Becoming Agile: An Interview with Robert Stulle
Agile development is an iterative methodology allowing teams to rapidly develop products while working in close collaboration. Through a series of sprint style work phases, teams are able to create and deploy solutions that would traditionally take more time using other sequential development methods (i.e. waterfall). The agile process is one of inclusion, featuring a strong focus on user-centered design and greater stakeholder involvement. Agile’s ability to break down walls between traditionally siloed team roles (design vs. development, etc.) is considered one of its greatest strengths. Those who have adopted this process generally cite stronger internal cultures as one of the main benefits of a truly agile workplace. Making the switch from a more traditional development process to agile takes time, dedication, and practice; yet the long term benefits are undeniable.
Creative agency, edenspeikermann, has been employing agile processes since 2009 with great success. We reached out to Robert Stulle, one of edenspeikermann’s partners, to talk about the role agile plays at the company today, the benefits they’ve seen from working with this methodology, and how teams can get started making the switch.
Adopting agile methods and an agile mindset has not only improved the way we work, it has also transformed our company culture and our relationships with our clients.
In the early 2000s, having a customer centered approach to doing business was sometimes a difficult sell to management. How did organizations see the light and adopt the practice of talking to customers and use their findings to improve products and services?
I think methods and processes get adopted on a wider scale once they prove to be successful. Working with a user centric approach is by now a proven way to deliver better results in a shorter amount of time.
We love your minimalist, straightforward manifesto…it’s first point is that you work for your client’s customers, and you acknowledge that you’re going to disagree with your client at times – how does this work out?
We made it a habit to start every project with a one day workshop in which we get our clients on board with our user centric approach. This is the perfect opportunity to question our client’s (and our own) early assumptions and this is a perfect time to disagree. We start by asking “why” before we go into discussing “how”. And we insist on good answers regarding the “why”.
When the client asks for a certain feature, we question it. We want proof of this feature’s value. Together with the client we work on understanding real user needs.
I like to say “digital products don’t fail because they are technically broken — they fail because nobody needs them”. Most clients understand that it is in their best interest and that we create the most value for them if we allow ourselves to disagree.
When did edenspiekermann adopt agile, user centered design practices?
In 2009 we learned (the hard way) that the waterfall process does not work for us if we want to be successful in digital projects. So we started learning agile methods, got an experienced Scrum Master on board and we worked agile ever since. The results were great and we never looked back.
Adopting agile methods and an agile mindset has not only improved the way we work, it has also transformed our company culture and our relationships with our clients. I feel we have matured as a company and offer much more value to our clients.
Agile is about employee empowerment and accountability. What were the organizational challenges that were encountered?
Systems and organizations have a natural tendency to build and maintain stability. Introducing agile processes is a big change and in the beginning any organization will try to resist it. The challenges we met were the challenges of all organizational change processes.
We needed to overcome mainly three obstacles:
a) Get the company management behind the concept. (We are a partner-owned company with all partners actively working in the company – so that went relatively smoothly)
b) Educate everyone to understand the why, how and what. (We scheduled workshops and training held by internal end external experts to train everyone in the office – also the colleagues that are not involved in daily project work)
c) Show the skeptics what is in it for them. (Once the agile movement was big enough in our organizations the skeptics were pulled in by the power, the fun and the success. :-D)
A specific paradigm change when working agile is the new idea about roles and responsibilities. The traditional role of the project manager for example does not exist anymore. The team organizes itself. That is a pretty dramatic change and it took us some time to learn it.
When a studio is working on multiple projects in an agile environment, do you flex your teams on a project basis or do you keep teams together? At some points when working on products or projects, are there times that require specialized expertise?
We configure our teams for each new project and the teams are then exclusively working for that one project. So there are no fixed teams by design but there are a couple of people that tend to end up in the same teams together. I guess that is because some people just like working together. Also the configuration of a team may change over time as certain phases of a project require unique skills (like for example more research in the early phases and more back end development in later phases).
What type of client education is needed when running an agile project to help stakeholders understand the iterative nature of the work?
The education that is needed is of the intense kind. We find that we cannot educate our clients enough. We provide them with all the knowledge that we have and support their internal teams and their stakeholders with agile coaching or workshops. If a client is too inexperienced to fulfill their role as a product owner, then we pair them with one of our experienced colleagues to help them understand and grow in their role.
What, so far, have been the biggest benefits of adopting an Agile process at Edenspiekermann?
I find that our projects rock, that our clients get real value from working with us because they get measurably great results, we are financially successful and we can maintain a sane work/life balance. I also feel that working with agile methods has enabled my own personal and professional growth and I would not want to work any other way.
In your WebVisions Barcelona talk on “Stories From the Agile Agency,” you allude to the good and bad of agile processes – without giving too much away, what would you love to change if you could?
I would love to find a way to predict unforeseen events like sudden sickness, sudden holidays or sudden childbirth. 😀
Is there advice you would give to studios who are looking to employ an agile process in their work? A starting point, perhaps?
My first advice: Do it!
My second advice: Do it like you mean it!
There is no such thing as a half-agile or somewhat agile approach. You either work in an agile way or you don’t. So get a good trainer and educate the whole team. Stick to the roles and to the process 100%. Understand that the process only works if you enable an agile mindset. Let go of all notions of control by management. Make it an exercise in trust.
You also have to be completely transparent to the client and educate them as well so they can play that all important role of being the product owner.
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Robert Stulle is a designer and partner at edenspiekermann. He spent five years as a Business Consultant for PWC and IBM in The Netherlands. Since 2006 he has been back to design and communication; since 2009 as a partner at Edenspiekermann in Berlin. In his WebVisions Barcelona talk, “Stories from the Agile Agency“, Robert will espouse the benefits of utilizing an agile methodology through examples and case studies from the work of edenspiekermann.