Coaching the scrum

Hype or hope? A field report on adapting agile practices for integrated corporate communication and public affairs

Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

Are you looking to apply agile practices to corporate communication and public affairs? If so, this will be the right read for you.

In the following article, I will describe how we implemented an integrated communication strategy by applying Scrum practices to corporate communication and public affairs.  What did we learn along our one-year journey to becoming more agile?

In 2018, the corporate communications and public affairs function at energy company Essent co-created a new functional strategy to support its overall ambition to be the number one in energy for everybody in the Netherlands. The functional strategy consisted of five initiatives:  

  1. Activate all teams on aligned strategy execution and build a high performance culture
  2. Drive growth and boost the reputation through relevant content, audience activation and stakeholder management
  3. Charge the Essent brand with energy-related products and service and shape policies that enable households to become more energy efficient 
  4. Protect the reputation and mitigate regulatory risks
  5. Drive functional excellence within Corporate Affairs

As leadership team of the corporate communications and public affairs function, we soon realised that in order to be able to deliver our plans more efficiently and effectively, we needed to change our way of working. More specifically, we wanted to: a) co-create our plans with the business in order to be able to contribute to shared goals; b) use the expertise of all functional experts within Corporate Affairs to make sure our campaigns are relevant for all stakeholders; and c) deliver our campaigns with more speed and creativity and learn from our mistakes in order to be able to adapt to the ever-changing requirements of an increasingly complex stakeholder and digital channel landscape. 

Many corporate communication directors face similar challenges amid increasing business pressure and stakeholder complexity. Can agile help tackling parts of these problems? For the Corporate Affairs team at Essent, it seemed worth a try. As we embarked on our journey, we hired a coach to help us implement this new way of working. Here is what we learned:

Providing coaching when adopting Scrum practices

As a first step, we formed Scrum teams consisting of a product owner, a Scrum master and a multidisciplinary development team, including specialists from external relations, public affairs, internal engagement and brand and content. It was the role of the product owner to liaise with the business and to co-create and execute the integrated communication plans together with the multidisciplinary team.

We soon realised that creating powerful user stories, building minimum viable products and defining sensible key performance indicators is not enough. While Scrum rituals such as sprint planning, demos and reviews where relatively easy to learn, the soft skills required more attention. We therefore used the help of an external coach to accelerate our learning. 

Ernst Weijers, consultant at Innovation Booster who supported us during our journey, comments: “New cross-functional teams often struggle with performance, since team-members feel more allegiance to their silo roles, and lack common team purpose. They are often still evaluated towards their old role, and as such, struggle with dedicating time (or getting the dedicated time) and resources for their new team.

The product owners were coached to position themselves within their team as facilitative leaders. They organised sessions to let the team define their purpose, goals, roles and responsibilities and how they wanted to achieve the scope set by the leadership. The outcomes were captured in a plan that was presented to the leadership team for feedback and sign-off. This helped with creating ownership and gave mandate to work on the newly-formed teams’ goals.”

Agile requires a different kind of leadership

We had deliberately decided to delegate the execution of our strategic initiatives to the agile teams. We appointed a leadership team member as a sponsor for each initiative. The first thing we learned was that the multi-disciplinary character of the teams asked for a much stronger alignment among the functional leadership team than we were used to when leading our own functional teams. We had to learn to let go of control, trust each other and our teams and to delegate responsibilities by clarifying the scope, the resources and the expected result upfront. We also needed to adopt a more ‘coaching’ leadership style helping teams and individuals to deal with conflict and to jointly work towards shared goals.

Eventually, the leadership team itself lead by example by also working in sprints, using backlogs and demoing results to the teams. 

As part of evolving our own leadership, we needed to re-thing how we govern the function: the traditional performance review meetings no longer seemed to fit the new way of working. How could we give teams the freedom to experiment and fail without letting go of the discipline to deliver results? We solved this by separating demos from performance reviews. In the demos, we focused on the quality and immediate impact of products such as websites, blogs and media articles that were produced by the teams.

We also invited the business owners to these sessions. During the performance reviews we focused on outcomes, i.e. the impact that we made in the long term. Key performance indicators such as share of voice, engagement or reputation measured this impact. As we are maturing as a function, we are about to bring these back together delegating full ownership for results and impact to the teams.

Not all Scrum practices are applicable to corporate communication

Agile ways of working are mostly applied in software development, where large teams work over a long period on developing complex products. After a few months, we noticed that our teams were too small and projects too short-cycled so that applying all Scrum roles and rituals became a bureaucratic overburden. We therefore developed a more suitable way of working that fit the communication function.

When developing new ways of working, the only thing you can do is to go into action mode and try, critically evaluate, and then try again with improvements. It is crucial to let go of ‘by-the-book’ structures and ways of working, but instead measure what works and what does not, to find your departments’ best fit. The only way this will happen is if team members feel safe to experiment and give open feedback to improve processes and cooperation. The product owners and teams were encouraged to adopt this continuous improvement mind-set through active coaching during Scrum rituals and one-on-one meetings.

"It is crucial to let go of ‘by-the-book’ structures and ways of working, but instead measure what works and what does not."

Following feedback from the teams, we decided to keep working in sprints and we aligned them to the rhythm of other Scrum teams within the Essent organisation. We also continued to review the work in demos, but we decided to limit the demos to every six weeks to give teams more time to focus on actual execution. We started calling this ‘Scrum light’. We kept useful tools, such as backlogs and user stories. We continued to use Trello as electronic Kanban boards to plan our backlogs and keep track of our deliverables to be able to constantly meet our key performance indicators.  We found backlogs and user stories particularly helpful as they helped us prioritize our work and adopt a radical customer focus.

Role modelling is key

At the start of our agile journey, we picked two teams to pioneer the new way of working. The real breakthrough in making agile a success was achieved after we had asked these teams to take the lead and teach the other teams about the new way of working. According to the motto “see, do and teach”, these early adopters became role models for the rest of the function and helped get the agile movement started. In addition to implementing agile, we built competencies in the area of digital and content marketing and we encouraged best practice sharing within the corporate affairs and marketing communication functions.

The benefits of agile in corporate communication

Throughout the year, we supported the execution of Essent’s strategy with campaigns around our energy and services business, including the launch of new solar propositions, a campaign to engage our employees around our strategy, as well as a campaign targeting policy makers to support a tender for an offshore wind park.

Not only did the new way of working deliver more creative and impactful campaigns, proven by rigorous measurement, A/B testing and the use of focus groups; it also helped break organisational silos and increased the ownership and sense of empowerment within teams. In addition, our new way of working improved the quality of our interactions with the business and made our function future-proof by building important skills and competencies.

"Not only did the new way of working deliver more creative and impactful campaigns... it also helped break organisational silos."

The product owners were coached to re-position their team towards other business units. Instead of being run by task-driven demands from commercial business units, the team evolved to be strategic communication advisors, helping these business units build communication and public affairs plans that contribute towards collective company goals and key performance indicators. Alignment between the function and business units was created by setting up communication rhythms, and product owners were coached to position themselves as equal partners to senior leadership at other business units.

Throughout our agile journey, the entire team went through a steep learning curve, building trust and confidence along the way and learning to adopt a mind-set of continuous improvement and growth, ultimately making us a more resilient function that continuously delivers value for the business in the fast changing and highly competitive energy landscape. I can only encourage you to start agile journeys in your own communication function.

What is agile? What is Scrum?

The agile movement proposes alternatives to traditional project management. The main goal of being agile is to give the team the ability to create and respond to change in order to succeed in an uncertain and turbulent environment

Agile was first applied in software development. The four core values of agile software development as stated by the Agile Manifesto are: individuals and interactions over processes and tools; working software over comprehensive documentation; customer collaboration over contract negotiation; and responding to change over following a plan.

Scrum is an agile framework that helps teams work together. Just like a rugby team (where it gets its name) training for the big game, Scrum empowers teams to learn through experiences, self-organise while working on a problem, and reflect on their wins and losses to continuously

Kirstin Simons

At the Dutch leading energy supplier Essent (part of Innogy, one of Europe’s largest renewable energy players), Kirstin Simons is director of corporate affairs. She is responsible for all aspects of communication and public affairs in the Netherlands and Belgium. Before joining Essent, Kirstin worked as Communications Director at AkzoNobel where she was leading the communication function in Europe and prior to that the global communication function for AkzoNobel’s Performance Coatings division. Kirstin was also a Member of the Supervisory Board of AkzoNobel in Germany. Kirstin started her career as a journalist and PR specialist working for German public television and a PR agency in Berlin, including an assignment at satellite operator SES Astra in Luxembourg, where she led the group’s international PR.