In 2011, I found myself managing a brand-new team of marketers at an agency. And I quickly found myself flailing. My team members managed their workflow independently, which might seem like a dream scenario, but to me it was a nightmare: Overseeing their projects was extremely difficult for me. If a project failed, I had to reverse-engineer it to figure out what went wrong and when—and sometimes I never could identify what had gone wrong.

Perplexed, I started discussing ideas with my supervisor on how I could rectify the situation. He asked, "Have you ever heard of agile PM?" I hadn't, but after he described it, I was immediately hooked: This was the answer to overcoming my project management roadblocks!

I knew that one of our clients had been using the agile approach for the past 10 years for a range of projects, everything from their agile application development platform, to project delivery and marketing. So I got in touch with some of my contacts there and used them as a sounding board.

Based on my research and on what they told me about the agile methodology, I quickly devised a plan for managing my team. The result? A more efficient team that identifies problems before they become big problems and does a better job at time management, preventing projects from falling behind.

The agile methodology has helped us because it...

  1. Implements a workflow that enables us to work more cohesively as a team, rather than working on projects independently.
  2. Improves internal and external communication.
  3. Quickly identifies our strengths and weaknesses.
  4. Increases accountability, in turn resulting in more wins.

So how exactly did we do this? Let me take you on a quick crash course of the agile methodology and how I, as a marketer, applied it to managing my team. I hope to help you identify where you can improve your project management style.

Agile Project Management: What Is It

Let me direct you to this article from Wikipedia that describes agile software development from a programmer's perspective. If you read it and went "WTF?" let me try to break it down for you in marketers' terms.

Essentially, it's a workflow that people in the tech space (developers, programmers, etc.) use to ensure that they ship products as quickly as the industry changes. Think about it: If you were creating a new mobile device in a linear workflow from R&D to launch, it could take years. By then your product is defunct because the industry is ahead of you. You just spent all that time planning only to have to scrap and start over. The agile  methodology was developed to avoid that problem, by creating an agile team that moves quickly and can adapt to changes almost instantaneously.

So how do you do this? First, you break projects down into tasks rather than developing a long-term road map. These tasks are worked on in chunks of time, called sprints, that last typically from one to four weeks. Once all tasks are completed (or the sprint ends), you plan the next round of tasks in a pre—sprint planning meeting. And you repeat as needed.

Allocating Time to Tasks

"Tasks," for developers, might encompass a host of different types of work, but for a marketer in an agency setting it's less complicated. Agencies typically work on an hourly basis, so we can take the total project spend available and divide it out into hours. We can then split up all the hours into different tasks.

For example, if we need to create a report for a client, we'll identify all the steps needed to create that report (research, writing, editing, etc.) and assign hours. We end up with a list of tasks that looks like this:

  • 2 HOURS research
  • 2 HOURS research
  • 2 HOURS writing
  • 2 HOURS writing
  • 2 HOURS writing
  • 2 HOURS edits

The key is to separate the time into tasks that will take between 30 minutes and two hours to complete, allowing your marketers to break up their day and move from task to task among different projects or clients.

How do we keep these task lists organized? We use a system called Trello, but we've seen some epic Post-it walls that keep these tasks organized. However you choose to organize your task lists, once a task is completed it is moved to an archived list, allowing your team to visually see what was accomplished and what still needs to be done.

The Pre-Sprint Planning

Our projects are typically organized into month-long sprints, so we do a pre-sprint planning session the week before the month ends to plan the upcoming month's sprint. My team follows this workflow:

  1. Grab a calculator.
  2. Go through each project and divide the total budget by our team's hourly rate.
  3. With the number of hours in hand for each project, divvy them up into tasks. How many hours we assign to each task is determined by how long we think that portion will take.
  4. For each project, brainstorm specifics for each task to allow the person who grabs that task to hit the ground running next month.

The SCRUM Workflow

So now that we have our sprint planned and our tasks mapped, how do we go about working through these tasks? During a daily SCRUM, we grab five to six hours of tasks each day to work on.

What is a SCRUM? It's literally a 10- 15-minute stand-up meeting (OK, my team sits on bean bags) in which a SCRUM master directs the conversation and makes sure the team stays on topic. During the meeting, the SCRUM master asks three specific questions:

  1. What did you do yesterday?
  2. What will you do today?
  3. Any roadblocks?

Each person answers. The answers from our team usually go something like, "I did two hours of A task, two hours of B task, and two hours of C task yesterday, and today I will do one hour of D task, two hours of E task, and two hours of F task." Since the whole team is in the meeting, everyone always knows what everyone else is doing, which significantly reduces miscommunication.

After the meeting, the SCRUM master hands out task assignments to anyone who doesn't already have a full 5-6 hours of task work planned. When the person completes it, he or she moves it to the archive. Thus each team member is accountable for tasks: She has publicly announced what she is going to do, and later she announces whether she's finished it. And considering the public nature of task completion, she is more likely to hustle to make sure to knock out a task she's committed to completing so as not to look bad in front of her colleagues. This might sound like a sneaky psychology play, but it ensures that things get done. It also quickly allows the manager to determine weaknesses among her team.

Thus, your team works collaboratively to complete projects. Although whole projects are assigned to one person—meaning she is in charge of making sure it stays on track—all of us will grab hours across the board to make sure projects get completed. We can do so with little debriefing because the project is broken out into tasks; we just jump right in.

And if one day we see that we are falling behind on a project, we can say during that morning's SCRUM, "This project needs help—let's all work on it." The agile methodology allows us to quickly identify and respond to problems, in the process keeping us focused and our clients happy.

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image of Adria Saracino

Adria Saracino is a UX content strategist at Facebook, a digital marketing and content strategist, and the founder of The Emerald Palate, a Seattle-based lifestyle blog.

LinkedIn: Adria Saracino

Twitter: @adriasaracino