Digital clutter is a real problem.
It’s often the reason many of us can’t tap into our full creative and cognitive potential. We are hit by the constant messaging of modern media, which creates stress and overcomplicates things. And unfortunately, most of us are now just used to this overcomplicated existence. It’s our ‘normal’. Especially when it comes to work.
But, as the ever-adapting species we humans are, we figure out systems and tools to get it all done. In fact, if you live the life of a digital marketer, like me, you’re constantly bombarded with a pitch for the latest time-saving online tool or the newest project management software that promises to make everything more efficient. But does it?
Last year, I was introduced to a better way of doing things. Yep, a simpler way.
It happened when we were brought on board to help the team at Mackenzie Investments audit, categorize and update hundreds upon hundreds of pieces of online content as they prepared to build a new advisor-facing portal, called The Mackenzie Institute.
We were tasked to basically figure out how to do this. How to review and properly catalogue this seemingly endless amount of digital content. Housed in every deep dark corner of their website and various digital properties. And we did our jobs and got it done.
In retrospect it was actually a ‘perfect storm’ moment that resulted in us, in collaboration with Mackenzie Investments, coming up with a game-changing approach to doing a monster-sized content audit.
(Side note – We just published a full whitepaper/guide on how you and your team can apply what we learned to your next content audit of mass scale. It talks theory, and then more importantly, goes really in-depth with ‘how to’ details on how we actually created a brand new approach to using a version of Kanban that we’re calling ‘Online Kanban’ using a software called Trello. Again for all those juicy details, just download the guide. It’s a must for anyone about to do a content audit. Which should be you as well if you haven’t done for 6 months or more. You can grab the free download here.)
But instead of talking about the ‘how’ of this content auditing assignment, in this little story I’m telling, I want to talk to you about the ‘why’ I got a lot out of this.
I want to talk about the way we worked. The framework within which we worked, and my favourite learnings and take-aways from this experience. One that is now an intuitive part of the way I will work on almost anything.
So this is a story of love.
(Despite my typical suspicion and cynicism through which I tend to view entirely new ways of doing things. Trust me, I adapt very well. I’m just a bit of a bitch about it at first ).
Mackenzie Investments was going to use this particular project as a Pilot within the organization for an agile style of working. So, as the outsourced partner agency, we dove into Kanban alongside the Mackenzie content team. And it was a game-changer. It made everything more simple. From how to ensure each piece of content was fully evaluated, then updated, them sometimes retired, to how it was categorized for its new home in the new portal, to assigning images. The list goes on.
I’m not going to get into the history of Kanban, its origins, or the in-depth details and rules that apply to this agile method of project management. If you do want a quick 10-minute run-down on that, check this out at Kanbanize.com. The system is basically that every task you need to complete is listed. Each task is made into a card on a physical board. And the goal is to get each and every card to move from the start, through all steps, to completion. The end result, is when each card, which at first started off in the backlog on the left, is now in the done list on the right.
(Why are we pleased as punch that we added to this system in a lasting and simplified way? Because this process hinges on a daily 15-minute physical meeting in which cards are moved across the board. This sounded inefficient. Especially in a time when teams are located across geographies – or at the very least are working from home that day! So we applied the principles to a PM SaaS called Trello that let us replicate this offline process online. It brings great UX, real time visibility and ability to collaborate and track. No affiliation here. Just old-fashioned thumbs up to a software that lends itself to this. Has this been done before? Minimally by a few people using JIRA. But os little it shocked us. And now we preach it’s value. Long live Online Kanban!)
Mara Svenne, you made me a believer!
I won’t make a silly pun like ‘We call her Mara Svenne-gali’ because I’m not a pun person (lies!).
Who is Mara? Mara’s title at Mackenzie Investments is Scrum Master & Agile Coach. Her role for the project was ‘Service Delivery Manager’ (technical Kanban title for the job) aka ‘Flowmaster’ (a sort of made up, but way cooler sounding title, we also used). Basically Mara oversaw all aspects of the project and ensured all components kept moving forward. In Kanban terms, she was responsible for making all things flow forward. (Honestly, I’ve never used the word flow more in my life than I did during my few months working on this project. And now for no real reason.)
Even if only one thing in one category was completed. Push it forward. Keep the things flowing.
Our role in the project ended in April, but my team and I haven’t stopped talking about Kanban and the things we learned from it. And we apply more aspects of it in a lot of our projects. While working in sprints is something digital people do intuitively, this brings a, dare I say it, flow to things that hugely simplifies large projects.
Last week, I gave Mara a call as I prepared to write this article and discuss the things we both enjoyed about Kanban.
Here are 5 reasons why someone like me thinks someone like you should maybe consider something like this.
5 reasons I fell in love with Kanban.
First of all, I need to pre-empt Mara commenting on this article and pointing out that what we did with Mackenzie Investments was not ‘true Kanban’. She referred to it as a ‘proto-Kanban’. We, at c+p digital called it an ‘Online Kanban’.
It’s all about respect and team empowerment.
The image below is from a Kanban Method 101 presentation deck prepared by one of Mara’s colleagues, Noel Dhiraj. This sums up Kanban values. Respect is such a core one.
Source creators of the modern Kanban method, David J. Anderson and Andy Carmichael further express this point in “Essential Kanban Condensed”: “The Kanban Method is values led. It is motivated by the belief that respecting all of the individuals who contribute to a collaborative enterprise is necessary, not only for the success of the venture, but for it to be worthwhile at all.”
You can likely already see why I started to dig this way of working.
It empowers team members to set realistic timelines
According to Mara, at the start of a project, the entire team must commit to taking something on. It’s not dictated from the top:
“We commit based on a team’s shared commitment; not a PM’s commitment. And we don’t commit based on ‘guesses’ (or estimates) – but based on empirical evidence of how long things of a similar work type get through a (stable) system.”
Mara continues. “So – if you measure how long an item takes to go from the commitment point to ‘done’ – and how many of those you do in a given period of time (eg, every 2 weeks) – then you can satisfy those PM-type questions around: ‘when will we be done’? The metrics are called: ‘Lead Time’ and ‘Throughput’.”
As you can see, there’s no guesswork here. Decisions, while team-based, are very much based in Kanban formulas that help people like Mara get agreement on how long things will take.
But here’s Mara’s guiding mantra about timelines and estimating time for tasks in Kanban: “We don’t like GANTTs!”
I’m with you, Mara
It gives you a framework that makes “the overwhelming” seem so much less so.
I admit, at the start of the Mackenzie Investments content audit, I was overwhelmed. It was a lot of content that needed to be analyzed and patterned. But once we started working with this proto or online Kanban method it was almost like someone had immediately cleared my desk of masses of paper and organized them into neat little piles I could click on. It was a major realization – it was like Marie Kondo (who was just making news back then) and Kanban were best friends and they were helping me clean up the clutter in my head and inbox.
With our online Kanban method, we made lists. Each list was part of the project that each piece of content (or a ‘card’ in Kanban terms) was rinsed through. As an overview, we started with the ‘categorization’ list. Then there was a ‘review’ list. Then there was the ‘update content list’. And so on. Until you’d arrive at the ‘done’ list. Again, in traditional Kaban, this is done on a large board. It’s done offline. With post-it style cards representing the pieces of content. We used Trello.
As someone who is super visual (I love mind mapping, I draw out problems, I brainstorm with pen and paper, and use lots of arrows and symbols), setting up a framework like this couldn’t have made my working self happier.
Ok, I can hear you doubters saying, ‘now that sounds like a lot of friggin’ Trello cards’. And it was. Sure there was some front end time spent inputting all pieces of content into the system or rather ‘in to the “backlog”, Mara’ ;)). But once every piece was up there, our job and mandate became crystal clear. Just start moving those cards across the board. One at a time. And let me tell you how satisfying it is for a visually-minded person like myself to see over the course of a few months, all those cards make their way from the ‘backlog’ to ‘done’.
Everything is transparent
Before the actual moving pieces of content/cards through this process began, the team had to agree on what Kanban calls “policies”.
According to Mara, “policies are the ‘rules’ for how we work”. Sounds un-fun, I know. But trust me, if I thought these rules were easy, you will too.
They are agreed upon by the whole team. Each of our lists would have certain ‘policies’ assigned to them. So as we reviewed a piece of content, in order for it to move to the next list, all policies or criteria had to be met. Or in my words, ‘checked off’.
Everyone knew what the policies were. Everyone knew how everyone else was working. It’s a very self-organizing system.
And if anything ever couldn’t be moved to the next list (remember, we need flow), the piece of content/card was labelled ‘blocked’. And here’s what I loved, if something got the ‘blocked’ label, the whole team swarmed the issue, to figure out the solution, to once again keep that flow flowing. Blame is never on one person for not being able to move something along. It’s about the team collectively solving a problem.
Say goodbye to annoyingly long email threads and status updates
To me, as someone who strongly believes in the power of simplification, hearing this Kanban rule was like music to my ears.
You know how most days are spent either writing long-detailed emails, providing your status update or keeping yourself updated because you’re copied in on EVERYTHING? You end with email chains upon email chains. A lot of writing. And not a lot of doing.
Well in the Kanban method, these things don’t exist. Kanban loves to ban things. Yes, you ‘Kan’ ‘Ban’ those long email updates. (Still don’t like puns.). I already mentioned no GANTT charts (banned). No long email interactions (banned). Finger pointing when things are blocked – also banned. Don’t you love this?
Since everything was laid out transparently in our online Kanban system, everyone on the team could see where every piece of content was throughout the auditing process. You want an update? Look at the board, don’t email 32 people.
Another key tennant of the Kanban method is daily standups (the daily meetings that spawned a new system!) Every morning, the entire team got on a skype call, led by Mara, and as a team, we would work to move as many cards as possible during that 15-minute call. Some days it was three cards. Some days five. This daily call was also the time to bring up any issues, ask team members questions, and of course, work on moving blocked items.
At first, I was not excited about daily calls. Daily? Really? In the morning? It sounded horrifying. But once again, technology for the simplification win!
But once we got into it, I got the brilliance of it all. Stand ups further facilitate team unification and bonding. It allowed us to deal with the issue immediately and without a series of back and forths on email. (And it made me a morning person.)
So there you have it. Five reasons why I am a Kanban convert. Again, to purists, what we did was ‘sorta’ Kanban. We’re just calling in online Kanban.
There’s so much more about Kanban that I don’t know, than I do. But I’m hooked.
My big take away message for you, the reader:
Dude, just go with the flow
About the author
My name is Will Lamont and I am CMO and project lead at c+p digital. One of our core values is simplification. We approach any project by rinsing “the challenge” through one of our trademarked frameworks – the 5 degrees of simplification™. We break things down by asking ‘why’ over and over, until the way forward becomes crystal clear. This works every time.
If you’d like to talk simplification, we’re all about that. Book a free 45-min simplification call here.