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In recent years, the idea of implementing “Agile project management methodologies“ to work more efficiently has been becoming more popular in various industries, including academic publishing. But what does Agile mean exactly?

During the 2020 virtual International Society of Managing and Technical Editors (ISMTE) conference, Scholastica Co-Founder and CEO Brian Cody and Editorial Client and Systems Support Project Manager at J&J Editorial Lindsey Struckmeyer presented a session on Agile project management for editorial teams. The session covered how editorial teams can apply Agile principles to journal planning to make continuous incremental peer review and publishing improvements.

Brian and Lindsey’s full conference session is now available to view on demand here. In this blog post, we cover an overview of what Agile project management is and how it can be applied to journal editorial planning, including some key takeaways from their presentation.

Agile methodology explained

Waterfall vs. Agile Framework: Slide from ISMTE conference session

First, let’s start with a quick overview of what Agile methodology is and, perhaps more importantly, what it’s not. As the word “agile” implies, Agile project management is an approach teams can take to complete work more nimbly and flexibly. However, a common misconception about “Agile project management” is that it will result in everyone working faster. Agile isn’t about finishing all of the work you wanted to at super speed. Instead, the fundamental aim of Agile project management is to achieve results faster by breaking up initiatives into small manageable projects that can be completed or “shipped” individually.

The concept of Agile project management originated in the world of software development in the 1990s as an alternative to the traditional “waterfall” development approach. In waterfall development, a software team defines the scope of an entire application (or piece of software) upfront, estimates the time and resources needed to build it, and then works through every development step in a linear fashion to release a complete product to end-users. The waterfall approach works well when planning and managing initiatives that will have multiple dependencies (e.g., step A must account for step B). However, there are drawbacks to the waterfall model. It can take teams a while to deliver value using the waterfall approach, especially when work takes longer than anticipated, as is often the case. Additionally, a pain point many have found in software development is if users’ needs change mid-way through building an application, there isn’t an easy way to adjust a waterfall plan because each step assumes and depends on those before and after it.

A group of developers came up with the Agile methodology as a way to get software to end-users faster and build in opportunities to pivot plans as needed. In Agile development, rather than scoping out an entire software application upfront, teams plan and ship discrete pieces or versions of software aimed at reaching their ultimate development goal within set “sprints” of time (usually two weeks). Two factors – time and resources — are used to determine the scope of the part or version of a piece of software that the development team commits to completing in a given sprint.

Principles of the Agile software development methodology are increasingly being adopted for project management in other industries to help teams identify and prioritize chuckable projects they can complete to progress towards larger goals iteratively. As the world of academic publishing continues to evolve at an increasingly rapid pace, with new peer review and publishing standards being introduced and changing stakeholder needs, Agile project management principles are becoming more applicable to many journal teams. Applying Agile project management principles to journal planning can help teams more quickly adjust their operations to account for changes in the research landscape and their internal organizations as needed. Agile project management can also help journal teams continually improve their workflows and provide more value to authors, readers, and institutions.

Applying Agile principles to editorial planning

So how can editorial teams apply Agile project management principles to their work? Let’s consider an example. Imagine that you’ve just had your annual or bi-annual journal meeting and identified various areas of your peer review process your team would like to improve such as:

  • Decreasing time to a first manuscript decision
  • Improving peer review turnaround times
  • Streamlining editor/author/review communication

Each of the above goals consists of different components. For example, among other things, a journal’s time to a first manuscript decision might be determined by the time it takes for:

  • Technical checks to be completed
  • An editor assignment to be made
  • Reviewer invitations to be sent
  • Reviewers to submit comments
  • A final editor decision

If a team were to approach the goal of decreasing time to a first manuscript decision from a waterfall mindset — by trying to identify ways to improve every aspect of their process — the initiative could become pretty expansive pretty quickly. Whereas, if the team were to take an Agile approach to reach the same goal, they would seek to improve one component of their time to a first manuscript decision process at a time, such as decreasing technical check steps. In doing so, they would be able to make incremental progress towards their larger goal.

To know which incremental improvements they should prioritize, editorial teams can regularly audit their journal operations to identify workflow bottleneck areas and specific, decoupled steps they can take to alleviate them.

Putting Agile into practice

Ultimately, the aim of Agile project management is to make regular progress towards larger goals that can be seen and celebrated, whether in the form of an end product like in software development or a workflow improvement like in peer review management. Agile project management isn’t about working faster per se but about creating value sooner. It is by no means a perfect framework, and it may not work for every team or in every situation. For example, in a case where a journal team has to figure out and resolve a multi-part problem in its entirety to sufficiently address it, Agile may not be the best approach.

However, in cases where journal teams would benefit from making incremental improvements towards a goal and/or where their goal may be subject to change, Agile project management has many pros. Agile project management can be especially helpful for journal programs with limited resources because it pushes teams to identify small projects they can tackle to get closer to reaching broader aims rather than potentially perceiving those aims as insurmountable.

For more information on the benefits of Agile project management and specific examples of how journal teams can apply Agile project management principles to their editorial workflows, be sure to check out Brian and Lindsey’s ISMTE presentation recording here!