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Podcast: Three Agile Experts Discuss Agile Marketing

Tips to expand Agile approaches in marketing

Published By Leyna O’Quinn
Podcast: Three Agile Experts Discuss Agile Marketing

What does it take to expand Agile practices into business teams like marketing? 

That’s the question that host Tim Shisler asked a panel of Agile experts in a recent series on the SAFe Business Agility Podcast. Our own EVP and Chief Marketing Officer Cameron van Orman joined author Jim Ewel and Melissa Reeve, VP of Marketing at Scaled Agile, to share their thoughts on the similarities and differences between Agile transformations in technology and marketing.

Listen to “Agile Marketing Panel” part one and two for all of the insights and ideas, or keep reading for a recap of their conversation.

How is it different implementing Agile in a marketing team vs. a technology team?

The panel agreed that marketers respond to Agile language and processes in a different way than developers. While developers have been using various methodologies for years (waterfall, software development lifecycle, object oriented, etc.), marketers tend to be more free-spirited. This can make using a process in a disciplined way more challenging. 

Language came up as a particular barrier to adoption for some marketing teams. While developers tend to like the rigor of very specific terminology, it can turn marketers off. “When we took our first pilot group through Agile training,” Cameron shared, “we found language to be a headwind … that specific nuanced language got people flustered and confused, so they forgot about the principles. This can get in the way of your objectives, to visualize work, be faster, understand dependencies and prioritize… you think language is innocuous, but it can be different for marketers.”

What can Agile leaders do to mitigate this challenge?

Adapt. The panel suggested:

  • Back off on the theory to include more experiential activities that “bake in” the knowledge more effectively.
  • Make sure everything is contextualized. “Take the time to define the language so it doesn’t feel so rigid,” Melissa recommended. “Allow the creativity to shine through.”
  • Be flexible. Focus more on what you want to accomplish instead of being a stickler about the words.
  • Start small and take it slow. Ease into the process so the words have time to sink in.

In addition to language, the panel discussed the importance of choosing the right Agile methodology. While Scrum is common with development teams, for instance, it may not make sense for a marketing team, where flow-based work can be more applicable. 

Jim explained, “It’s about how much control you have over your work. Scrum requires that you can plan your work two weeks in advance. Some types of marketing, like creative or PR, are very tied to responding to things immediately. A flow-based approach like Kanban is the best method when you don’t control the work enough to do things like create a sprint backlog.”

What’s the best way for marketing teams to get started with Agile?

Melissa answered this question quickly and succinctly: “Take what you can get.” 

She suggested starting with a brief awareness session, like a webinar, to describe how Agile improves workflow and cross-team collaboration. Pay attention to who “leans in,” who is interested, asks questions, and wants to learn more. Start with that person and their team. 

Additional thoughts included:

  • Start with product marketing. Cameron elaborated, “Product marketing is the immediate recipient of the product development organization, which is probably already Agile. Product marketing is likely somewhat familiar with the lingo and processes already, and also needs to figure out how to keep up with the increased release frequency, so it’s a good place to start.”
  • Focus on quick wins. Find the middle managers that are receptive to the idea, create a few quick wins (whether you call them “Agile” or not), then bring those wins back to senior management.
  • Align with executives’ strategies and goals. Frame Agile in the context of what the leadership team is trying to achieve, and show how it can contribute to that strategy.

How can you introduce Agile to marketing without adding another silo?

One of the biggest shifts that marketing teams undergo when adopting Agile methodologies is aligning around value instead of organizing by function. The expert panel emphasized the importance of creating cross-functional and/or shared services teams to support that alignment and get away from the hand-offs and delays that traditionally plague the marketing organization. At the highest level, this requires organizing around the customer and focusing on outcomes instead of outputs. 

What does that look like in practice? Cameron described how we operate here at Planview. We have two types of groups in our go-to-market value streams: cross-functional campaign teams comprised of dedicated product, content, and demand marketers, and shared services groups that support the campaign teams. Both types of teams work together in PI planning, so all work is visible to everyone. 

We also run voice-of customer teams aligned to each of our campaign teams. These include sales development reps, sales team members, product management, and customer service directors. These voice of customer teams provide the campaign teams with feedback, testing, inputs, and help harden plans before they’re finalized. These cross-functional “teams of teams” ensure that marketing doesn’t become a silo. 

Jim made a powerful point in his answer to this question. “When you create cross-functional teams, you gain mutual understanding and trust between people with different skill sets. Marketers think developers do magic; developers think marketing is a black box. When you put them on the same team, you get a radical transparency that helps the teams work.” That empathy and collaboration ultimately breaks down silos instead of creating new ones.

What’s the secret to scaling Agile?

The panel agreed that scaling Agile successfully requires human transformation, not just processes and tools. 

“As marketing organizations start to scale,” Melissa commented, “they often start using a process or tool and forget about the mindset. But for Agile to work, everyone must have that mindset in place. You need to win the hearts and minds of people so that the tools and processes will stick.” 

Jim agreed. “Unless you’re changing the beliefs and behaviors of your people, Agile will be risk in the organization. Even if people are following a leader, Agile can crumble if it doesn’t become part of the culture. It’s related to people processes too” — not just work processes — “like how we evaluate people, what kind of ceremonies we have, and how we assign and divide up work.”  

To ensure that Agile becomes part of the culture, the panel urged organizations to train managers how to lead and manage through an Agile transformation — and continue to do so. “It’s not something you do once,” Cameron emphasized. “New managers come in, old ones get stuck in a rut, people start just going through the motions. The culture has to be constantly tested and cultivated.” 

As enterprises embrace business agility and adopt Lean and Agile workflows, how can developers better collaborate with marketing?

The podcast’s final question revisited  the earlier point about empathy. Melissa commented, “When you go through exercises like value stream mapping and see the effort and work that goes into it, you can’t ignore the contribution that other people are making to the end product. When it’s out of the black box and into the light, all of a sudden you have common ground from which to work.

Shared objectives are important as well. Jim highlighted a mutual focus on customer experience, while Cameron spoke to the importance of the system view. “Very few functions can stand alone,” he concluded. “It has to be about the sum total of experiences. Whatever your role, there are people upstream and downstream. When you push yourself to understand the whole system, you can see how value is flowing and ensure that the system is aligned and congruent. By walking the mile in someone else’s shoes, you start to think and interact differently.” 

Tune in to parts one and two of the podcast to hear each panelist’s full perspective on scaling Agile into the marketing organization. For more information about how Agile Program Management supports scaling Agile, check out our eBook Agile Program Management: Make Work Visible.

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Leyna O’Quinn Written by Leyna O’Quinn Sr. Content Strategist

Leyna O’Quinn is a Certified Scrum Master and Certified SAFe Agilist. She has been managing the Planview blog strategy for more than 7 years. She writes about portfolio and resource management, Lean and Agile delivery, project collaboration, innovation management, and enterprise architecture. She has more than 15 years of experience writing about technology, industry trends, and best practices. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Business with a concentration in Marketing.