On the last blazing hot day of fall, Rob Bole (Director of Innovation at BBG) and I (Erica Malouf, Blogger/Researcher at BBG) hopped in a cab near the National Mall and landed at the shiny, new NPR headquarters at 1111 North Capitol Street NE. We had one mission: corner Zach Brand, head of all things digital at NPR, and get him to tell us all his secrets…well, all his secrets about successfully running Agile development teams at NPR.
“[NPR’s digital] group is complementary to the content creating groups (digital news, music, etc.)…we don’t make the content, we make the experience and platforms that showcase the content,” said Mr. Brand. He explained that the digital team’s iterative workflow is very different than the deadline-driven news cycle that many departments are subject to at NPR. The fascinating part is that, despite these stark differences, Agile implementation facilitated better internal processes and communication between teams.
“We found out that an unintended consequence of implementing Agile at NPR is that it has begun to break down silos between digital and other departments…by involving stakeholders from other departments in the product development process.”
Before we get into what Agile has done for NPR, let me explain it briefly. Agile means having a interactive, team-centered, iterative process for completing a project (two-week ”sprints”). As a contrast, another project management style is referred to as waterfall, in which a project’s milestones cascade like a waterfall from start to finish without outside feedback.
Our office at BBG called the Office of Digital & Design Innovation (ODDI) has made a huge push to move toward an Agile project development methodology in the last year, which is unique for a government agency. We were interested in how NPR, a journalism-focused nonprofit, was able to make it work for them.
NPR’s Flavor of Agile
Their core focus is product development work. “The team is comprised, as currently defined, by about 45 individuals…typically comprised of 3-10 people on a scrum team. And about three of those teams work concurrently at any given time,” said Brand. “That’s been the big change as our scope has expanded a little bit over the last five years…both our methodology as we became orthodox scrum, and embraced that, as well as our portfolio has grown particularly with the advent of mobile devices as we’ve come out of a legacy [media model].”
“If we were to rewind the clock to go back a decade, it was about a companion website and podcasting…I guess a little less than a decade for that—it’s a little funny to remember how relatively young podcasting is.”
“We have established ourselves as a significant source for news, and the cultural programming that we’ve always represented, but now we’ve demonstrated that we’re able to do it on the web and on mobile and in other spaces as well. So the team has grown a bit and we’ve reached our current size, which I think is very sustainable.”
One thing that is key to Agile is the integration of feedback into project development, and NPR has a passionate fan base that they can tap into for this. “At NPR,” says Brand, “we have an audience who gives us actionable feedback on our digital platforms. The faster we get our ideas in front of our audience the faster we can learn what works and what doesn’t.” In true Agile fashion, this means that they are not waiting until a final launch to find out what the audience thinks and whether there are any flaws.
Zach explained that their philosophy of product ownership is generally that, “if something is worth doing, someone should clearly be assigned ownership on it, and if we can’t bother to assign someone to own it, then it’s not worth doing.” They’ve divided up ownership of the different digital products, such as the website, social media and newsletter. And there is also someone managing their suite of APIs, so that they are “looking ahead on what’s going to be needed, not just the maintenance or what’s needed today.”
The Newsroom Went Agile Too?
How does a newsroom that is subject to a continuous news cycle work with a digital product development team that comes from a historic approach of doing ‘one gold release per month’? Not very well, as it turns out.
Prior to adopting Agile, the content departments were largely unaware of how digital products were being developed and there was some criticism about the speed that things were being produced and what was being made. Essentially, the digital team was working in a silo. But when Zach’s team embraced Agile, it was clear that the content producers would need to be a part of the product development process in order for the team to get the feedback it needed to be Agile. However, content teams were not clear on the value in attending Agile training or being involved in the process.
“It was our commitment to the methodology that meant that if we were going to produce work, for example, around a news tool or a library tool or a music tool, that we needed to have people from those teams [on our team in the digital group]. And if they were going to be in a team, then we needed to train them up on our methodology and have them be dedicated. And if we were going to take the time to train them up and be dedicated, we needed to have their managers buy in to freeing them up for all of that.”
Zach explained that it was a tough battle initially, but their persistence paid off. “…rather than second-guessing from an outside perspective, it has actually gotten members of other teams to be a participant in an exercise where we inform them that ‘you should be involved, you need to give me somebody to be involved in this team and either commit to it or accept that you’re not a stakeholder in the process.”
Once content people became involved in the process, they began to see the value and report back to their teams praising the Agile methodology–so it began to spread virally around the office. Other departments even began asking to join Agile trainings. They were thinking about Agile not “in the same way as it’s used to build a platform, but that it might have resonance around this effort that we have going on in the newsroom.”
“To be clear,” said Brand, “there’s still a distinction between a group that is charged with putting out a show every single day no matter what and a team that gets to go in a box for a two-week sprint cycle and deliver at the end of that. So there are still huge differences, but certainly the common ground is much more evident. The ways that we think and approach things is better. And I think the understandings between the teams are fundamentally better because these approaches have meant that we are figuratively and literally working closely together and understanding each other’s world better.”
Zach said that one thing he learned is that it takes time to adopt Agile. It took the NPR digital team around 8 or 9 months to finally fully commit to being Agile. He also mentioned that managing an Agile or Lean team can be frustrating at first. Even if he knows where he wants a team to take a project, he has to be hands-off and let the team get there on their own. It’s a very different role for most managers.
A critical aspect of their Agile adoption was incorporating the internal end-users or content departments into the development process. Some of their new tools and ideas have been “entirely driven by having a member of that team involved…it forces the engagement, and once their team is inside and part of the [development] team, you have that conveyance of understanding of why decisions are made,” said Brand. “Probably the most valuable thing we did was a commitment to real training for everyone who was going to be involved.”
NPR continues to do ongoing Agile training to make sure new employees are brought into the fold quickly. As a complement to Agile, the digital team has now adopted Lean methodology.
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