How to apply agile to everything: insights from Moonpig
Projects and project management are no longer confined to traditional domains, but can be seen as a ‘golden thread’ helping to drive quality, efficiency and the effectiveness of strategic change in all sectors and organisations.
For greetings card company Moonpig, projects are just a part of the day-to-day. With its business model driven entirely through web traffic, it is constantly looking for new improvements to the product, process and the technology behind it.
The website has been run as an agile project since the company’s inception, but in recent years, Moonpig has taken it further. One of its biggest internal projects is to turn the entire organisation agile and run everything in an agile way.
“If you view agile as ‘agility’ and not as a process, then it absolutely can be applied in any sector,” says Moonpig’s chief technology officer (CTO) Peter Donlon. “I genuinely feel it should be. This is not about forcing people to do stand-ups or work in sprints or any of that kind of thing. It’s about: how do you get teams to think about their work in a more iterative way, so in a more incremental nature, how do you break down what you’re doing into smaller parts? Then: how do you inspect and adapt?
“All of that probably sounds really obvious, and to an extent it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do.”
Moonpig now has agile and lean principles embedded in everything it does. It has taken some experimentation to get it to apply to the non-tech teams in a way that makes sense – the project to make everything at Moonpig agile has, of course, been agile itself.
"We had a very solid squad model for our products and tech teams in place, and that was working very well, and then we thought about how to roll it out further.”
There were some areas of the business where agile was a great fit – for example, search engine optimisation (SEO) specialists from the company’s marketing team could quickly adapt to working in an incremental way. They then started working closer with technology colleagues, which benefited both teams. However, the commercial team, who spend a lot of time buying, did not fit as well.
“It’s not something we have the perfect recipe to, but it is something that we’re constantly working on,” says Donlon. “We’ve seen the benefits of being agile. It’s really sunk in for me that it’s about the principles of agile, not the process.”
Agile means constant change
If you want constant, iterative change to work across an organisation, you have to keep your teams engaged, says Donlon. In fact, how you engage your teams will determine whether your change project is successful or not.
Some businesses treat big change projects as something to announce to the company once it’s underway, but that won’t work. It needs to be built into the culture, and everyone needs to be involved from the start – otherwise, it will lose momentum and staff will lose morale.
Moonpig, as part of its ‘agile first’ approach to everything, also spends a lot of time engaging staff over all changes. For example, the company is currently undergoing some technology re-platforming. All employees have been involved from the beginning to ensure they feel heard, and they can help to shape the approach so it works for everyone. “We’ve put a huge amount of effort into how we engage and bring people along on that journey because it will impact everyone. That is effective change.”
Agile needs innovation (in a framework)
For its agile approach to everything, Moonpig needs its teams to be constantly looking for new ideas and ways to improve the product and how they work. However, it’s a balancing act; too much free-form idea generating could knock the ongoing project – and therefore the product – away from its original goals.
To overcome this, Moonpig uses what Donlon calls ‘freedom within a framework’; teams are given the autonomy to solve problems in a way that works for them, but within a set of light touch constraints. Moonpig uses an objectives and key results (OKR) framework for this, setting a long-term objective with plenty of room for innovation, paired with the key results – short-term, measurable, direct outcomes.
“As long as the teams are involved in setting those OKRs, then you still have the empowerment – people are still coming along on this change and innovation journey. It’s a win for both sides.”
Agile needs purpose
The key thing with purpose, says Donlon, is to make sure that whatever the purpose is, it’s actually engaging. “There’s a temptation to tell a team to grow revenue by 20 per cent, but the problem with that is that the team won’t feel like they own that,” he says. "If you start by asking: what are your interesting challenges to solve? Then you build out of that the purpose for the team – that works a lot better.”
With Moonpig’s tech teams, Donlon and the rest of the management team looked at the challenges of delivering its core product as the basis for that purpose. Moonpig is delivering millions of unique cards a year to households across the UK. It is trying to build on those sales while ensuring that the quality of each of its uniquely tailored products remains the same.
“Suddenly you have a sense of purpose that people can believe in and want to work towards. I think that’s the key thing – it’s got to be something that people feel that they can own, which is exciting and engaging.”
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