NPR adopts Agile-like method for program development

NPR VP turns to Agile to develop programs more in tune with what listeners want

Quick: when I say Agile or Scrum, what's the first thing that comes to mind?

If you said sprints, backlogs or user stories, then you're either a veteran software developer or ... a public radio employee. Wait, wait don't tell me that Carl Kasell, Nina Totenberg and (gasp) Click and Clack attend daily standups?

Well, no. But the folks developing the next Car Talk might. Turns out that Agile isn't just for nerds -- er, tech professionals -- anymore. More and more it's being used for the management of non-software -- nay, non-technical -- projects. Construction, baby planning and, yes, even new public radio programming development are being managed via Agile and Scrum to do things faster, cheaper and more efficiently.

[ Beyond app dev: Applying agile techniques to business ]

NPR has recently adopted a new Agile-like method for program development. Traditionally, the development of new NPR programs has involved a lot of upfront time and money to create a show and prepare for launch. New shows were rolled out slowly (over months and years), the costs were high (millions of dollars) and change was slow.

Stop me if this is giving you visions of Niagara Falls dancing in your head.

Given this, not to mention the hit that the recent economic downturn has had on public radio funding, NPR vice president of programming Eric Nuzum has turned to Agile to develop programs more in tune with what their listeners want in a much shorter timeframe and with a much smaller budget.

"The NPR board gave us a mandate to develop more programming anchored in radio -- which is a really expensive prospect, so I started to think of ways we could reduce the expense and time involved in developing new programming," says Nuzum. "It just kind of happened out of desire to go further, faster, or for less money. I was looking for some inspiration and found it one floor up inside our building (where Digital Media sits)."

The Digital Media team at NPR is heavily invested in Agile, and their success with it has inspired other departments. So far, Nuzum and his team have gone through one round of new program development using the Agile approach, which has resulted in new programs such as the TED Radio Hour, Ask Me Another, Cabinet of Wonders and How To Do Everything (a podcast). Nuzum estimates that the Agile approach has resulted in these programs being developed for one third of the usual cost.

While their Agile implementation so far has been fairly informal ("Agile-inspired would be a good way to describe it," says Nuzum), they plan to use a more structured approach this fall when they start another round of experiments. So far the results are good: in addition to time and costs savings, Nuzum says they've iterated and changed the shows constantly to incorporate listener and station feedback. "We've had a tremendous amount of success," he says.

The idea of using Agile -- in particular, the Scrum methodology (a particular implementation of Agile) -- for non-software development isn't so surprising, considering where it came from in the first place, says Jeff Sutherland one of the founders of Scrum. The idea for Scrum was first hatched by two Japanese business professors observing traditional manufacturing companies (Honda, Toyota, 3M) using lean methods. In the mid-1990s, Sutherland and his colleagues at Easel Corporation formalized the process for software development and gave it the name Scrum.

"Scrum is designed to build a backlog of stuff to get done and to get it done fast," says Sutherland.

Outside the tech world, he sees Scrum being adopted by, among others, venture capitalists; he's a senior adviser at OpenView Venture Partners, where Scrum is used by all partner companies, and not just by developers, but also marketing, sales, and all the way up to senior management. "Unless management really understands Scrum, it's hard to get the real benefit," he says.

Other areas where he sees Scrum being applied widely now -- or where he expects it to be soon -- are in marketing, construction ("Managing the construction of a building is similar to managing the construction of software," says Sutherland.), hardware manufacturing ("There's a lot of pressure on hardware manufacturers to catch up the gains being made by software," he says), education, content production (see NPR above), manufacturing (for example, developing a car that gets 100 MPG), wedding planning....

Hang on. Wedding planning?

"Lots of people use it to plan weddings," says Sutherland.

[ Wedding 2.0: When weddings go geek ]

For example, there's Hemant Naidu, whose wedding was saved by Scrum.

Naidu is an Agile Team Lead at Point2 and has been deeply immersed in Agile for the last four years, as well as a photographer who uses Scrum to manage his portrait and wedding photography business.

During the planning for his wedding in 2009, he had raised the idea of using Scrum to manage the process. His fiancA(c)e Michelle, a high school teacher with no previous Agile experience, rebuffed this particular request -- until there was less than two weeks left until the wedding and there was still a pile of unfinished tasks.

After she agreed to try it, they identified the tasks to be done with a Blitz Planning session, created a Scrum board and held two one week-long sprints to complete the job. As the wedding approached and things got hectic, they stuck to the plan ("It was definitely a challenge," Naidu said) and were soon exchanging rings and "I dos."

Naidu says he would do it again -- but what about his wife? "I think my wife would be on board [to do it again]," he says. "She did a good job of keeping the Scrum board up-to-date so that was a good indication that she found it useful enough to stay involved."

Apparently she bought it into enough that she also suggested that they use Scrum to manage selling their house (which they're currently in the process of doing).

There's seemingly no end to the type of projects that Agile/Scrum can be used to manage.

If you find yourself using Agile to plan your wedding, and you notice that the church you're getting married in seems a bit disorganized, you may want to suggest that they too use Agile to manage their affairs. Sutherland's wife is a former Unitarian Universalist minister who also used Scrum to manage her church ("Scrum in church? Of course! How else did God create the world in seven days?").

Once you've successfully pulled off your Agile-organized wedding, you can keep using it to manage your new household, the birth of your bundles of joy, large family gatherings and keeping the kids in line and on time for school.

Scrum boards can also be used to replace the old honey-do list. "We have a Scrum board in our kitchen," Sutherland says. Over Saturday morning coffee they review their backlog of tasks and priorities, which helps them to complete tasks more efficiently, leaving Sundays free.

But, while it's easy to understand why developers who use Agile and Scrum as part of their jobs would adapt it to everyday use, how do non-technical people adapt to it?

In general, Sutherland says, it's easier introducing Scrum to non-technical teams, than it is to traditional software groups, since their minds aren't stuck in the traditional (waterfall) way of doing things. He also says that the simple framework and language of Scrum makes adoption by non-developers generally painless. The biggest challenge he finds for non-technical folks implementing Scrum is simply getting more organized.

As Hemant Naidu said about his fiancA(c)e and Scrum, "If I had to guess I would think that she found the Blitz Planning session the most useful. It let us just blurt out all the things that needed to get done, and gave us the opportunity to talk about each of them, what each of them involved, and how big of a task it was."

Finally, while Sutherland feels that almost any profession can benefit from Agile/Scrum, some most likely never will due to other concerns.

"It would be a great help to the legal profession but, of course, that goes against their business model of billable hours."

Have you used Agile or Scrum for non-tech projects? Let us know!

Now read:What today's software developers need to knowAn agile pioneer versus an 'agile ruined my life' criticWhen agile came in, cubicles went out

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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