The Agile Marketers are Coming … to Moscow

Red_SquareLast week my friend and fellow Agile marketer, Jim Ewel, and I travelled to Moscow to deliver an Agile marketing training that was arranged by a Moscow based consulting firm called AgileSpace. This firm is led by Marina and Dmitry Simonovy—a husband and wife team that appear to be fermenting an Agile marketing revolution in Russia. 

This was the first time I’ve co-led a two day Agile training—or any Agile training for that matter—Jim has more experience running such trainings than I do. Typically I have opportunities to deliver shorter presentations on the value of Agile to marketing leaders but this was opportunity to dive deeply into some of the content from The Marketing Agility Podcast, my book The Agile Marketer, and into Jim’s work from

Adapting Agile

  We had a diverse mix of participants from business owners, to Agile coaches, and marketers who were just getting started with Agile. And the participants represented a broad range of industries from banking to manufacturing and retail. At first that seemed like a challenge but in practice the broad range of perspectives made for great conversations about just how adaptable Agile is. 

There were many takeaways from the experience that will inform any future training that I am part of. Perhaps this is true of other kinds of trainings as well but I walked away with a better understanding of how to teach Agile effectively. Beyond that, the Agile trainers in the audience enriched my own understanding of some key Agile practices such as the retrospective. For example, we learned about how some teams maintain a dedicated backlog of ideas focused on how to improve their method of choice. This feeds the “start” category in the “start, stop, continue” retrospective format. 

Beyond User Stories

One other takeaway of note has to do with user stories—a topic that we discussed at length with Jim on The Marketing Agility Podcast. Marketers really struggle with user stories, a fact that became very clear when we ran exercises around user story development. I won’t go into too much depth here but I walked away with a much greater appreciation for the range of things marketers put in their backlogs from epics, to user stories, tests, and tasks. 

As I reflect on our training, I wonder if there are any rules of thumb around the balance of epics, to user stories (or tests), to tasks? Epics break up into user stories and user stories break into tasks but depending on how granularly you break things up the ratios will differ. And, I suppose that the initiative will cause these ratios to differ as well. Still, I feel like i have a gut sense of just how granular tasks to optimize one’s practice …. now I just need to find some way of translating that “sense” into a framework that others might find useful!

Agile Sales

Sometime in the not too distant future, we’ll host a Marinaconversation on The Marketing Agility Podcast with Marina that will focus on how she applies Agile to sales. In my book, I discuss how sales can support an Agile practice in marketing by helping to prototype and test collateral, messaging, packaging ideas, etc as a representation of a minimum viable product (MVP) but that’s really an extension of the marketing practice rather than a foundational sales practice. 

So what is in the sales backlog? What are the deliverables and how do they relate to the deliverables in the marketing backlog? For example, consider sales decks used in a complex B2B sale—these decks are traditionally developed by the marketing team with input from sales … how would an Agile sales team change that process or dynamic? Is Agile sales an outgrowth of companies that have not yet adopted Agile in the marketing context. I have lots of questions 🙂 so I’m sure we’ll have a great conversation. Stay tuned for that!

The State of Agile: SF Agile Marketing Meetup

For those of you who were unable to make it out for the SF Agile Marketing Meetup, here’s a recording of the content that Frank Days and I co-presented. Many thanks to Austin Waine and Paul Willard for organizing!


The Cynefin Framework Necessitates Agile

I recently had the pleasure of co-presenting to a group of senior marketers with Scott Brinker—in the session he introduced the group to the Cynefin Framework by way of explaining why Agile is increasingly being adopted for marketing. I’ve made other arguments for this in my book but I was immediately struck by the usefulness of this framework and am writing to share information about it here.

Scott’s central insight is that marketing as a discipline is shifting from the complicated to complex quadrants. This is because we are managing more experiences across more channels with more interactions between channels and with more technology in play.

In short, it’s no longer possible to gather the data and fully understand/predict what’s going to happen. Instead we must “probe” or run tests to identify promising directions which we’ll pursue. That’s just where the Agile approach fits in. Here’s a great short video that walks through the Cynefin Framework:

Building An Agile Team From Scratch

@BrookeLynnLuxe tweeted to me: 

Brook, here’s some of what comes to mind:

Sprint 0

It’s worth reading up a bit on the Sprint 0 concept, but for now let’s assume that getting started requires that you have a project and a team. Ideally that should be a dedicated cross-functional team but it’s possible to get started with a team of people pulled from existing functional teams (i.e. design, development, testing).

The focus of this post is on the startup context, so there may not be robust functional teams already in place—arguably an advantage when it comes to making Agile stick. This means you’re in a good position to build an Agile marketing organization from the ground up.

Again, because you’re a startup, I’m going to assume that you have a small team of generalists … because that’s what most startup marketers start with. In other words, you’ll have a content person, a design/ux person, a developer (ideally full-stack), an Agile leader, etc.

The Agilist is critical because they’ll refine your method and scale your practice as you grow. They will also drive adoption horizontally across implementation teams and vertically into the leadership. I’ll come back to this role later when I touch on the follow up question about contractors.


Starter Method

Regardless of size I generally suggest that marketers start with a less prescriptive method such as Kanban (rather than Scrum). I talk at length about why in my book, The Agile Marketer but it’s best to iteratively add practices during your retrospective process than to have your teams reject an overly prescriptive method early on.

The four most important practices to adopt out of the gate are:

  1. Agree on a basic method to begin with (and the included practices).
  2. Populate and groom a backlog.
  3. Establish a planning meeting on a regular cadence at which you review the backlog, scope stories, and prioritize the next work items.
  4. Establish a retrospective meeting to review your Agile method and improve it.

If you choose Kanban then you’ll want to set work-in-process limits for each stage. You’ll also want to estimate average cycle time to make sure that you’ve set up your planning and retrospective meetings at the right cadence. You won’t know that at first so I recommend starting with two week cycles.

Note, the concept of timeboxed iterations is part of Scrum but that doesn’t mean you can’t use timeboxes to govern planning and retrospectives with Kanban. This speaks to the need to adapt and evolve methods over time for your project, team and culture.


Spin Off To Scale

As you grow your organization you’ll also specialize the roles. A good way to handle that is to break the initial Agile team into the leaders of spin-off teams. They can bring their experience and leadership to these new teams and help drive alignment across teams. As you scale you should also start considering how to organize teams into a matrix organization a la the Spotify model that I touched on in my earlier post: Combating Agile Objections: It Doesn’t Scale!

As you grow, I’d also considering implementing the Objective and Key Results (OKR) framework to keep the implementation teams in alignment with leadership. It’s never too early to start working with such frameworks. Finally, also from an earlier post, check out Boston Consulting Group’s white paper on The Agile Marketing Organization.


About Agile Contractors, Agencies, and Consultants

In general Agile marketers have realized that they need to bring Agile teams in house to set the stage for success. That said, there are circumstances when you’ll have to rely on contractors, agencies and consultants. I see each of these differently:

  • Contractors – This is most workable when you can find contractors that have a background in Agile and can supplement an existing Agile team. If contractors outnumber your core team I’d be very skeptical about success. I’d also be skeptical about short engagements with contractors. Finally, working with contractors can be a great way of sourcing talent.
  • Agencies – Generally speaking agencies are not well suited to integrating with Agile teams in my experience. Some agencies are trying to position themselves as being Agile but I have not seen a lot of success in this context.
  • Consultants – Consultants can be very helpful when it comes to change management. In the startup context, however, it’s more about setting the team off on the right path from the start. The consultants that are most effective focus on two areas. The first is executive education about the value of Agile—they can help you get your peers in the leadership on board with your process and approach. The second area is as a coaching function for your internal Agilist and teams. In this case they can provide education and training that will accelerate adoption, maturity, and scale.

There’s a lot more I could say on this topic (for example, how to start selecting the technologies in your marketing stack) but I’ll leave that to some of our guests on The Marketing Agility Podcast!

Combating Agile Objections: It Doesn’t Scale!

Scaling Agile marketing is a topic that I expect to come up more and more as Agile gains currency with marketing groups. It’s certainly coming up frequently on The Marketing Agility Podcast so this post pulls together some of my thoughts on the topic. By way of introduction to the topic, here’s a brief quote from my book The Agile Marketer I point out that:

Agile methods scale about as well as any other method. The same scale issues that arise with Waterfall tend to come up with Agile. The single biggest one is communication: The more individuals involved in a project, the bigger the challenge it is to ensure good communication. Dunbar’s number applies here; it states that there is a limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. This is, of course, an inherent barrier to scale, not unique to Agile.

There’s also a second issue to contend with, namely that Agile must be integrated with more traditional research, planning and strategy practices. In other words, scaling Agile isn’t isolated to the teams that are doing implementation. There must be a robust connection between those teams and leadership teams. This is hard and something that I discuss at length in my book but since it was published I’ve come across some frameworks that I think are very useful to consider as you grapple with scale.

I’ve embedded 3 fairly long videos in this post that get into the details of different frameworks that promote scalability. Though it will take some time, it’s worth watching these videos to really grasp some of the emergent patterns that you might be able to apply. At a very high-level I see a few of ideas that run across these frameworks:

  1. Adaptive Methods: These frameworks all highlight the importance of adapting your method in support of scale.
  2. Extending Transparency: A central idea to Agile and each of these frameworks proposes ways of extending transparency beyond the team’s backlog to the program and executive level.
  3. Self-Optimizing Pathways: Transparency sets the stage for better coordination but transparency alone is not enough. These frameworks all promote the development of communication pathways that leverage transparency but which limit the overhead associated with transparency.

Tailoring Agile to your team

A prerequisite for scaling Agile is that you can tailor your method to your team, project, and company culture. If you are not adapting your method you won’t be able to effectively scale. Of course, this is what the retrospective practice is all about. The retrospective is not isolated to the work you released in your most recent iteration, it’s also focused on evolving your Agile method (i.e. Scrum, Kanban, etc). Ultimately methods are just a collection of practices that are bundled together and the retrospective is about adjusting that bundle based on what’s working and what’s not.

I really like the Shuhari framework which breaks down to this:

  1. Shu = Follow the rules
  2. Ha =  Adapt the rules
  3. Ri = Break the rules

The final stage essentially represents mastery—not in the sense that your process is perfect and stable but in the sense that you’re highly adept at continuous improvement. The following presentations touches on this framework in more detail.


Scaling Agile Framework (SAFe)

The following is a wonderful presentation by Henrik Kniberg and Lars Roost that focused on how they’ve scaled Agile at Lego in the context of product management.  To be clear, SAFe has not come to the marketing world yet … and to be frank it’s just gaining traction in product management but it’s a glimpse into the future for marketers. As with Agile in general, marketers are taking a page from product management’s book and this will not be an exception.

You’ll see that this framework includes practices designed to scale Agile across a large team with the use of practice layers (e.g. Scrum of Scrums) and by leveraging transparency to keep leadership in alignment with implementation teams. Prepare to geek out on Agile:


Other relevant frameworks: Google’s OKR

The second video that I am sharing below comes from Google and is focused on their Objectives and Key Results (OKR) framework. This framework has come up in a few conversations recently as a mechanism for connecting leadership with Agile implementation teams The key take away from my perspective is that this framework feels a lot more like a marketing-friendly practice to achieve some of the same goals of the SAFe framework. Again, this is a fairly long and detailed presentation and it really gets into the guts of what you’d need to know to actually get started using OKRs.

Is the OKR framework consistent with Agile? It’s a fair question but going back to the Shuhari framework the question may just be a statement about what stage your team is at. The fact is that these frameworks may be early examples of an emerging dominant design. I’m personally inspired by SAFe and it’s provided depth to my perspective on my team’s Agile practice and I’m also looking forward to exploring OKR’s soon.

Finally, I’d like to share a video from Spotify on their Agile practice and how they’ve scaled it. I love the statement they make up front that Agile is more important than any method. This really speaks to the fact that methods must be evolved to support scale over time. If you really want to get into the guts of what Spotify is doing, check out this paper which was co-authored by Henrik and Anders Ivarsson.

Spotify Engineering Culture – part 1 from Spotify Training & Development on Vimeo.