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.

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