How ‘Sign Off’ Should Work In Agile Marketing
I’ve worked across the communications sector my entire career, from online consultation, to digital PR to digital marketing, and one thing that’s so often common across all of these areas is the idea of sign off. The idea that before something can be shown to the public or end consumer, sometimes even before it can be sent to someone more senior for review, someone somewhere has to check it, approve it and sign it off.
Now sign off is a fascinating thing, worthy of many PhD theses in management, politics and sociology alone, but I’ll leave those to someone else. However, it’s interesting to think about the relationship between the relationship between ‘sign off’ culture and hierarchical organisations. One of my main theories at the moment is that the field of marketing hasn’t moved on much from its post-war origins, where the leadership style was ‘great man’, the project delivery approach was waterfall and everything was very hierarchical.
So for me, sign off is often a sign of hierarchy; the idea that someone more senior than you also knows better than you, and so has to approve your work before it can be shared more widely. Indeed, if you think about the phrase ‘sign off’ for a minute, you can see not only hierarchy within it, but personal opinion too. To sign off means to approve with your own personal signature, to put your legal and official mark of agreement upon it, a mark that’s personal to you. All of this causes huge problems with agility. Or perhaps I should say, agility causes huge problems for sign off culture, and rightly so.
The point I’d like to discuss today though is around how sign off relates to something that is very much a part of Agile, the idea of feedback. If agile is all about responding to change over following a plan, then receiving, acting upon, even seeking out feedback is an integral part of this. How else can you respond to change unless you get some feedback on what needs to change? However, when you work in a sign off culture, sign off becomes the same as giving feedback, only with all sorts of other stuff attached. Hierarchy, power, formality, personal opinion, ever annoyance sometimes.
I’m sure we can all think of a scenario when we’ve worked really hard to produce something, only for someone more senior to us to say ‘No, I don’t like it, go and change X, Y and Z’, or even worse ‘I don’t like it, but can’t say exactly why, go and make it better generally’. Sometimes this can be really annoying, especially if the feedback is late in the day and undoes so much of your hard work. Sometimes it can be really confusing too, if the feedback is vague, hurried or the person refusing to sign something off has clearly changed their mind since the last time you sought their opinion. Above all else, this can all feel pretty disempowering. You were happy with what you produced, you’d put lots of love and care into it, and now someone’s saying they just don’t like it. Will you honestly bother putting that much effort in again?
I don’t think this unhappiness from sign off culture just affects the people producing the work either. If you want to get ahead in a sign off based culture, then you’ll know that sign off is what powerful senior people do. So in order to be seen as powerful and senior, you’ll start to seek out opportunities to sign things off. However, if you just signed everything off, you wouldn’t be asserting your power. So you start to refuse to sign things off, but because you’re mainly doing it to assert your power, your feedback is pretty vague and confusing. Or you say you’ll sign something off, but only after the most minor of minor changes, sometimes just changing a single word, or piece of punctuation. If you think about it, what training have you ever had in signing things off? Probably none. So whilst you feel like you have to insist on changes and give feedback every time you’re presented with something for sign off, you don’t really know how best to do so. All of this makes extra work for the team and extra work for you, without much clear benefit for either side, making the team unhappier with you, and probably you unhappier and less confident in yourself deep down too.
In short, sign off cultures generally aren’t very fun places to work, with lots of different issues arising within them. Happily, agile has lots of ways of fixing these problems, and this is one of the many reasons agile could be so great for traditional, sign off infested fields like marketing, PR and communications. Here’s how agile fixes a lot of these issues.
Hierarchy in agile is a funny thing. It’s not specifically addressed in the agile manifesto, but is hinted at with elements such as ‘Individuals and interactions over processes and tools’, which suggests an informality in how people interact with each other, rather than only interacting through formal processes. ‘Customer collaboration over contract negotiation’ also suggests a lack of formality, and a willingness to interact and collaborate as equals, rather than try to exert power over other people in the form of hierarchy. However, most important are the principles that the team is self-organising, that you ‘build projects around motivated individuals’, you ‘trust them to get the job done’ and that it’s the team that ‘reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly’. In short, you can see a clear limit to the power of hierarchy in agile. It is the team that is empowered to work as it thinks best, and not the place of anyone more senior to tell the team how to do its work. All you can feedback on then is the outputs of the team, not the working of the team itself, and you need to give your feedback in such a way that the team stay motivated after receiving it. In short, it’s the difference between management and leadership.
The interesting thing you get once you have an empowered, motivated team doing the work, with whom you work as equals, is that the team can give feedback on their feedback to the person giving feedback. One of the elements of agile communication is that it be interactive, that is, that it be a genuine two way conversation, not a one way lecture or command. So not only can the team challenge the feedback it is given in order to understand it better, it can also give help the person giving feedback in making their feedback better. This starts to fill in the gap we noticed above, where people give feedback without really knowing how best to do so.
One problem with feedback can be that it catches people by surprise, and arrives quite late in the day. Now this isn’t as such forbidden in agile, as we’ll see shortly. However, in practice it becomes much less common. Because you’re breaking down those formal, rigid processes and power based hierarchies through prioritising ‘individuals and interactions’, you’re actually opening the work up to regular, almost constant feedback if you want. Sure, agile frameworks like scrum have regular sessions built in to them for everyone to review the outputs so far and feedback on them, but this by no means means that feedback can’t be given at other times too. As agile principle number four states, ‘Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project’. The people doing the work and the people reviewing the work should be talking daily, and so giving each other feedback daily too.
This isn’t all about changing the way people give you feedback though, it’s as much about you changing the way you receive it too. Principle two of the agile manifesto states you should ‘Welcome changing requirements, even late in development’. Agile is about responding to change, and sometimes the need for that change will only appear pretty late in the day. So agile can’t get rid of the problem in sign off cultures of feedback changing things at the last minute. What it can change though is the impact that has on you. This is one of the harder parts of adopting an agile mindset, but once you’ve done so, you can be pretty sure you’re approaching agile enlightenment.
The key word is the word ‘welcome’. You don’t just accept changing requirements, you actively welcome them. The example I often give of this is how I work with my mate Darren. Darren’s been a client for nearly 10 years now, and is now as much a mate of mine as a client. A while ago, we had lunch together and Darren briefed me on a new website he wanted me to build for him. I took lots of notes on what he wanted, and other sites he thought it should look like, then went home and built it. Once I sent the site to him, we met up again, and he explained how now he’d seen what he’d described actually built, he’d completely changed his mind and wanted to make some substantial changes to, well, everything.
Rather than get annoyed, or feel despondent about all the work I’d done that would never get used, I got excited. All the work I’d done had helped Darren understand far better what he wanted, and so would help make the finished website even better than it would have been without my initial work being done. Late and substantial feedback, even contradictory feedback, is always going to be a factor in any work you do. All you can do is change how you react to it, and once you start seeing it as the exciting opportunity for improvement that it is, well then it gets a whole lot more fun.
Another thing you do with feedback in agile is look for it in as many places as possible. This especially works in digital marketing, PR and communications, as not only can you get feedback from those around, very often you can take feedback from end user comments on social media, or huge reams of data such as likes, shares, visits, dwell times and all the rest. On top of this, you can get it all in realtime too. You could have a campaign idea on the way in to work, put a test of it live mid morning, and by lunchtime know whether the idea was worth exploring further. This is really exciting, but it is quite a change from how marketing has traditionally worked. As we’ve seen in the phrase ‘sign off’, there’s a lot of personal opinion in traditional marketing, because often there wasn’t much performance data to access, so the vast amount of data digital marketing creates presents some real challenges to the existing industry culture. This is what the agile marketing manifesto is talking about when it says we should prioritise ‘Validated learning over opinions and conventions’. Data trumps opinion, especially the opinion of the HIPPO.
The thing is, once you start expanding the amount of feedback you’re getting and the number of places, you need a method for handling it all too. As the team is self organising, it’s up to the team to decide how to do this, but agile frameworks do give some good pointers too. The product backlog found in Scrum is really useful, basically a list of ideas for things that could be delivered in the future, that the product owner prioritises regularly. So if someone gives you a great bit of feedback that’s pretty left field to what you’re working on right now, rather than breaking yourself to get it delivered on top of everything else, you can just stick it in the product backlog, then look at it later to see how much of a priority it is compared with everything else.
Earlier, we looked at the idea that because signing things off is a sign of status, people feel they have to do it every time they’re asked, and cover up their insecurity by insisting on changes every time too, no matter how minor the change. In an agile context, this problem goes away, because feedback is no longer a sign of hierarchy. It’s something everyone is welcome to give, even actively encouraged to give, at any time. Once you know you can always give feedback when you have some, you can relax, and not feel you have to give some every time in case people stop asking you.
So there are six good reasons why feedback in an agile context is happier, more useful, more timely and more actionable that ’sign off’ in a traditional marketing, PR or comms environment. However, we can’t ignore the fact that simple as they sound, making these changes could actually be very difficult. Once you start saying sign off is no longer a sign of power and status, once you start opening it up to everyone and encourage the team to question the feedback they’re given, you potentially shake up the world view of people who have sought the power and status that comes with sign off for their entire careers. I often call this ‘prefect syndrome’.
At secondary (high) school, often senior boys who had been given the power of ‘school prefects’ would do things that seemed unfair, unjust or downright sadistic. Whenever I complained about it, I was told not to, as one day I too would be a prefect, and could have fun doing all these unfair, unjust, even sadistic things. I never saw the point of this, as surely having people behave badly towards you is no reason for you then to do the same to others, but I was in a minority in this view. Lots of people hated the idea that they’d be the ones to put up with unfairness and annoyance when younger, but then not get to enjoy the same power and status when older. Cycles of unhappiness have to stop somewhere, but when many people, even entire organisations, have built their professional identities around them, they’re really hard to break, no matter how little sense they make objectively.
Agile can break so many of them though, and make working life so much happier and easier for both those giving and those receiving feedback. So please, don’t fall into prefect syndrome yourself. Abandon your sign off culture, and start working openly and collaboratively with those around you, all of you as equals.