Project Management

Changing Perceptions in Agile

The term ‘Agile marketing’ is popping up in a lot of marketing forums lately so I thought it might be a good idea to look at more of the practical issues of using Agile. We’ve talked about common pitfalls marketers face when adapting to Agile, based on what I’ve seen in Agile teams I work on. However, beyond adapting to a new structure, a significant — and sometimes disconcerting — change of perspective is required in a transformation towards Agile Marketing. Unfortunately, coming to grips with new perceptions of marketer roles and responsibilities is often the hardest part of the process.

Story Needs vs Marketer Duties

At a very high level, using Agile methodology means marketing teams continuously iterate on campaigns. They divide up bigger tasks into smaller pieces that can be accomplished in a specific window (called a Sprint), with the most important elements prioritized higher in each Sprint. Whatever the team has to do to complete the Story is called Acceptance Criteria (how you can ‘accept’ if a Story is done or not).

Marketing has been historically built on employee specialization, having someone who is a social media expert, another who does just events, and so on. However, Agile Marketing requires that, while one person may be the subject matter expert on an area of marketing, other people on the team must participate in executing whatever is deemed most important to the team’s success in that particular Sprint.

That means, if you are a social media expert, you might have a Story in a Sprint about monitoring a social channel and responding as warranted. In the same Sprint, though, you might also have to participate in another Story about helping finalize the logistics about an upcoming user conference. Similarly, the events person may help you out in another Sprint that includes a Story about doing a social listening report.

It’s not enough to for people who have some free time in that Sprint to raise their hands to volunteer to work on a story, which, of course, should happen. It might actually make more sense to move someone off one Story and on to another to ensure you have a subject matter expert (SME) keeping each Story on track.

This is a huge change management issue for many teams. There is the immediate shock of doing things that are not in your area of expertise. Then there is the issue of “my things” not getting done because “someone else’s” topics are more important. On top of that, some marketers will find it challenging to live with the high level of uncertainty that comes with not knowing who will be working on each Story from day to day.

On top of that, in a catch 22, though, more junior or specialized staff will never get the necessary experience to help on “someone else’s story” unless they get added to Stories where they are not the SMEs. In this way, the specialization that has developed in marketing moves back to a certain level of generalization, the complete opposite of what the industry has been encouraging marketers to do in recent years.

Don’t skimp on the preparation in this area or it will come back to bite you with unhappy employees and less achieved than in the past.

Story Awareness and Ownership

Another component of Agile that requires preparation are implications of the Story-based structure on the traditional “ownership” mindset. The clear expectation is that a Story is not one person’s problem to solve but that of the entire team.

On Daily Scrum calls, for example, team members identify progress for each Story so that the entire team is aware of what is going on or call out barriers to success. Others then pitch in to share the workload and achieve the Acceptance Criteria before the end of the Sprint or chime in with ideas to help overcome barriers that other teammates may not have thought of.

By default, this Story-based focus also ensures that everyone is aware of what is going on with the rest of the team. There is a read out in Daily Scrum and Sprint Reviews ensure that everyone has a deep understanding of what was accomplished, how, and why.

Awareness is less of an issue with teams located in the same physical spot but, for geographical dispersed teams, this Story-focus is invaluable. It also gives the rest of the team a good way of seeing more connections they might not have been aware of, allowing better linkages across all the areas your team is working on.

The positive side of group ownership of Stories is that the most important Stories get the focus of the entire team. The negative, potentially, is that there may be competition to “own” a story – or the exact opposite, where no one feels a compelling need to step up.  The Product Owner and Scrum Master have to monitor that and sure full utilization of all team members. The Product Owner and Scrum Master also need to prepared so they can ensure everyone on the team feels included and motivated over time, even when they don’t own the final deliverable or are not the SME for several Sprints in a row.

Help the team overall and especially the Product Owner and Scrum Master to prepare for these changes in perception that are required when adopting Agile in marketing.

Comments are welcome, especially examples of how your marketing team changed its perspective to adapt to Agile.

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