obtained from the team;
  • is accountable to clients for the result.

The way we introduced Scrum in a non-IT company

Specialists used to work separately: copywriters and editors, link builders and SEO analysts. While introducing Scrum, we mixed them with each other. Each team has also an account manager who delivers the value to clients.

Teams were formed for each of the three SEO areas:

  1. managing the mass of links
  2. creating content
  3. website rework.

The work was broken down into sprints which underlie monthly planning. While planning, we tried to reduce the risk of failing to gain a result at the end of month.

We experiment with sprint duration. When we first started introducing Scrum, sprints were week-long. A weekly sprint makes it possible to quickly run a process and to realize where you are wrong, to teach employees and to understand how everything works.

Key advice for the duration of Scrum sprints in marketing: select a deadline which is sufficient to make a useful thing.

Sprints look as follows:

planning —>standups —>demo —>retrospective.

We redirected part of the teams to have two-week sprints. Keep in mind that the longer the sprint is, the more you risk to miss deadlines.

We use the following tools in our work:

  • poker planning. The technique makes it possible to assess the complexity and scope of tasks that will need to be addressed while the product is created. All team members are involved in poker planning. Using cards, they assess tasks and make collective decisions;
  • analogue of pair programming based on extreme programming. Several persons work on a task at the same workplace. It is a demonstrative example of the rule — «Two heads are better than one». We use it in critical moments;
  • HADI cycles. They are algorithms for checking controversial hypotheses that help to gain customer confidence. Read more about HADI cycles below.

What are HADI cycles and how to use them?

What is it? A HADI cycle is an algorithm to check a hypothesis that looks as follows:

hypothesis —> checkup —> result —> conclusions.

HADI cycles are similar to the Lean Startup loop:

build —> measure —> learn

How does it work?

You generate hypotheses whose feasibility is questioned. If a task is comprehensible and necessary, it makes no sense to process it in a HADI cycle. After checking the hypothesis, you determine whether or not it has worked out, and to which degree of efficiency. It it has, you launch it in a sprint, if not, just discard it.

What does it look like?

For instance, there is a hypothesis: «If I make interlinking on the products, it will yield triple traffic growth». You check the hypothesis on one product, setting links manually inside the website. If the hypothesis has worked out, you give a task to programmers: «Provide interlinking throughout the website».

What is the advantage of HADI cycles?

It may seem to the customer that your new solution will not perform well. In response, you show the real example based on one element.

Document your hypotheses, even if they have not worked out. In the next sprint, you can test another one. Additionally, make sure that your experiments do not cause a conflict of interest (for example, so that hypotheses related to the same web page are not tested simultaneously). Otherwise, it will not be clear which hypothesis has succeeded.

Виталий Цимбалюк и Кристина Лисовская для Worksection

7 tips to introduce Scrum if you are not an IT company

  1. Start from training. Read specialized literature, visit training sessions.
  2. Determine who is your stakeholder (party concerned). And then work to deliver the value to the customer and to the stakeholder.
  3. Sprints should remain unchanged. Do not be afraid to change the rest of things.
  4. Do not redirect the whole team to Scrum, just because «it is cool». For instance, our copywriters work by Kanban because texts have no priorities — they just need to be done as quickly as possible.
  5. Determine the optimal size of your team. According to my experience, it is five-seven persons in non-IT companies.
  6. Organize a secluded work area for each team. If you have an open space office, add offline Scrum boards.
  7. Take the lead in implemeting Scrum. If the management is ignorant of the purpose of a new methodology, nothing will be done.
A 6 April 2024
I'm hoping to read your blog more often in the future. Fantastic points! I'll share as much of this wonderful post as I can.
Dmytro 8 April 2024
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