Happier teams, better outcomes. Leveraging Scrum for agile marketing execution.
August 28, 2019
Founder and CEO
Have you ever developed or been accountable to execute a very detailed strategic plan that falls apart as soon as it meets reality? Either a crisis takes precedence, resources or circumstances change or competing demands from above derail the execution of the plan entirely. I certainly have over the years but never more so as a marketing lead for an NHL club where market dynamics coupled with a moving “product” brought constant change and uncertainty.
It’s time for a change in the way we execute our strategic plans. In a world where change and complexity are the only constant, we need a more adaptive, responsive and iterative approach to planning and execution.
The term agile in the context of planning dates back to 2001 where 17 leaders in software development drafted what is now known as the Agile Manifesto. The objective of the manifesto was to create a people-centric approach to software development that is characterized by breaking out and executing small tasks into short phases of work coupled with frequent reassessment and adaptation of the plan. This was to counter the increasingly unproductive waterfall approach.
The principles it supported were to value individuals and interactions over processes and tools, results and working software over detailed documentation, constant customer collaboration and responding to change over following a detailed plan. A primary function of Agile management is recognizing that big projects and strategies are best executed in small steps that we continually learn from and improve upon. Plan, execute, learn, adjust, plan execute and so on. You can read more about the original manifesto on the Agile Alliance website.
In the context of marketing and communications, the agile mindset welcomes iterative changes to the agreed upon plan based on continual stakeholder and customer feedback and conditions inside and outside the organization. Various agile methodologies have contributed to its success as an approach to planning but none more so than Scrum.
Scrum Framework Applied to Marketing And Communications
Scrum is the most popular and most widely used software development framework. In my view it can have tremendous value in solving some of the most common challenges in executing plans which in my experience include:
Lack of visibility of the work in progress
Managing dependencies across many departments
Competing and/or changing priorities
Difficulty in truly estimating how long a strategy will take to execute
Unclear outcomes which leads to wasted time and decrease in team motivation
Difficulty in adapting a plan in real time, consistently and with structure
As explained by Scott Brinker in Hacking Marketing, Agile Practices to make marketing smarter, faster and more innovative: “Like Software, marketing has become more democratized. It’s no longer solely the domain of the people who have marketing in their official job title. Everyone in the organization who touches a prospect or a customer (...) contributes to the marketing of the company. Everyone’s words and deeds are reflected through search engines and social media. Customers and other influencers now shape the narratives around our brands, without our permission.”
Scrum is a framework that can be leveraged for effective team collaboration in this type of fluid, complex environment. As the co-creators Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber outlined, scrum is: lightweight, simple to understand yet difficult to master because it involves changing how we work.
Leveraging Scrum in a Marketing Context.
I recently became a Certified ScrumMaster® in order to fully understand the framework and begin applying the principles of agile into marketing and strategic planning. Below are the elements that I feel can benefit marketing teams and leaders looking to become more agile.
You should be flexible in how to apply these in the context of your organization but the principles are based on years of research into high performing teams in complex environments. The key is starting to change how we work and plan the work. See the Scrum Glossary if you’re interested in a deeper dive of the terminology. The core mechanisms include:
Planning the Work (Called a Sprint)
In a Sprint Planning session, the team decides which of the Marketing strategies it can tackle in the next sprint. The core tenet here is to Limit work in progress (WIP). Contrary to popular belief we are terrible at multi-tasking. Research has shown we humans work best in short, focus bursts.
The idea here is to tackle a small piece of a larger strategy, campaign or project that will immediately add value and be tangible. When a sprint is in progress, no other tasks (or stories in Scrum language) are introduced as a rule. If the CMO or other leader decides something is deemed urgent enough to interrupt the sprint in progress, something typically gets moved back into the backlog or the team (not the leader) can decide to fit it into the current sprint. This creates full transparency into work in progress and limits “back door” requests that often derail a team.
The outcome at the end of Sprint must meet the team’s definition of “Done” and they should be happy to show it to stakeholders or launch it.
Work in short sprints for typically two weeks or a maximum of 30 days to accomplish the sprint goal. What I found particularly applicable for a marketing team is that this limits the scope of the work in progress into something very tangible with a result at the end.
This follows the principles of Parkinson’s Law which states that work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion. So much of time management is psychological. If you’re anything like me, you’ve rushed to finish a project just in time for the deadline. The same task can take one hour or one week depending on how much time you’ve given yourself to complete it. The same holds true for a team. If you can’t complete the sprint within 30 days, you should break up the tasks into smaller more manageable pieces.
The Sprint period as a whole should include:
Sprint planning, as outlined above
A daily meeting or daily Scrum. The team meets with two simple goals: the members get ready to collaborate for the day and to discuss if they are still on track to complete the goal of the sprint. This typically gets broken down into 3 simple questions for each member: What did you complete yesterday towards accomplishing the goal? What can you commit to completing today? What is slowing you down? The person responsible for the outcome of the project - either a senior level leader or project owner takes part to advise on, or remove any constraints expressed by the team.
Sprint Retrospective. This review takes place at the end of the Sprint where the Team, the marketing leader, CMO or any other stakeholders involved reflect on the work just conducted with the goal of improving how they will work during the next Sprint.
Marketing Strategy Backlog Review. I am particularly fond of this practice where the marketing leader, the team and other key stakeholders prioritize and decide on the next sprint based on current reality, customer or stakeholder feedback. The group decides what to tackle next and breaks it up into manageable pieces. The team itself (not the leader) decides how they will get it done.
Visualizing the work at hand
We all know that large strategic plans even broken down into small steps involve many moving parts. To bring complete transparency and clarity in a lightweight manner, many of the agile methodologies have settled on a visual representation of the work called a scrum board or kanban board. There are subtle differences in each type of board, which is too detailed for this blog, however they both place the emphasis or transparency and team work.
In both types of boards, each column in the board represents a stage of the workflow that tasks will go through. Its simplest iteration would be: Backlog, To Do (in this sprint), Doing (in progress) Review and Done. Every team would typically decide on a workflow that best fits their processes. You can Google kanban board to see many examples.
These boards can be both physical and virtual, especially for geographically dispersed teams. However, there is something very tangible about seeing a physical board with large index cards that tracks the work in process. It also helps to visualize in a concrete way the chaos that changing priorities or introducing new ones can bring to the flow of work.
Outcomes to be Expected
What I appreciate most about applying this framework in a marketing context is that constant adaptation is “baked into” the Scrum process. The mechanisms provide a way through which the team and the stakeholders can review the priorities based on existing circumstances and/or market conditions and adjust quickly, in a structure way. Other key benefits:
Over time, it should improve the team’s “estimation” effort or further understanding of velocity. How much can we actually accomplish in 10 or 30 days?
The framework forces the team, along with the leader and stakeholders to define “done” - that is to say they must agree at the outset what success looks like for each sprint.
The framework provides the team with a destination (a defined, approved outcome to achieve) but flexibility and autonomy in how to get there. This is based on years of research on what drives us as humans and what truly “motivates” us (Mastery, Autonomy, Growth and Purpose) . You can dig into this much deeper in the book Drive by David Pink.
Most importantly, it creates a living strategy. This is about arming us with the ability to respond to change in a structure way and not be constantly putting out fires. In theory, it should improve nimbleness and decision making.
Agile is becoming more and more relevant in particular in start ups and those organizations with an entrepreneurial mind set. “Clinging to the old way of doing things, of command and control and rigid predictability, will bring only failure. In the meantime the competition that is willing to change will leave you in the dust.” Jeff Sutherland, Co-Creator of the Scrum Framework. Or as TLC best said it “Don’t go chasing waterfalls”.
My aim was to give you a small view of how you could leverage Scrum principles to improve how work gets done in your organization. There is much more to dig into! (Yes, I’m totally geeking out on this one as I truly believe we need to be more nimble in our execution.)
This is the first of a blog series on agile planning for marketing and communications. Subscribe to follow the series and please comment below or suggest topics you’d like to see for future blog posts in this series.
Here are some great resources that kick started by passion for this topic:
Agile Pain Relief offering ScrumMaster certification and coaching in Ottawa and Toronto. Highly recommended.
I was speaking to a friend yesterday who works for a large software company that, in pre-pandemic reality, had no remote work options. In the last staff update, the CEO admitted that with 100% of the staff working remotely, there have been no significant drop in productivity (other than the first two weeks of the “adaptation” period).
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