New technologies and channels are coming at us at breakneck speed. As if we’re not busy enough in the modern world as it is, without constantly having to be ready to grasp all these fresh opportunities. Ideally at exactly the right moment. Plenty of marketing, PR and communications professionals are asking themselves whether the annual planning model is still relevant. Wouldn’t it make more sense for us to adopt a more agile approach to our field? Or is the notion of being ‘agile’ just so much transient hype? We put this to the group at our recent summer lunch.

Political parties a good example of agile working

Agile working is about understanding from the outset that circumstances will change over the course of a project; and about building in mechanisms that respond to change. Together with a multidisciplinary team, you work out short sprints: sections of a project that are completed in a short space of time. After each sprint, you discuss progress made and any contextual changes.

“Political parties are good examples of agile organisations,” explains Kris Poté (Capgemini). “They change incredibly fast to meet society’s new needs.” This sounds familiar. Isn’t it also true in our field that we need to be able to respond more effectively and rapidly to the changing needs of our clients, staff and other stakeholders?

Agile working is especially useful for complex and long-running projects. When you work in this way, you chop projects up into manageable chunks. Each sprint, or iteration, typically takes no more than a month, and is therefore regarded as a mini-project within a larger whole. This means that it is no longer a problem when objectives or circumstances change, because your whole way of working is based on responding quickly. There is also constant discussion, including with the (internal) client.

However, disrupting organisations and making them agile is far from simple. Davy Vandevinne, (Nucleus) does it like this: “We have quarterly planning, and every two or three weeks we work on a single key target. Sure, this means that some things don’t get dealt with. But that is our deliberate choice. It also enables us to finish off a project in one go.”

Only in the right culture

It’s fair to say that the agile methodology also has its limitations when it comes to marketing, PR and communications. It shouldn’t be methodology for methodology’s sake. The crucial thing is that the entire organisation is behind it. Anja Huysmans (Xperthis) agrees: “Everyone has to be involved, including at an operational level. Often people have an idea and then pass it across to marketing, so it then becomes our problem. That can’t be the intention, because agile working specifically means regularly discussing things between a range of different disciplines.”

Agile working offers extra room for manoeuvre

Should you stick to fixed annual plans and budgets, or go agile all the way? These are two extremes. Adopt agile working and everything is flexible, budgets included. In the other scenario, everything is fixed on 1 January. “The most successful approach is to have a mixture,” says Muriel Reyserhove (Cegeka). “I believe that a plan is important in order to set your course. But there should be enough room for new things.”

Of course, there are many ways of achieving a goal, but with the classic model we are locked into a single, fixed way of doing things. Our conclusion: agile working can be useful for branching off from well-trodden paths, and for taking a shortcut to your goal. A certain Dwight D. Eisenhower was already aware that, “Plans are nothing, planning is everything.” And that approach served him well.