Scaling Agile Marketing is Hard

Season 2 of The Marketing Agility Podcast is now available in your podcast feed and focuses on the challenges of scaling agile. What’s new is that there are now enough big companies putting agile marketing to work that we can start drawing more reliable insights from these case studies.

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3 Lessons from Season 2

  1. Pilot First: Even if you’re going big—you need to start small. We heard over and over again about the importance of piloting agile transformation to assess company, cultural, and team fit. The learnings from this process will allow you to scale more aggressively later.
  2. Frameworks Matter: Adopting a scaling framework is critical—but frameworks must be adapted too. There are lighter weight and heavier weight scaling frameworks, whichever you choose you should expect to evolve the framework to suit your context.
  3. Diversify Methods: Scale does not imply consistent methods across the board. While scaling frameworks provide and overall consistent structure, successful large scale implementations allow teams to choose and adapt their methods (e.g. Scrum, Kanban, etc).

Our Guests

This season showcases conversations with practitioners as well as vendors and consultants to get a full picture of scaling agile marketing:

I hope you’ll check out the season and share your feedback with Frank and me!

4 Agile Marketing Questions on Organizational Readiness

You’re an agile marketer and you’re gearing up for an interview with a prospective employer. You’ve read my previous post on assessing readiness for agile marketing leadership, check. Your resume is updated, check. You’ve got top of mind anecdotes about what you’ve accomplished, check. Do you have a list of questions to assess how ready the organization is to embrace agility? That’s just what you’ll find below, plus some tips on what to listen for in response:

Would you describe your dream launch process?

This is an opportunity to assess both agile mindset and gain insight into how agile methods are being applied. Be on the lookout for a release process that culminates with a big bang release—that’s a big red flag that can be spotted by researching recent product or service launches. Do your homework in advance so that you can ask about a specific recent release.

Look to see if there was an early release of the product or feature that was only accessible to the user community or a select set of customers. How active were customers in promoting the release? Look at their blog to see if they’ve been testing potential messaging and positioning. These are all good signs of agility— they started with a  minimum viable product (MVP) and have been iterating towards product/market fit while determining what will drive results. Note, this doesn’t mean they didn’t have an “official” launch event but it likely means that the products, services, or features have been in the market before the official launch.

How do teams prioritize their work and integrate strategic direction?

This is an operationally focused question intended to reveal how teams structure and prioritize their work. Agile is a philosophy, or approach, as such it’s more about developing a culture than a strategy. But businesses do require a strategy and it must be reconciled with the approach that teams use to get work done. So, exploring this integration will reveal a lot about the state of agility within the organization.

You’re looking for signals that there is a quarterly strategic planning process such as objectives and key results (OKR) that gets cascaded down into each team’s backlog of work. Ideally, backlogs will be refactored during the OKR setting process. Conversely, you can ask how bottom-up led innovation has influenced, or changed, the strategic direction being set by executive leadership. Here you’re looking for feedback loops that ensure that strategy and innovation are not one directional (i.e. top down).

How is the marketing organization structured? 

In a perfect world agile calls for the deployment of small cross-functional teams that are focused on business initiatives. In reality, this is not all that common (at least in marketing) but organizational design reveals a good bit about how fertile the organization is for agile.

Before you ask this question, consider what the stage of the company is. For startup marketing teams it’s typical to operate as a single agile team. As companies grow the marketing organization typically goes through a period of specialization during which proper organizational functions as formed. In this period the team’s overall agility can suffer because cross-functional work takes a backseat to functional priorities. To regain agility it’s common to set up “virtual” cross-functional teams that are composed of individuals who report into a function but whom commit at least half their time to a cross-functional initiative. While this provides value, it’s not sustainable because these individuals bear the significant burden of frequent context switching.

The most effective agile marketing teams that I’ve seen advance through this period quickly and transition functions to operate as centers-of-excellence which support dedicated cross-functional teams. As a result, specialists like designers and writers are distributed across teams but rely on a central function for guidance and support.

Following this, you should have a sense of how big the marketing organization is on your way into your interview—be on the lookout for how the team is designing their organization to promote agility and scale. Have they experimented with cross-functional teams focused on a business initiative? Do they have any centers-of-excellence? Are there any plans in place to reorganize to improve agility?

How does your organization leverage data to make decisions?

As an approach Agile promotes frequent, small iterations that validate with data that you’re headed in the right direction. With this question, you’re looking for signals that teams are oriented towards leveraging data to answer questions and validate hypotheses. For this to be the case, there must be tooling to support tactical analysis (e.g. email telemetry) as well as a data aggregation service to support strategic analysis across channels (e.g. customer data platform). You’re looking for signals that team is actively using these services to optimize their programs and to test hypotheses. If you have an opinion about the leading tools and technologies that support agile practices this is a good place to raise questions about how the marketing stack supports data driven decision making.

Thanks for reading this content series, if you’re interested in learning more about agile marketing, listen to my book The Agile Marketer: Turning Customer Experience into Your Competitive Advantage. 

Is Your Prospective Employer Ready for an Agile Marketing Leader?

First in a two part series on the agile marketer’s guide to employees.

If, like me, you’re a firm believer in agile as an instrument of competitive advantage than you’re on the lookout for companies and teams where you can put it in play. But how can you best assess these? If you’re an aspiring agile marketing leader, it’s important to know the level of agility of the team you might be joining, or leading. That is the central question in your selection criteria. It’s also important to know for setting expectations about your leadership approach—a process that starts while you’re still interviewing.

You’ll want to approach these conversations differently, depending on whether the company appears to be winning at agile marketing or instead seems in need of organizational change. If it’s winning, you can establish your credibility by discussing agile methods and practices that the company’s marketing organization is using. But if the organization is behind the curve, it’s important to determine readiness and willingness to commit to a new approach. That can be tricky. The best way to do this is by asking the right kinds of questions.

If Agile doesn’t rule (yet), understand the organization’s experience 

It’s still early days; agile marketing is not the dominant approach, so set your expectations accordingly. Ask questions that will reveal more insights into the organizational context in which you’ll be managing:

  • What approaches are being applied today in the marketing organization?
  • What’s been tried before?
  • What’s succeeded, or failed, and why?

Such questions are relevant regardless of the marketing organization’s agile maturity. Because the agile retrospective focuses on adapting agile to the specific team and initiative at hand, even if the team is already using agile, you’ll learn a lot by understanding how they’ve adapted the approach over time. If they have not tried agile, understanding what they have tried will provide insight into their readiness.

Are they receptive to the agile mindset?

An effective way to assess organizational readiness is to provide examples of how you’ve applied the mindset, which also gives you a way to share your background. Pay attention to their responses and actively look for ways to weave these examples into your responses:

  • Share examples of how you’ve integrated agile into strategic planning processes to empower teams–and how, in doing so, you maintained strategic alignment.
  • Share anecdotes about how delivering value incrementally led to better business outcomes.
  • Describe how the agile approach de-risked a particular strategic initiative.

Mission critical initiatives demand results over process

Businesses need to solve problems and remove constraints to growth. The true test of the organization’s agile mindset lies in the context of mission-critical initiatives. They are hands down the best litmus test of agile marketing readiness. To bring this into focus you can simply ask your hiring manager “what is the absolute top priority that your marketing team must solve?”

With the answer in hand, the next step is to determine whether the manager believes there is a known solution to the problem or whether experimentation and testing will be required. If you both think that there is a predictable path to resolution, then this is likely a project that does not require an agile approach—traditional methods (i.e. waterfall) will likely be more effective so find another example. If you disagree with each other at this stage, that’s a red flag.

But if you both think that experimentation and testing is going to be required to solve the problem, then ask how long he or she thinks it should take to get it done. This is a bit of a trick question: agile won’t tell you up front how many iterations it will take to solve a problem, although breaking down a project into small chunks for iteration will help you establish the rapport and trust that’s needed to move forward quickly. What agile can do is deliver some value quickly with a minimum viable product (MVP) that will allow you to validate if your headed in the right direction. Agile is optimized for contexts in which no amount of up-front analysis is going to tell you what’s going to work in advance. This may not fully “solve” the problem but it will demonstrate forward progress.

Thus, there will be tension between the agile process and the need to hold teams accountable for business results. You can ask how your manager would respond if it took many iterations to get to the ultimate solution. And you can discuss what kind of investments might help an agile team zero in on what’s driving results more quickly. Your end goal is to determine if your manager will truly “trust the process” even in cases where it will take longer than you’d like. If you don’t believe that s/he will see incremental wins and steps in the right direction as evidence that you’re the right leader than you should look elsewhere.

Next up:  Five Agile Marketing Questions: Organizational Readiness

And, if you’re interested in learning more about agile marketing, listen to my book The Agile Marketer: Turning Customer Experience into Your Competitive Advantage.

The Most Revealing Questions To Ask Agile Marketing Candidates

The third and final installment in my series on hiring agile marketing leaders.

So you’ve come to the conclusion that there are no eligible candidates to promote from within for the position of agile marketing leader. You’ve done your homework and identified the type of management styles that are compatible with an agile marketing approach, and you’ve given thought to your company’s maturity and organizational structure and their implications for agile leadership. Now you’re ready to start interviewing candidates. What should you ask that will help you identify candidates with the right combination of leadership and agile skills to head your agile marketing effort?  Here are four basic questions that can truly help.

1: Describe an initiative that you led that you had doubts about in advance.

The agile approach is designed for situations where no amount of up-front analysis can possibly  reveal the factors that will ultimately matter. Here’s what you want to find out about:

  • Whether and how the person has run a consistent stream of small experiments to generate data that will show what’s driving results.
  • How have they emphasized ongoing programmatic approaches over one-time campaigns?
  • Do they “trust the process” of incremental gains even if it can be hard to predict when milestones will be achieved?
  • How have they set expectations about the importance of delivering minimum viable products before committing to longer-term-goals.

2: How do you promote specific approaches and methods for getting work done with your team?

Agile leaders align small cross-functional teams with business initiatives. They also actively participate in coaching teams and investing in any training that is needed. You want candidates to address:

  • How they prioritize work with their teams—ideally in the context of scoped backlogs? Are they transparent and open?
  • How they participate in demos and review the findings from the agile retrospective process.
  • Do  they carry out strategic planning on a regular basis—at least quarterly–to  refactor backlogs with strategic guidance?

3: How do you onboard new marketers?

Even with a focus on recruiting agile experience, or agile-curious marketers, adopting your organization’s flavor of agile is going to be a change for most marketers. A thoughtful  onboarding process will help integrate new members into your agile teams. You want candidates to talk about:

  • How they worked with HR to develop specific onboarding processes for team members to agile—were there formal training programs, certification, or assigned reading?
  • How did they work with team leaders to develop documentation, or presentations that outline the marketing team’s focus and working processes.
  • Did they pair new employees with an experienced member of the team to facilitate onboarding? How did that work?

4: How do you cascade strategic planning down through functions and teams?

Agile is an empowerment model that flips the traditional command-and-control model on its ear. It recognizes that the lion’s share of innovation will emerge from a distributed bottom-up process. Thus, agile can’t be segregated from strategic planning. You want to know:

  • Whether and how candidates  have integrated strategic planning frameworks (such as the objectives and key results framework and backlog development and prioritization.
  • Whether and how they’ve managed cross-team dependencies or facilitated the alignment of backlogs across teams.
  • How they’ve developed a center-of-excellence or affinity group model to support distributed specialists working on small cross-functional teams.

If you’ve enjoyed this series and are interested in learning more about agile marketing, listen to my book The Agile Marketer: Turning Customer Experience into Your Competitive Advantage.

Finding the Right Agile Management Style

Second in a three-part series for CEOs and marketing executives on hiring agile marketing leadership.

In my previous post, I wrote about two qualifications that every agile marketing leader must possess. Here, I’ll take on something that’s harder to assess but no less important: determining the right management style for your agile CMO. 

Agile leadership is about empowerment

In my research I’ve found that successful agile leaders tend toward management styles that empower teams. This makes sense because agile recognizes that the individuals who are closest to the problem are more likely to solve it. It’s a flip of the traditional command-and-control structure. 

A traffic analogy drives this point home. Some management styles are more top-down, as represented by the stop light. The program that controls the stop light is intended to optimize throughput based on the analysis of historical traffic patterns. The centrally developed “program” is pushed out to every stop light in a given traffic zone so that it’s possible to know exactly when each one will turn green, yellow, or red. 

The roundabout, on the other hand, represents a distributed decision-making model. It’s based on what’s happening on the ground in real time, not on historical data. Like the agile approach, it empowers drivers to make decisions about how and when to navigate through the intersection. This model puts more responsibility on the driver, but it’s worth it because roundabouts allow the most throughput. 

When unexpected traffic flows arise (which happens frequently) the traffic light model exacerbates the situation, while the roundabout suits it beautifully. Increasingly, marketers are operating in a world of changing customer expectations and technologies (akin to those unexpected traffic flows). Historical analysis won’t predict what’s going to drive results—thus  the need for agile.

Agile-Compatible Leadership Styles 

With the above in mind, here are some common leadership styles to look for that are compatible with agile leadership:

  • Servant: Focuses on empowering teams, removing barriers, and this compliments agile because of its emphasis on bottom-up innovation. 
  • Pacesetter: Focuses on the commitment to continuous improvement and complements agile’s focus on delivering value iteratively at a steady cadence. 
  • Coach: Focuses on developing team performance while aligning to the broader goals of the organization. Complements agile because frequent iterations provide frequent opportunities for feedback and coaching. 

Agile leadership is less compatible with these leadership styles:

  • Democratic: Diffuses authority away from those closest to the work.
  • Autocratic: Conflicts with bottom-up innovation. 
  • Transactional: Conflicts with the need to adjust and adapt to change as this approach is based on repeatable and well understood processes.


Management Style, by Company Maturity 

In determining the right management style, consider your company’s life stage. Mature  companies tend to have more management layers, each with its own unique requirements. Not all agile leaders will be able to navigate the layers and stages of growth—and that’s completely normal. Companies with more layers might orient more towards leaders with Servant and/or Pacesetter styles, whereas smaller companies may orient more towards Coaching. These are not hard rules, and styles are not exclusive, but this framework is useful in assessing a candidate’s strengths. 

Another consideration for companies with more layers is that agile encourages flatter organizational structures. Restructuring, however, takes significant time and commitment so new leaders must be able to manage the existing organization. Compounding this complexity, the agile approach was developed for small teams not large organizations and it doesn’t provide guidance on scaling. There is no dominant pattern for scaling agile across marketing. In the agile software development world frameworks to scale agile are gaining maturity (e.g. SAFe, LESS, etc) but they’re rare on the marketing side of the house. In short, agile leaders at bigger companies are going to be doing a lot of learning on the job in order to build a scaled agile marketing organization. 

Next up in this series: The Most Revealing Questions To Ask Agile Marketing Candidates

And, if you’re interested in learning more about agile marketing, listen to my book The Agile Marketer: Turning Customer Experience into Your Competitive Advantage.