Can agile work for marketing?
Given that my company sells an agile platform
and has more than 5,000 engineers using agile practices, you’d think we would have adopted agile marketing as a no-brainer, right? After all, agile isn’t about code, it’s about how you approach a problem. And marketers share many of the same goals as developers: We want to be faster to market, have more business impact, and build a more engaged team. So why wouldn’t agile work for marketing?
As leader of the CA Technologies product marketing organization, I had my concerns about going agile. Many development teams are small and co-located, making it easy to stay zeroed in on a compact, well-defined deliverable. But our marketing staff is large, dispersed, and conditioned to long-duration initiatives. I wasn’t sure agile marketing could work at scale.
Turns out, it can. I say that after a few years of trial. Has it been a straight shot? Definitely not. On our journey we’ve run many experiments, not all intentional. We’ve had our share of ups and downs — our own “hype cycle” — building our expectations only to enter a period of disillusionment before eventually leveling out on a road of productivity. But it’s been worth it. We didn’t rush headlong into agile marketing. We moved slowly, answering a key question in each phase.
Can agile work for marketing?
In 2013, I joined a business unit to run strategy, marketing, and business development. It was all-in on agile, across all functions. I took a SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) course and started applying a few of the principles to our strategy and product marketing, but I knew we were just playing at the fringes.
We continued to “dabble” in agile until an important catalyst in 2015: the acquisition of Rally Software, a leading provider of agile development software and services. Pre-acquisition, Rally’s 20 or so marketers had been applying agile methodologies for about two quarters. During the integration process, I observed that their marketing team seemed very engaged. It intrigued me enough to give agile more of a try.
About six months after the Rally acquisition, we started small, with a 35-person delivery group to support our Agile Management business unit, intentionally merging legacy CA marketers with no agile experience and Rally marketers. The team divided into smaller, project-based teams and began to break projects down into two weeks sprints. We began hosting quarterly “Big Room Planning” with stakeholders from across the business, initiated 2-3 standup meetings per week for individual teams, and had bi-weekly sprint planning and “demos” to inform and get input from stakeholders from sales and business. While not large, our experiment tested a range of team and product variables typically encountered in a larger marketing organization, such as co-located vs. distributed teams, SaaS vs. on-premises products, and products that spanned from early concept to mature.
The experiment went well. The teams figured out how to work in a more distributed environment, and agile marketing was showing it could scale to a larger number of diverse products. Our teams were happier too, with our CA marketers more engaged, feeling appropriately involved in decisions affecting their work, and feeling valued as an employee — significant increases compared to the prior year and compared to CA overall.
Agile is good for the team, but is it good for the business?
With an overall marketing team of nearly 350 marketers, I still needed to measure the impact of agile marketing on the business before I was willing to scale it beyond our sample team of 35 individuals. An opportunity presented itself to see the agile marketing team vs. a traditional marketing team working side by side – literally – as two groups conducted planning sessions across the hall from each other. My job was to run back and forth across the hall to stay informed and steer the teams when necessary.
At the outset, the meetings appeared to be very similar and totally agile. Both rooms housed smart people and a certified agile coach to facilitate. They had the materials necessary for an agile meeting: post-it notes, pipe cleaners, and Play-Doh for restless hands. The meeting agendas were clear and time-boxed. The agile jargon was flowing freely.
After a few roundtrips across the hall, though, the contrast was unmistakable. The agile delivery group developed a shared vision, defined business objectives, and included a cross-functional team (product and field marketing, web, digital sales, etc.) – everyone necessary to make decisions and commitments was in the room. When they adjourned the meeting, they were ready and committed to act immediately on their plan and start their first sprint.
In the other room, I watched the dependency list grow and business commitments shrink. They couldn’t commit to deliverables that would have measurable business impact, since the other dependent functions and their decision makers were not there. After the meetings, I came to understand what true agile could mean to marketing: higher velocity of decision making, improved alignment across functions, and commitments to business impact.
Agile is good for the business, but can it scale across marketing?
Despite witnessing the benefits, it took one more in-my-face moment to give me the confidence to scale it across our whole marketing organization. In August 2016, management tasked seven product line marketing teams – one agile, six traditional — with building a competitive campaign. After the campaign elements were in market, we gathered the teams for a retrospective and mapped a timeline of their activities along with each participant’s relevant work, engagement, visibility into progress across the team, and their feelings (expressed with smiley faces) on how it went.
The agile delivery group sailed into first place even though they started with the least amount of competitive research. They were easily twice as fast getting their campaign into market. Their strengths were common ownership, accountability, and collective prioritization of this task against their other work. They knew who was doing what when and stayed aligned via the agile ceremonies. They even pivoted twice because of real-time stakeholder input. Even with the heavy workload there were no reported frowny faces.
The six non-agile teams did not fare well. Without clarity on ownership and accountability, they took ages to get started and had difficulty juggling this priority against other departmental objectives. They reported poor visibility into what other team members were doing and were often surprised when a dependent task was completed and tossed over the wall to them. There were lots of frowny faces. I saw that agile marketing made a difference in engagement, velocity, and quality. It was time for us to further scale it up.
Where we are now
Today we have six business unit-aligned Delivery Groups, each consisting of all the marketers that actively support the business activities of that business unit. Our agile marketing reach is now over 100 people within CA, with about 60 practicing every day as part of our core agile delivery teams. The others are specialists in communications, data science, and regional marketing, who support the core teams when needed, as well as active stakeholders, such as digital sales, who meet with our teams regularly to provide critical feedback.
What we’ve learned
We are still learning – this is a journey, not a destination — but we have some lessons to share:
- Marketing and app development teams really are different.
Marketing teams need more vision and context to develop solid messaging and campaigns. We addressed this by investing in quarterly “big room planning” and more time to set the vision, align the strategy, and plan initiatives. Standups and weekly metrics keep us directed.
- The nature of some marketing work is hard to deliver in two-week sprints.
We developed persistent teams to handle ongoing, demand campaigns and temporary or initiative-based teams to handle specific events, such as a product launch or CA World. We flexibly staff the temporary teams based on need.
- Traditional agile terminology isn’t a great fit for agile marketing,
so we use terms that resonate with marketers. For example: “features” become “initiatives”, “release train” becomes “delivery group,” and “release train engineer” becomes “coach.”
- Our departmental managers had the hardest adjustment.
They no longer could add work to an employee of “theirs” who is part of an agile team. They had to shift gears from directing to coaching; they had to learn “servant leadership.” We underestimated the coaching they needed, and sometimes we outright forgot to include them in the initial ceremonies.
- Watch out for “Agile Theater,”
groups with the jargon and paraphernalia, but who lack the cross-functional representation, empowerment, and goal alignment that drive true agile marketing.
- Commitment from the top down is essential.
This is too big a shift in the way things are done for a sneak attack. Get support, get a coach, and get ready to experiment and learn.
Agile marketing works at scale
Our teams are more engaged, our campaign delivery times have decreased, our marketing-sourced pipeline has increased, and the win rate of marketing-sourced opportunities has increased. So if you think agile is only for small, colocated marketing teams, I urge you to reconsider. But know it won’t be a quick fix and the journey may be bumpy at times.
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