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Can Internal Communication be Agile?

Are there lessons learned from how IT has grown up over the years that could make Internal Communications nimbler?

Over the last several years, I have spent many hours talking to internal communication professionals worldwide. I have had the pleasure and privilege of learning from smart and driven individuals in the field. My background is in Information Systems (IS) and Information Technology (IT). I have worked as a consultant building corporate communication solutions for large and small organizations alike.

Agile Software Development changed IT, and I believe some of the fundamentals are adaptable to Internal Communications (IC) field. In my experience, Internal Communications in most organizations follow a two to three-year cycle:

  • A new IC director/manager or VP is hired. They spend time doing research – understanding the current communication channels, the type of content being produced, and by whom. They survey managers, leadership, and employees on the status of corporate communication. They create a baseline understanding of where the organization is and formulate a strategy for improving internal communications in the future. This research and strategy development usually takes between 6 and 12 months. 
  • In their second year, they shift to implementing the strategy. Vendors are contacted, IT/IS is brought into the conversation, solutions are chosen and implemented.
  • The third-year is spent measuring the results of the previous two years, analyzing the results. Then, based on the findings, the cycle repeats itself.

If you and your organization are not following this cycle, then congratulations. You are in the minority.

I could not help but notice that this is how Information Systems used to work years ago. We used to execute projects in what we called a Waterfall model. We had to understand and document detailed requirements, do an upfront design, estimate the project, and then implement it. It just did not work. Business users were disappointed by IT slow progress. There was wasted opportunity between the time in which a project was conceived and when it was finished. The company would often change dramatically between project concept and the eventual project completion, so much so that the anticipated benefits no longer aligned with what the company needed. This results in disappointment and frustration. Then it usually starts all over again with a new initiative.

That’s why a new model was created and adopted by most organizations – Agile Software Development. Agile is a term used to describe approaches to software development emphasizing incremental delivery, team collaboration, continual planning, and constant learning, instead of trying to deliver it all at once near the end.

How could Agile work for Internal Communications?

The main goal is to reduce the cycle time that I described above and deliver results to the organization sooner. As a CEO (and admittedly, an impatient one), I work with my teams to prioritize good over perfect and starting early over extensive planning and analysis. We experiment and adapt as we head towards our goal. We review what’s not working and incorporate it into our next iteration of improvement. 

How could we complete analysis and planning upfront if the world around us changes so much? This is not the same as not having a plan. We simply do not spend months, or years, putting together a plan that will likely be obsolete before it could be started, let alone finished.

Here is how Internal Communication can apply agile principles:

  • Define your true north. This is your ultimate goal – everything you do, including research, tools you purchase, implementation steps, etc. should align with this goal. The True North won’t change. The process by which you get there will inevitably change. For example, who could have predicted back in February that Microsoft Teams was going to be a dominant platform in the collaboration space. It has become an important communication channel (check out our post on Microsoft Teams and Internal Comms).
  • Research is continuous rather than a one-time effort. As a senior practitioner, you can use your experience from past organizations to make educated bets and experiments without having to wait a year. You can gauge those on a continuum of complexity and cost. Prioritize the ones that can give you the best results with minimum effort. For example, a full Intranet rewrite can be costly and complicated, versus an experiment with communications via a mobile app or MS Teams.
  • Create a backlog. This is a set of features and capabilities that you want to incorporate over time, and you draw from as you define each iteration of improvement. Here is a definition that you will need to adapt from software development to your field: 
  • Start executing on your backlog with a mix of big bets and small experiments, based on your priorities.
  • Once a month, review and groom the backlog to ensure that you and your team are still working on the highest priority items

Years ago, IT didn’t have a seat at the table. Now it’s hard to think about a company that doesn’t have a CIO. Internal Communications is in a similar position to what IT was years ago. One of the great challenges IT had, and Internal Communications often still has, is the classic “take a year to make a strategy which we won’t get to start executing until the middle or end of the following year.” I believe that taking an agile-style approach can help make a difference.

I would love to hear from you – would this work for you? Why and why not? If you are already executing in this manner and I’m sure some of you are, share your results, successes, and challenges.