Research Writing

An Agile writers’ room: a better way of writing part 2

Last time we looked at the problem around writing and how too few individuals can write well enough consistently to reach the top. But together they may stand a better chance, and Agile methodology would be the way to do this.

That’s quite an assumption, but Agile (in all its forms, more on that later) is geared to testing and adaptation so the best thing is to plan how that would work and try it out in reality.

Agile writing room

Writing for publication is Waterfall but should it be Agile?

Agile is about working as a team to produce something together. Very idealistic, but doesn’t Waterfall and its related methodologies do the same?

The main difference is that Agile is not about working to produce one big, final, perfect result. Instead Agile is about breaking it down into small units, delivering the minimum needed in short sprints, testing, refining and adapting.

Agile v waterfall
Waterfall compared with Agile (via Agilenutshell)

This doesn’t mean Waterfall is bad, it suits big things where you can’t test, or update or move things. Things such as building projects… and writing? Certainly when I’ve written professionally or creatively it’s been comparable to this – set deadline, some editing and peer feedback then submit your best and forget about it once done.

This makes sense at first – if you’re aiming for a deadline you must produce your best and it must be complete and on time. Yet content teams are switching away from this in the non-creative sector due to the benefit of breaking things down into bits. And you can also break the team roles down into bits and split it between members.

The Agile writing team

As the roles are split you’ll need people who can do all these things working together, feeding back and being aware of what others are doing. A mantra of Agile is that the unit of delivery is the team. The best Agile teams may not have the best at their individual skills, the best developer, but it will have the best at working together to deliver what they need to.

You can be brilliant at your role but if you can’t work with others and adapt to help with them then you can’t write in an Agile team.

So writers are all you need in a writing team, right? Yes, of course you can’t have a writing team without writers, but you need more.

Here’s a table looking at the skills you’d need in an Agile writing team and how it’d map to a writers’ room. The roles aren’t all that different in many cases, it’d be how they work together that is. This is a big reduction, writing and Agile teams vary etc, I’ve taken liberties in both the writers room and Agile team for illustration.

Role Agile Writing teams
Deals with the vision and the bigger picture. Works with stakeholders. Decides on priorities and making decisions. Keeps the team informed of priorities. They work with the backlog and decide making deacons in a timely manner. Provide information in timely manner. Product owner (aka on-site customer or active stakeholder) Executive Producer Showrunner (depends on the team)
Create the right environment. They remove blockers and work with the product owner to make the vision happen. Doer of the visionary pairing. Delivery manager/scrum master Problem solver, project management, but not technical planning and scheduling as that is left to the team Works to hire the team Has a range of skills to do things properly Very practical person Co-producers Showrunner Writers assistant can help with some of the lower level tasks
Creator Content designer, developer Writers (story editors, staff writers etc)
Researches what the user needs, identifies the users User researcher Writers assistant (if asked by writer
Testing and stretch exercises Team develops this themselves Team develops this themselves
Specialists with knowledge brought on for key parts Technical or domain experts with specialist technical knowledge Consulting producer
Testers Independent test team, user researchers External editor Readers
Anyone who is a direct user, indirect user, manager or users, senior managers, staff member. “Gold owner” who funds the project. Representatives of the customer. Stakeholders (funder/commissioner) Executive producers, studio

Differences are many though. In Agile because it’s the team that’s responsible for delivery they are also collectively responsible for accepting work, allocating it and are responsible for producing it.

So while the show runner has editorial job, they are less of the tyrant of imaginings, but in return for this loss of control it should allow for a gain in innovation.

An example of how it works

Agile has already transformed other creative ways of working. I’ve mentioned government a lot but other areas have changed too, such as marketing:

“[Before Agile we didn’t have] a clear focus of our tasks and communicating them as a team […] Now, before the start of each quarter we’d meet and decide what our team priorities would be, then each team member would be assigned to the priorities and off we’d go. We’d meet two mornings a week to discuss the progress of our priorities, our KPIs, and our blockers.”

Which Agile do I mean?

Agile experts reading this probably long ago asked this question even though I said I’d look at the general principles. The main 3 forms of Agile are as the Harvard Business Review states:

  • scrum, which emphasises creative and adaptive teamwork in solving complex problems
  • lean development, which focuses on the continual elimination of waste
  • kanban, which concentrates on reducing lead times and the amount of work in process

My straw poll of Agile experts is that kanban would be a good way to start, as it’s about reduce the amount of work. But the beauty of Agile is that it can be adapted as needed.

Team writing in Agile is not for everyone for various reason.For instance, everyone needs to own a ticket. This responsibility is not for everyone. Consistency will be tricky. That is one for Agile to answer through the doing – there may not be a market, people may be afraid of ‘idea theft’ (not that that is really an issue). It may be less agile and more plodding.

Final thought: Agile writers, over complicating things?

It’s a fair question – is this overly complicated? My only defence is the William Goldman view of Hollywood – if, as he says, “no one knows anything” then who’s to say they know it won’t work?

Hollywood and TV (which this would be about writing scripts for) would be receptive to anything as long as it gets results. More and more places, including Amazon Studios, accept unsolicited scripts and only care if they tell a good story.

What they want is writers who can meet a specification on time, make changes as requested (and not be too difficult about pushing back) and do it on time.

From my time at BBC the thing that came up again and again when people asked “how does that person keep getting hired” was that while they may at worst be accused of mediocre scripts, they were never bad, they met the brief and most important of all, they were on time.

That’s not too high a bar to hit.

Next steps

Theory is one thing but it’s nothing without putting into action.

That’s what the plan is. It’ll be hard to get going – would this be voluntary or would I hire people; I have a breakdown of resources but will that work in practice?

So many questions, but the only way to answer them is not to speculate but to try.

Be prepared, be prepared to fail, but most importantly be prepared to learn to and to develop from that. Success in terms of the project is that it even works and we complete an initial script. Surely we can do that?

By Jonathan Richardson

Jonathan Richardson is a writer and the editor of Considered Words.

He's worked as a journalist, writer and analyst for organisations including the BBC and Which? He's also written for the stage in Cambridge, radio and sketches at the Edinburgh festival.

He's now a freelance writer and data analyst.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *