Agile marketing for a world of constant change

[UPDATE: I’ve also posted a video recording of this agile marketing presentation that I gave at the Marketo User Summit in April 2013.]

Today I’m giving a presentation at the Marketing Operations Executive Summit on agile marketing. Given the tremendous disruption in marketing and business today, I truly believe that embracing an agile approach to marketing management may be the single most valuable decision an organization can make.

Here’s my slide deck, along with an essay version of my talk, that explains agile marketing and why you should seriously consider adopting it:

Agile Marketing: Managing Marketing in a World of Constant Change

Don’t panic, but… marketing is exploding.

Seriously. Boom! Bam! Ka-pow!

We’re wrestling with an explosion of ever-shifting touchpoints and channels where we have to connect with our audience. To call the social media landscape fragmented is like saying Sybil was, um, slightly unbalanced.

Across this kaleidoscope of touchpoints, we’re responsible an explosion of content — “content” being the catch-all word for, well, the majority of what marketing produces. And according to the latest research from the CMI, our biggest challenge is churning out MORE content, faster. Followed closely by the challenge of producing content that isn’t complete crap. No tension between those objectives, right?

We have to deliver this content — and more than just content, but functional customer experiences — across an explosion of different devices. There’s the desktop, the smartphone, the tablet, the phablet. I can’t believe I just said the word “phablet.” And just wait until the Internet of Things goes mainstream. We even have to think about how people will use combinations of these devices at the same time!

We’re now faced with an explosion of technologies to help us execute all these content and experience opportunities on all these devices in all these touchpoints, but this “help” requires us to navigate a dizzying array of different solutions. And while people talk about consolidation in marketing technology, the in-flow of new marketing technology start-ups is still greatly outpacing the out-flow of acquisitions or less graceful departures from the market.

In turn, all of these technologies are generating an explosion of data that truly boggles the mind. According to a recent estimate from Google, we’ve generated 90% of all data in the entire history of the world in just the past two years. 2.5 quintillion bytes of data per day. And it’s only accelerating. Somewhere in all that, we’re told there’s a pony, and it’s marketing’s job to find it.

All of this is leading to an explosion of new ideas. Or, if you prefer to think of it as simply your head exploding, believe me, I’d understand. You have ideas. Your agencies have ideas. Your software vendors have ideas. If you can tell your agencies and your software vendors apart, that is. Your summer intern has ideas. It’s quite possible that the summer intern has the best ideas. Heck, every time your CEO touches one of his or her five different devices a new idea comes your way.

Our imaginations are running wild, which is a wonderful thing. Except while the ideas have multiplied, the hours in the day have stayed the same. Or possibly shrunk, as some function of Einstein’s relativity and time-shifting episodes of The Big Bang Theory.

I mean, holy cats! It’s pretty much a full-time job just keeping up with all the things that we should be keeping up with.

Okay, maybe a little panic is appropriate.

I know, throughout the history of humankind, change has been the only constant. But the scale of change happening in marketing today dwarfs almost all other changes we’ve seen in the past 40 years in our profession. Certainly the speed at which these changes are happening is unprecedented. Faster, and faster, and faster.

It can make you a little nauseous. Is this ever going to slow down?

Unfortunately, this is the new normal for marketing. Frankly, it’s the new normal for the world in general. Change is accelerating. You may have heard that Google recently hired the famous futurist Ray Kurzweil? Kurzweil has predicted that this acceleration will lead to “technological change so rapid and profound, it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history.” You know, like Skynet. Or The Matrix. And you think we have challenges from technology today?

Well, we do have challenges from technology today.

When challenges become significant enough we give them names. Like real-time marketing. The Oreo “you can still dunk in the dark” Superbowl tweet got a lot of attention as an example of this kind of brand responsiveness to opportunities in the moment. But this is bigger than the quest for a mythically viral tweet. As the book Real-Time Marketing & PR by David Meerman Scott illustrates across a number of scenarios, the real power here is for marketing teams to be able to nimbly adapt to what’s happening around them. It’s about living in the world, not just broadcasting to it. And through such authentic participation, we can connect more meaningfully with our audience.

Another label circulating around is high-metabolism marketing. It’s the same phenomenon that we’re talking about with real-time marketing, but I like high-metabolism marketing because it emphasizes that it’s our organizations that need to get better at harnessing raw market carbohydrates and rapidly converting them into useful brand energy. The image of a high-speed workout on an elliptical machine also feels like a fitting metaphor.

There’s also a bit of one-upmanship in labeling that my marketing is faster than your marketing. What’s next? Warp-drive marketing? “I’m giving the Interwebs all she’s got, Captain!”

Which raises the obvious question: is it too late to consider a career change to something more tranquil? Like a role on Deadliest Catch?

True fact: commercial Alaskan king crab fishermen have longer average tenure than CMOs. No, really. Average CMO tenure is now 4.8 years, while Deadliest Catch is sailing into its ninth season.

But we don’t want to change careers. We love marketing.

However, it’s reached a point where we need to step back from chasing fixes for the latest disruption du jour. Instead, we need to consider ways we can make our organizations more adaptive to change in general. To change how we think about change. So that when the next new thing explodes — maybe next week — we’re better able to capitalize on it.

Sounds good. But how?

That’s the purpose of agile marketing.

Now, your first reaction to the phrase agile marketing might be, “Great, just what we need. Another buzzword euphemism for work faster.” High-metabolism. Agile. It’s starting to sound like marketing is an Olympic sport. (I certainly think it should be.)

Admittedly, the word agile has been used casually by lots of people to make lots of things sound sexy. Hey, it’s a nice word. The dictionary definition of agile is marked by ready ability to move with quick, easy grace. Like an agile dancer. That sounds nice. Who wouldn’t want to be agile? The question still on the table is how.

The agile marketing we’re going to explore here, however, is not a lofty platitude. It’s an actual management methodology. Sometimes the distinction is made as little-a agile — that is, agile as an adjective — versus Big-A Agile as a proper noun for the methodology.

But we’re going to just use lowercase agile marketing to mean the application of agile management methods in the context of marketing. It’s really Big-A Agile we’re talking about, but capitalization is too hard on mobile phones. Besides, as marketers, the copywriter in our DNA has an allergic reaction to too much capitalization.

So what is agile management?

Agile management is an iterative and adaptive process where small, highly-collaborative teams work in a series of short cycles, incorporating rapid feedback, to deliver emergent solutions, emphasizing transparency among all stakeholders.

Say what? That sounds like one sentence short of a mission statement.

Agile management deserves better than gobbledygook. So let’s start by throwing out that wordy definition and just emphasize one thing: agile management is an adaptive process.

A better way to appreciate agile, I believe, is to understand how it originated.

A brief history of agile management

While there were many early forerunners of agile practices, including pioneers in lean Japanese manufacturing processes, the agile we know today really took hold with software engineers. (It sounds like the voice-over to a B-movie ghost story, “It began with software engineers, on a dark and stormy project…”).

Waterfall Model

See, for many years, software development projects were run according to something known as the “waterfall” method of project management. It was called waterfall because, on paper, the process kind of looked like a waterfall, cascading sequentially from one stage to another. A project would start with comprehensive requirements gathering — what all all the things we need this software to do. Once requirements were finalized, architects would map out the design. Once that was done then developers would begin implementation. Then it would go on to verification, delivery, and maintenance forever after.

It’s important to recognize that the waterfall is a predictive process, not an adaptive one. At each stage we’re predicting what we’re going to need further down the falls.

Unfortunately, that approach has a lot of problems. First, the hand-offs from one stage to another are like a great big game of “telephone.” What people thought they codified in the requirements can morph into something else in the design. And the way programmers interpret that design in their implementation evolves even further. At the very end of process, the customer may literally exclaim, “What?! This isn’t what I wanted.”

Not a happy day.

But even if the fidelity of our vision were perfect from end to end, the waterfall would still end badly. Because in the real world, things change. Between the point in time when we gathered all our requirements, and then 6, 9, 12 months down the road when the final implementation is delivered, our requirements could have easily shifted.

And that’s a big problem, because going back up the waterfall is perilous. You don’t get to the end of your year-long project, after everyone has poured in blood, sweat, and tears, late night after late night, just to say — um, just kidding — we actually need something different. That leads to inappropriate language in the workplace.

After seeing this heartbreaking pattern play out too many times, a number of software developers began to explore other ways of managing these projects. There must be a better way.

In 2001, a group of those developers gathered together and launched the manifesto for agile software development. Their manifesto emphasized four key values:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools — recognizing that building software was a decidedly creative human endeavor.
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation — all those binders of specs and designs weren’t what people really wanted.
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation — let’s spend less time haggling over paperwork and more time building something amazing together.
  • Responding to change over following a plan — requirements will will change, and we should embrace them instead of fighting them.

Given these values, a number of different agile development methodologies started to proliferate in software engineering circles. The most popular one, by far, is an agile management framework called Scrum.

Scrum is the quintessential agile management framework

Scrum Agile Management

Scrum looks quite different than the waterfall. Instead of cascading stages, we have an ever-evolving backlog of things we want. We take a few items off at a time and build them out in an incremental fashion. We deliver those increments quickly to get feedback. We then adjust the backlog and do another increment. And then another. And so on.

Probably the most iconic artifact of Scrum — and other agile approaches — is the task board. Everyone can see the backlog of items to be done, ordered according to their priority. Members of the team take items off the backlog and move them into a work-in-progress column. When items are completed, they’re triumphantly moved to the “done” column.

Items on the backlog are often written as user stories, rather than mere features. “As a (particular role), I want to (achieve a particular goal or desire) so that (benefit).” This helps everyone focus on outcomes over implementation details.

Agile Task Board

Traditionally, agile teams used post-it notes or index cards for items on a physical task board. There is something oddly satisfying about moving these tangible slivers of paper around. But there are also many great software options for task boards on the web, such as Trello.

The rhythm of Scrum is driven by short work cycles, 1-4 weeks long, called sprints. Every sprint, the team aims to deliver the next increment of working software. A typical sprint team will consist of 4 to 8 cross-functional people. For large scale projects, you may have many of these teams working in parallel. But keeping the size of any one team small — what Jeff Bezos of Amazon calls a “two pizza box” team — is crucial to the agile dynamic.

The cross-functional nature of team members is important too. In agile, we often talk about “T-shaped” people, who may have deep specialization or talent in a particular area — say, user interface design — but are also willing to pitch in on a wide variety of other tasks. In an agile team, everybody pitches in on everything. No one says, “I’m just the UI person, so don’t bother me until you have some UI for me to do.”

The whole team either succeeds together or fails together.

One of the key activities of agile teams in a sprint is the daily 15-minute stand-up. The whole team meets every day — ideally in person, although video conferencing like Skype is the next best alternative if people are remote. The stand-up is literally held standing up to help remind everyone to keep it to strictly 15 minutes.

During the stand-up, everyone goes around and answers three questions:

  1. What did I do yesterday?
  2. What am I going to do today?
  3. Are there any impediments in my way?

The goal is to always have complete transparency among the team. Everyone always knows who’s doing what, it’s easy to stay coordinated, and if an impediment comes up that’s preventing forward progress, it’s quickly identified. Other stakeholders are welcome to listen in at these stand-ups, but they don’t actively participate. In the daily stand-up, the team gets in, syncs up, and gets on with their work — any impediments or questions from other stakeholders are handled outside the meeting.

At the end of the sprint, the team aims to deliver a potentially shippable increment. For the subset of items taken from the backlog for that sprint, at least the first iteration of them should be done. You should never be more than one sprint away from shipping something. “Ship early, ship often” is the mantra many agile developers use.

The team holds a sprint review to examine what they completed, share it with other stakeholders, and solicit feedback. It’s show-and-tell time! Suggestions for ways the software could be improved — “oh, now that I see what I was asking for, I’d really like it to behave this other way” — get added to the backlog for subsequent sprints.

We’re iteratively and incrementally honing in on our ideal product in an adaptive fashion.

Agile: Inspect and Adapt

There’s one more meeting at the close of each sprint. The team does a sprint retrospective to examine not the software that was produced, but the process that produced it. Team members vote for what they’d like to see done differently in future sprints — more of this, less of that, start doing this, stop doing that. The team constantly adapts themselves to find the optimal dynamic in their collaboration.

And then the process repeats. Agile is a continuous loop of plan, build, inspect, adapt, repeat.

Agile methodologies such as Scrum have become very popular among software developers, especially in start-ups and with new product development teams. Why? Because these approaches work. In a recent survey of agile practitioners, 10 years after that agile manifesto, these are the benefits attributed to the adoption of agile:

  • 84% report the ability to change priorities
  • 77% report improved project visibility
  • 75% report increased productivity
  • 72% report improved team morale
  • 71% report faster time-to-market

That’s pretty impressive.

Okay, yay for the software developers. Now, what does this have to do with marketing?

The marketing plan is dead

That is a dead marketing plan.

Remember the marketing plan? That great once-a-year tome that would spell out all our detailed requirements and designs for the marketing team to execute for the next 12 months. I’m sorry to say, it’s dead. It just couldn’t carry on in our world of constant change.

“Whoa,” you might be saying. “I didn’t get that memo. Who killed the marketing plan?”

The connected consumer killed the marketing plan. See, instead of passively absorbing our perfectly crafted marketing — as generations of customers had before him — the connected customer has taken control of his buyer’s journey. He’s hooked up with other prospects and customers. They’ve found or become influencers, advocates, detractors. They question what we say and demand answers, quickly. They ruthlessly compare us to competitors, judge us, praise us, chide us, advise us, all out in the public square. It’s 24/7, and you can’t turn it off.

Google calls this feeding frenzy the ZMOT — the Zero Moment of Truth.

We marketers call it a mess. From where we sit, it looks like someone took our nice, linear marketing funnel and mangled it into some complex, twisted shape that’s unrecognizable in the step-by-step playbook that was our marketing plan.

“What exactly are we supposed to do with this!?”

Cynefin Framework

To answer that, let me share with you something called the Cynefin Framework, which is quite popular in the agile community. (It’s a Welsh word, pronounced ku-nev-in.) Created by the knowledge management scholar David Snowden, the Cynefin Framework classifies the different kinds of environments in which managers have to make decisions into five categories:

  1. Simple — where cause-and-effect is readily apparent. These situations lend themselves to codified best practices and standard operating procedure. When X happens, do Y. Pretty straightforward.
  2. Complicated — where cause-and-effect are related, but that relationship has many more steps and moving parts. These situations tend to require experts and more in-depth analysis to know what to do.
  3. Complex — where there are causes and effects, but they’re entangled in ways that can’t be predictably separated, even by experts. Here you’re looking for empirical patterns while engaging in trial-and-error sense-making.
  4. Chaotic — where all hell is breaking loose. There’s no time for divining patterns. You need to just act and react, and save the discussion and contemplative analysis for after the fact.
  5. Disorder — when you don’t yet know which of the four categories above describes your current situation.

The distinction between complicated and complex may seem subtle, but it’s important. Because agile methodologies are ideally suited for complex environments, yet they aren’t as useful in complicated ones. Snowden describes the difference this way:

A Ferrari is complicated. You or I couldn’t assemble one from a box of parts. But in the hands of an expert mechanic, a Ferrari can be disassembled and reassembled. Everything fits together precisely, predictably.

A rainforest, on the other hand, is complex. There are patterns to the interaction effects between all the different species of plants and animals, the weather, the geography. But it’s impossible to isolate any one particular cause-and-effect relationship. A change you make in one spot triggers all other kinds of side effects that become new causes for other effects and side effects, and so on. It is an organic, interdependent ecosystem.

And that gets to the crux of what’s different in marketing today.

Marketing used to be complicated. Now it is complex.

The fragmented social media landscape is complex. The dynamic marketing technology landscape is complex. The interrelationships between connected customers are complex. There are causes and effects here, but they are entangled together in wondrously unfathomable ways.

As marketers, we know this is true, because we experience the complexity every day. 79% of CMOs have said they expect high to very high complexity over the next few years.

So what do you do in a complex environment?

According to Snowden, you should continuously probe, sense, and respond. You experiment to find and exploit patterns. You remain alert to detect when those patterns change. You adapt.

What would such complex sense-making look like in marketing? David Armano, now one of the senior executives at Edelman Digital, illustrated it beautifully several years ago, showing the difference between “conventional marketing” and “unconventional marketing.”

Conventional vs. Unconventional Marketing

Conventional marketing is complicated. We start with a big strategy. We test that strategy with a set of consumers in highly controlled focus groups. We make a few adjustments. Then all at once — bang! — we do a big launch with everything highly synchronized, from our advertising to the slogans on the t-shirts of retail staff. After the dust settles, we do a whole bunch of analysis and then we start to plan the next big campaign.

But what David called unconventional marketing is much more about adapting to complexity. You start with a little strategy. You engage in iterative cycles of plan-design-launch-measure that are executed tightly together. After a series of iterations, you step back to reflect on insights learned, patterns discovered. And that seamlessly leads into the next little strategy, rising up the learning curve.

Agile marketing thrives in complexity

So back to that dead marketing plan. If the marketing plan is dead, what’s the replacement? Surely we’re still going to need some organizing process to get things done?

Thinking about it for a bit, that old yearly marketing plan and Big Bang style campaigns kind of resembled the waterfall approach to software development. While these iterative cycles of adaptive, little strategies kind of look like that Scrum framework used in agile development. Could we adapt agile development methodologies to help us manage complex, modern marketing?

Spoiler alert. The short answer is: “Yes!”

Let’s go back to those values from the manifesto for agile software development. How might we interpret those values in the context of marketing? Would we have different values?

At least a couple of the values from the original manifesto seem to fit perfectly for agile marketing:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools. Whether it’s software development or marketing, agile succeeds by motivating people to work together to create something of value. It’s about open communication and collaboration, face-to-face as much as possible. In agile marketing, we’ll also want to consider meaningful interactions with customers as individuals — not just abstract markets.

Responding to change over following a plan. Some degree of planning is good. A clear vision to guide where we’re headed, give us our true north, is great. But we need to respond to market feedback. Act on new opportunities. Avoid “sunk cost” traps of continuing to do something mechanically instead of nimbly adapting our ideas and methods to new information.

While agile development emphasizes the value of working software over comprehensive documentation, agile marketing should value delighting customers over enshrining internal processes:

Remarkable customer experiences over formalized internal procedures. Modern marketing is not manufacturing. To be sure, some structure and standardization is useful in an organization. But it’s crucial that we don’t get caught up in the means — how we operate internally — and lose sight of the end: delivering remarkable customer experiences. That’s what wins in the world of the connected customer. Customers don’t care about organizational policies, politics, or silos. They just want a great experience from you. And we have to be careful not to let the data and the technology detach us from those real human beings on the other end of the telescope. As any good data scientist will tell you, “The model is not reality.”

Agile marketing also has two new values that are specific to its mission:

Testing and data over opinions and conventions. Marketing has a rich legacy of gut instincts and experience-driven decision making. Not coincidentally, it also has a rich legacy of survivorship bias. Modern marketing, however, is blessed with many easy opportunities to run controlled experiments to test our ideas. Opinions and historical conventions are a source of ideas, but we should test them — to seek validated learning — rather than blindly following the HiPPO (highest-paid person’s opinion). That’s how you create a data-driven decision making culture. As W. Edwards Deming famously said, “In God we trust, all others bring data.”

Many small experiments over a few large bets. We can leverage testing and data to build a culture of experimentation. This give us three benefits to the efficacy of marketing. First, instead of guessing about big bets, we can try many ideas on a small scale — including very innovative “long shots” in a low-risk context — toss out the ones that don’t work and scale up the ones that do. Second, we can make our campaigns and marketing programs more adaptive and iterative, continuously improving based on feedback from our audience. And third, we can harness these small-experiment capabilities to better address more targeted segments of customers. Motto: discovery is better than prophecy.

I know, for many companies, this is a lot to consider — it’s very different than the way things have been done in most marketing departments. But truthfully, agile marketing isn’t all that radical of an idea anymore. A number of bestselling thought leaders in business have been advocating for these same values:

The Lean Startup champions the very spirit of agile marketing — an iterative and adaptive feedback loop: build, measure, learn.

But we’ve got a ways to go. A study last year by the Marketing Leadership Council found that 74% of Fortune 1,000 marketers didn’t believe their teams were effective at test-and-learn experiments. Agile marketing is a way to turn that around.

That’s going to be ever more important in the age of big data, because big data relies on experimentation to thrive. Big data is terrific at generating hypotheses, the output of all our analyses on it. But in order to prove that a particular correlation is actually an insight that will improve business requires — yes — a controlled experiment. This is why I believe that big testing will be bigger than big data.

If you agree with these values in principle, the next question is, how do we translate them into practice? What does agile marketing actually look like? If agile development delivers software, what does agile marketing deliver?

The quick answer might be: content. Marketing delivers content. And true, we do deliver a boatload of content. But a better approach is to think about stories along the buyer’s journey. They’re analogous to user stories in agile development. Buyer stories might revolve around receiving a particular piece of content to help with a certain stage of their decision process. But they also might require more interactive experiences. As a (persona), I want (goal/desire) so that (benefit). These are stories from the customer’s perspective, although they may be written by people in marketing and sales on behalf of the customer.

So for an agile management framework like Scrum to work in marketing, we need to be able to break down marketing missions into small, discrete components that we can deliver incrementally and adapt over a series of sprints. This probably doesn’t work for your massive globally-synchronized rebranding. But where could it work?

  • Content marketing is great for agile marketing. Each piece of content is naturally a discrete unit. You can experiment with many different content themes for different audiences at different stages, iterate and adapt them, scale the ones that work. It’s great to be able to quickly re-prioritize content marketing plans to take advantage of new trends and topics that arise in the market.
  • Social media marketing is great for agile marketing. You have discrete units of different engagements across different social platforms and communities. You can build relationships with influencers in an adaptive and incremental way. You can respond to feedback more nimbly.
  • Web development is great for agile marketing. Actually, web development often looks like an agile development project, so it’s a very natural fit. And every website is a work-in-progress, with a backlog of incremental content and features we want to add or update. Web analytics provide a great mechanism for continuous adaptation based on testing and data.
  • Search engine optimization (SEO) is great for agile marketing. This really is a subset of content marketing and web development, but it lends itself to a prioritization of bite-sized tasks. And when Google changes their algorithms, an agile SEO team can react swiftly.
  • Mobile app development is great for agile marketing. Like web development, this is a software project at its core, and it lends itself nicely to agile iterations — especially given the high-speed evolution of mobile marketing. The ability to rapidly deploy new versions of your apps out into the marketplace is golden.
  • Marketing automation is great for agile marketing. You’re able to constant expand and refine nurture programs and automated or semi-automated flows along the buyer’s journey. You can break out new audience segments to target on an experimental basis.
  • PPC advertising is great for agile marketing. On search engines and social networks, campaigns are constantly evolving, and they can be optimized in logical groups that fit into short sprints. You can get quick feedback and adapt accordingly. PPC is a spectacular domain for marketing experimentation.
  • Landing page optimization is great for agile marketing. This flows seamlessly from agile efforts in social, PPC, and nurturing campaigns. You can generate new post-click experiences quickly, A/B test alternatives to run meaningful experiments on new hypotheses, target different experiences to different audience segments.
  • Mobile landing page optimization is great for agile marketing too.

I mention landing page optimization twice because I like it. And in full disclosure, my company sells software for agile production and testing of amazing landing pages, microsites, and other post-click experiences. (Ahem, sorry, a little self-promotion there.)

But the point is that actually many marketing missions can be broken into discrete chunks for iterative and adaptive delivery. And, like with agile software development, we don’t necessarily have to ship every increment. But they are potentially shippable increments. We’re never more than one sprint away from having the option of delivering something meaningful to the buyer’s journey.

Getting started with agile marketing

So how do you begin? Start by reading. (Like this essay — you’ve taken your first step.)

You should pick up a copy of Essential Scrum by Kenneth S. Rubin. It was written for agile software development, but the first three chapters are a terrific high-level introduction to Scrum that is extremely relevant to agile marketing. Chapter 3 in particular should be required reading for everyone in business today — all about the values of agile management. And the subsequent chapters will be interesting as you get further into the process.

Of course, agile marketing is different from agile software development. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of books on the subject. However, many agile marketing practitioners have shared their experiences on the web. In addition to this site, where I have a dedicated category of agile marketing articles, you should also check out other agile marketing resources such as:

…and that’s just a few links to get you started.

Share these ideas and articles with your colleagues. Discuss them over coffee or beer. What do you think of this? Could this work here? Who would be interested? Don’t just talk with your peers in marketing. Reach out to people in IT and sales. Adopting agile marketing will likely effect them, and even though the effects will be positive, changes always take some getting used to. You want broad understanding and support for what you’re trying to do. Who knows? Some of the folks in IT or product development may have experience with agile software development, and you can learn from their experience first hand.

Share these ideas with the managers and executives above you. The most challenging aspects of adopting agile management are almost always the accompanying shifts in culture required for this approach to thrive. You will need executive support for this to take root.

Once you reach a critical mass of interest, solicit volunteers for your first agile team — a pilot agile marketing program.

As you begin your first sprint, plan to take some time to acclimate to the agile process. Have modest expectations for the outputs from your first few sprints. You need to learn how to ride the bicycle before you sign up for the Tour de France.

In particular, focus on being agile, not just doing agile. You won’t get the benefits of agile if you go through the mechanics of something like Scrum without seeking to embrace the spirit of being agile. There are tales of people who’ve tried to fit old waterfall processes into agile: one sprint for planning, two sprints for design, four sprints for implementation, etc. That doesn’t work. Keep the values of agile marketing clearly in your sights.

Now the hard part: brace yourself for resistance.

Agile marketing is a different approach to management. While it is extremely effective in complex environments, most organizational structures and modes of operation were built around more well-ordered-but-complicated missions. You will almost certainly face some scared cows. And you need to be prepared to address those challenges openly and diplomatically.

According to that survey of agile practitioners, three of the top reasons why agile adoption fails are:

  • 52% cite the inability to change culture
  • 39% cite general resistance to change
  • 34% cite lack of manager support

Adopting agile marketing is not unlike any other change management initiative: it’s hard to do. And depending on the existing culture of your organization, agile may be particularly hard. A recent McKinsey article described a common reaction that managers have to agile at their first encounter with it: “To the uninitiated (and sometimes even to those in the industry), this way of working feels like barely controlled chaos.” (Emphasis added is mine.)

David Snowden cautions that as managers work in complex environments, they constantly face “the temptation to fall back into traditional command-and-control management styles.”

Whew. This sounds hard. And it can be. But is it worth it?

Well, that same McKinsey article was actually advocating for agile and had this to say: “Accelerated cycles, increased transparency, and teaming outside the typical organizational boundaries (both within and outside the company) will have great impact.”

Marketing Punctuated Equilibrium

Many scientists believe that evolution happens according to a theory of punctuated equilibrium. That environments go for long periods of time of relative stability, during which there isn’t much speciation. But then we enter a disruptive period where that becomes incredibly unstable, experiencing rapid changes. It’s during these punctuated times of disruption that new species evolve at a spectacular rate, find ways to adapt to their new environment.

Marketing today is in such a rapidly changing environment.

As Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s and subject of the book and the movie Moneyball would say, “Adapt or die. Adapt or die.”

Marketing is exploding. But by taking new approaches to how we manage marketing, we can productively harness these explosions of changes, like a combustion engine. Agile marketing lets you tap those powerful disruptions for your advantage.

I hope this helps get you started on your agile marketing journey.

P.S. The inspiration for this presentation and essay came from many brilliant people, including but not limited to:

Agile Marketing: Matt Blumberg, John Cass, Jonathon Colman, Frank Days, Jim Ewel, Neil Perkin, Todd Shimizu, Jascha Kaykas-Wolff. Agile Development: Kent Beck, Ron Jeffries, Mitch Lacey, Robert C. Martin, Kenneth S. Rubin, Michael Sahota, Ken Schwaber, Jeff Sutherland. And More: David Armano, Brian Clark, Steve Denning, Jim Manzi, Eric Ries, Peter Sims, David K. Snowden, Brian Solis. And dozens, if not hundreds, of others from the broad agile and marketing communities.

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13 thoughts on “Agile marketing for a world of constant change”

  1. Scott, great presentation. Could you expand a bit on the topic of how Agile Marketing can get implemented in a traditional command + control setting/organization? Doesn’t it require the other stakeholders in the organization to be Agile as well or at least understand it and accept it? This is a very different approach and while I support this approach, I wonder if this will disrupt the world as they know it. Can Agile Marketing succeed without Agile HR, Agile Finance, Agile Merchandising, Agile Store Ops, etc? Is it an ‘all-or-nothing’ approach for an organization?

    1. Thanks, Michael — glad you liked it.

      Strong command-and-control organizations generally find it more challenging to adopt “agile” management methods than organizations that have more of a collaborative or cultivating culture. But some “lean” approaches like Kanban — related to agile, but a little different — can work well in control-driven cultures. Here’s a great article by Michael Sahota on just that (in the context of agile software development, but I believe it’s generally applicable to management of other functions):

      I don’t believe that an organization has to adapt agile in all of its departments in order to have success with agile. Many organizations have been successful using agile software development on their product teams without that methodology being adopted elsewhere. Actually, there are probably many functions within most companies that aren’t a great fit for agile — more “simple” or “complicated” functions in David Snowden’s model. Adopt it only where it makes sense and makes the team more effective.

      Definitely not an ‘all-or-nothing’ proposition.

      That being said, given the way the world of business is changing — whether individual business choose to recognize it or not — I do think it’s a good idea for senior management teams to think long and hard about agile and lean management values and how they may be able to incorporate them more broadly into their culture.

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  3. Hi, David.

    I believe that the session was recorded — I’ll let you know if/when they make a video available. I’ll also be talking about this again next month at the Marketo User Summit and in an ion interactive webinar that everyone is welcome to attend. Check for the webinar info.

  4. Philosophically sound and logical…I agree with the forgone conclusion…that flexibility in a rapidly changing environment enhances successful decision making. A process always leads towards scalability and optimization. My interests lie primarily with client interaction and extracting business intelligence from those interactions. I teach that those client interactions form and shape the structure of your business. Everything else is just a detail…..great presentation…enjoyed the new info….keep up the good work!

  5. Scott – Thank you for sharing this presentation with those of us who weren’t in attendance at the Summit. I appreciate your breakdown of marketing components that would be ideal for agile marketing. In simply answering the “how and where do I start?” question for interested marketing teams, you’ve encouraged adoption of this approach. Success in embracing new processes or technologies or tools must first come from a change in one’s behavior, a decision to do things differently. Thanks for pointing out ways to do just that with agile marketing.

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  9. Rodrigo Silveira

    This is an excellent article exploring the integration of agile and marketing. I have a couple of minor itches with it. Marketing is not about delivering content; marketing is about conceptualizing, developing, and collaborating on the deploying of strategy to prospect, acquire, and maintain customers. A mechanical approach to be good at delivering content will miss the mark, by a wide margin. The agile discussion related to software engineering is again focused on the mechanics of building artifacts, like marketing content. Building software is a bit more complex than that, without a superb vision, and a robust design, there is nothing a good agile process can do to help it; the same is true for marketing.

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