Sparking joy: agile is KonMari for marketers and businesses

By now, you are probably well-acquainted with the latest reality TV celebrity who's giving Mary Poppins a run for her money as a conjurer of household magic. Marie Kondo, star of Netflix's 'Tidying up with Marie Kondo' series and author of best-selling book 'The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing', is making everyone question every little possession they own with a now famous meme: "Do you #sparkjoy in me?"

A few episodes in, I was struck by how similar Marie's Shinto-based KonMari method of tidying up is to the Agile management philosophies that I have been advocating to marketers and business organisations. In fact, the goals of both KonMari and organisational agility are uncannily almost identical.

KonMari: By reducing clutter, increasing visibility of possessions, making decisions on what to keep and focusing on items that "spark joy", we can achieve ease and simplicity in our daily lives

Agile:By reducing complexity, increasing visibility of hidden processes and tasks and prioritising activities that deliver the most useful value to the Customer, organisations can achieve ease of work and operational agility that result in improved productivity and healthy motivated employees

Too often, our modern workforce is overworked and overstretched, not because of the work itself but rather, encumbered by internal complexities such as process overload, bureaucracies, ambiguous policies, political jostlings and unclear purpose. These factors can significantly impede productivity growth, reduce morale and severely impact general employee well-being resulting in burnouts and disinterest.

In a new 2018 Mentally Healthy study of 1,800 Australian creative, media and marketing industry workers, almost 60% of these workers reported mild to severe depression (in comparison to the national industrial average of 36%) with one in four workers exhibiting severe signs of anxiety. Contributing factors to this alarming state of affairs include stress, long working hours and lack of job satisfaction. With high growth and demands on the industry in Asia, I believe the state of mental health of workers in this region are not too far off either.

Here are some inspirational KonMari lessons, coupled with Agile philosophies, that you can reflect upon to re-evaluate your marketing practice or to re-organise your organisation for better productivity, health and success.

"Maintaining status quo actually does inhibit you from being creative and having different approaches to solving problems in your life" - Wendy Akiyama, Tidying with Marie Kondo, episode two.

Organise for complete visibility

The KonMari method has specific techniques for folding clothes in thirds that will allow them to stand up in drawers instead of lying flat. The goal is to allow you to quickly find items of clothing that you need instead of rummaging around. In our time-poor modern lifestyle, flat-folded clothes at the bottom of the drawer have a tendency to be overlooked, underutilised and eventually ignored, taking up valuable wardrobe real estate.

Similarly, and paradoxically, the world of digital-enabled modern work is increasingly hidden from view. Unlike factory-produced goods where physical products can be immediately inspected and evaluated on a production line, today's knowledge work is largely created and distributed across multiple computers and digital platforms throughout the organisation, mostly opaque unless asked for.

While production lines in factories have linear flow lines and visible to the eye, complex knowledge work, such as software development projects or marketing operations, often involves many people, multiple conflating work processes and numerous tasks. This complexity is inherent in large multi-disciplined marketing organisations where various teams may be working collaboratively on projects. Equally challenging is the marketing agency workscape where it is not unusual for a single team to manage multiple projects concurrently.

To further complicate matters, most work processes and policies are constantly subjected to either present mood of individual team members, existing culturally-ingrained behaviours (both positive and negative), political lines, power structures or even personal goals. These inherent inconsistencies and unpredictability of human behaviour are typically manifested in suboptimal decision making. The result: a slow-moving organisation that struggles to maintain a fluid and consistent pace of work that delivers high-quality value to the Customer.

How can corporates organise for visibility and transparency then?

Reveal everything then optimise

One of Marie's first steps in decluttering is to insist on families to "gather all your clothes and dump them in a pile". The sheer size of their piled-up sartorial treasures is known to astound the owners, resulting in emotional scenes. It gets worse when Marie advises participants to evaluate every single clothing item and to only keep items that "spark joy", discarding the rest with a grateful "thank you". By making everything visible, Marie is encouraging her participants to confront and immediately deal with their sources of despair and unhappiness.

This reminds me of Kanban, one of many structured Agile ways-of-working frameworks practised by agile teams. It starts with mapping out all processes and tasks that an organisation undertake to produce and deliver value to Customers. Current policies and tasks (written up on cards and specified with its owners) are "made visible" and organised in an active workflow sequence on physical (prefered) or digital Kanban boards.

Once completed, you will be surprised by how easily you can spot impediments in the system, such as process bottlenecks, unclear policies and even unproductive employees, that are affecting the quality and speed of work produced by your team. With regular monitoring and measuring, you can begin to accurately estimate the time it takes your team to complete specific tasks. When all is transparent and visible, it becomes much easier to plan, manage and optimise your marketing resources and operations to meet deadlines and goals. As Drucker said: “If you can't measure it, you can't improve it.”

Understand your limits to say 'No’ or 'Not now'

Worryingly, we continue to believe in our multitasking ability even though it is scientifically proven that multitasking kills productivity and projects. Unlike production lines in factories that have clear capacity limit indicators, modern marketers and workers frequently take on additional work without question and for various reasons. This despite knowing there's a high chance of either failing to deliver on time or ending up producing low quality work.

Marie's use of Hikidashi ("to draw out”) boxes as drawer organisers effortlessly illustrates the concept of constraint and limits. The boxes are used to contain what is possible. Overflowing with items is a clear signal of functional failure. Unfortunately, apart from looking tired or weary, the limits of human work capacity are not easily indistinguishable, especially from a mental perspective.

The beauty of the Kanban system is such that capacity limits of a particular marketing function or team member are made starkly apparent on your Kanban board. If you're a marketing or business leader, it makes it easier to say 'no' or 'not now' to additional project or task requests from other stakeholders. Doing so protects your team from overworking and project failures. In the long run, working within limits and focusing on quality deliveries will also greatly enhance your team's reputation as a highly dependable and trustworthy unit.

Focusing on Sparks of Joy

Agile is also about accepting that not all work is created equal and resource is finite. By making work visible, you can prioritise and focus on tasks that deliver the highest useful value to the Customer or, in Marie's lingo, "spark joy". When your entire marketing operations are visible and transparent on a wall to everyone, you can begin to deprioritise or remove tasks, activities and internal processes (for example, weekly social media reports that no one reads) that do not help to solve your Customers' problems or to achieve your marketing or business goals.

Remember, to achieve marketing or operational agility, the goal is to free up resources by removing as much waste, complexities and uncertainties as possible in the workflow so that execution can be focused on producing output that matters to the Customer.

Are you ready to KonMari your marketing or business?

Isman Tanuri is an organisational agility speaker, trainer and coach at Elisan Partners.

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