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Tuesday, 29 April 2008 at

Baby Steps: Agile and the Small Creative Business

The founding idea of Agile Lab was to take innovative thinking from Agile methods such as XP and Scrum and introduce them to a wider constituency.

We worked together with an organisation called Creative Northants to understand the issues facing five small creative businesses in Northamptonshire. None of these businesses had any connection with software development or computing. We visited each business at their premises and interviewed them about the challenges that they faced as creative businesses in Northamptonshire. The resulting report was described by our client Will Pearson at Creative Northants as "excellent" and "very helpful".

We identified three areas in which these small creative businesses were having difficulty: business networking, marketing and knowledge of IT. We are obviously not the first to identify this kind of problem, especially with regard to marketing. A great deal of arts funding seems to require the businesses to produce a "business plan". Several of our interviews had been required to produce such plans to get government funding. None of them had delivered on these plans. In one case we heard of a major arts organisation that had been required to produce a detailed business plan in order to get funding, but had then not taken any steps to execute the plan for over two years (and counting).

At Agile Lab we felt that there were ways of helping these organisations without the need for a detailed long-term plan. Using the extreme programming principle of "start from where you are" and "you can always do something" we ran a workshop for our five interviewees. For each category of business networking, marketing and IT knowledge we asked them to write a short statement of something that they would like to do in that area - in Agile we call these statements "stories". We then asked them to write a "test" - how they would know when they had done that thing. This is something that is very different from a test for a piece of software. A piece of software either works or it doesn't, a conversation at a networking event make take years to pay off. We also asked them to estimate how much effort each task would take. Then (if you know anything about Agile, this won't be a surprise) we asked our workshop participants to prioritise their stories and come up with a set of stories that they feel they could deliver on in a period of three months.

Three months later we ran another workshop. In one-on-one interviews we carried out a retrospective on the iterations that our interviewees had put together. We were pleased to see that each of our participants had made progress in line with the iterations that they'd outlined. Each of our participants had done some marketing and some networking. Using the Agile concepts of story writing, prioritisation and iteration planning we managed to break an intimidating task that was at risk of not being done at all into manageable pieces.

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