flailing toy figure next to an open laptop
PHOTO: Sigmund

Much has been written about the positive side of Agile principles: what they mean, how to know you’re putting them into practice — all that nice stuff.

But sometimes the best way to understand what good looks like is to look at the opposite. If we understand common anti-patterns, we can better embody the Agile mindset.

Anti-patterns are those scenarios that indicate movement in the wrong direction. Think of these as a check-engine light, alerting you to the immediate need for system maintenance. If you see any of these happening, it means you’re veering away from core Agile principles.

Anti-Pattern #1: Rewarding Empire Building

The marketing department of a major enterprise spent two years building a massively successful Agile marketing practice. They released faster, had more satisfied team members, and had better ROI on all their marketing efforts.

Enter the new senior marketer leader with no interest in Agile values.

He followed his established marketing leader playbook, building his own pet teams to work on his pet projects. He pulled people off the high-performing cross-functional teams that had been painstakingly built on the back of many experiments.

Team members, one after another, were impacted by this empire building. Each questioned the wisdom of staying on the no-longer-supported cross-functional Agile teams. The obvious career move was to join a specialized team championed by the new leader.

Other marketing leaders, sensing a change in the winds, reverted to their old patterns of behavior.

Traditional command-and-control leadership returned, with leaders grabbing for power (and high performers) to achieve their own objectives. The Agile teams died.

Executive leadership could have stopped this behavior instantly. Instead, the pedigreed new hire was fully indulged and was, in fact, rewarded, leaving his Agile marketing peers little alternative but to follow his example.

This is the epitome of our first anti-pattern. Marketing leaders must change their behavior for Agile ways of working to succeed. If the organization continues to reward non-Agile behavior, leaders have every reason not to change. Rewards may come in the form of public praise, promotions or raises, or they may be more implicit and private.

Either way, everyone at every level feels it in one way or another. It’s always clear what behavior is valued at the highest levels, and individual contributors emulate those behaviors themselves.

Encouraging empire building, as well as other actions that circumvent the team-centric focus of Remarketing and Agile, undermine trust, destroy high-performing teams, and set even the most advanced marketing processes back months or years.

Don't let your new hire — no matter how great the pedigree — circumvent your process.

Related Article: Balancing Short-Term Agility With Long-Term Stability

Anti-Pattern #2: Tolerating Underperforming Individuals

If empire-building execs live at one end of the dysfunction spectrum, the other end is home to underperforming team members. Turning a blind eye as marketing leaders skirt principles and break processes destroys psychological safety.

Pretending that everyone on the team is pulling his or her weight when it's not true, is an equally destructive anti-pattern.

Agile processes create visibility into all kinds of performance. Knowing what’s going on is the only way to improve it, and sometimes what’s going on isn’t great. If the process improvements uncover serious personnel problems, they can’t be ignored. People make up the process, and you can’t build an outstanding process on substandard performers.

Some marketers spend their careers hiding behind busyness. They’re good at moving, and not good at delivering results. Others are territorial, preferring to tend to their little corner rather than ensure larger team success. Still others lack necessary job skills and have become adept at concealing that fact.

Whatever the manifestation, you can’t let underperformers fly under the radar.

Pretending that everyone is great when they clearly aren’t does not put you on the right path. Empowered, autonomous teams uncover these problems quickly. Subsequently ignoring the problems sends the message to the team that competence and high performance aren’t really all that important.

That’s a recipe for underperformance across the board.

Related Article: How 4 Organizations Are Benefitting From Taking an Agile Approach

Anti-Pattern #3: No Measurement Capabilities

A value at the core of Agile marketing is a preference for validated learning over opinions and conventions. This just makes sense to many of us, especially in the era of big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning. If we can rely on proven information instead of unsubstantiated intuition, we do that.

This third anti-pattern emerges when we simply don’t have access to the data that validates our learning.                                                           

If you can’t accurately measure, track or attribute marketing work, you can't rely on data-backed insight. Decision-making then comes down to who has the better title or can shout the loudest.    

Does this mean that you can’t be Agile if you don’t have end-to-end, bulletproof data and analytics capabilities? No.

But if you don’t have any insight into the quantitative side of marketing, you’re going to struggle.

Without any validated learning, opinions and conventions win the day. It can be challenging to run even a simple A/B test, because whoever’s idea isn’t supported by the outcome can simply blame poor data quality and demand that their idea be tried anyway.

Related Article: Why Agile Marketing Is the Antidote to Constant Change

Anti-Pattern #4: Lack of Customer Understanding

A similar gap emerges when marketing is up against a lack of connection to the people they’re communicating with. When an organization has a weak connection to customers, marketing’s job (and its ability to behave based on Agile principles) becomes more difficult.           

Agile has the customer at the center. We build teams around stages of the customer journey rather than around functional capabilities. We document our work via customer stories rather than 20-page creative briefs. Every facet of the system is set up to bring us closer to our customers.

If you start a hundred miles from your customers, that connection strengthens slowly; and if the gap seems so wide that you never start to bridge it, nothing changes. Problems crop up when ignorance about the customer meets an unwillingness to learn.

When you lack customer knowledge, commit to putting time, energy and money toward getting to know them.

Learning (preferably the validated kind) has to be a huge part of marketing’s job. This might mean that you appear to slow down for a while. Maybe you publish less often, write fewer emails and dial back your event sponsorships — whatever it takes. Be willing to do the leg work required to reconnect with customers.

Some marketing groups struggle with this. They know that they’re not connected with their customers, but the unrelenting demand to hit targets drives them to just keep going.

There’s no time to learn, no time for conversations with customers. This lethal combination of customer ignorance and an inability or unwillingness to remedy it makes up this fourth anti-pattern.

Related Article: We're All Stuck in the Privacy and Brand Safety Tangle

Anti-Pattern #5: Bias Toward Status Quo

When this anti-pattern is part of the prevailing mindset, change is a dirty word. Teams and their members have a death grip on the status quo. Highly traditional industries are most prone to this failing, but it can happen anywhere.

You know you’re on this path when you hear things like, "That would never work here" or "Sure, but our problems are way more complex" or any other variation on "We’re snowflakes whose unique work is immune to all forms of process improvement."

What’s really being said in those conversations is, "Change is scary and we don’t like it."

You might also see close identification with individuals and their work in this anti-pattern. Long-time employees, in particular, often come to equate their professional identity with the way work gets done.

When leaders say things like, “We’re going to overhaul our process to be more effective and efficient,” these people hear, “You’re bad at your job and have failed to get things done like I want.”

Whether or not it comes from this place of inertia and fear, the bias towards “the way we’ve always done things” is one of the most insidious anti-patterns you can encounter.

Related Article: Change Management: The Key to Successful Digital Transformations

Anti-Pattern #6: Inability to Say 'No'

This anti-pattern may sound less scary than other anti-patterns, but it can derail Agile adoption and undermine your Agile mindset in a heartbeat. I underestimated this anti-pattern until I saw this data from the MarketingProfs 2019 Marketer Happiness Report:

can marketers say no to projects? 79% say they can't  say no, 21% say no to projects often

I mean come on, my fellow marketers! More than half of us never, or virtually never, say no! Another quarter of us completely lack the authority to say no. Ever! Even when the request clearly doesn’t fit with our priorities.

You can’t improve your process at any level if no one in your marketing department can say “no.” Everyone — and I mean everyone — must be capable and comfortable uttering a negative answer when asked to undertake new work.

The only way to do the right work at the right time is to eliminate the wrong work, and that means saying “no.”

Easily my favorite line from the Agile Manifesto is, “Simplicity, maximizing the amount of work not done, is essential.”

You can't follow this if you’re saying “yes” to every request that comes your way. If you have people in your marketing department who can’t say “no,” address that anti-pattern ASAP.

Dealing With Anti-Patterns

When you encounter an anti-pattern, don’t despair. Change often comes with a dip in output and productivity as individuals and teams internalize the shift.

Kubler Ross change curve

As the Kubler-Ross curve illustrated here shows us, we don’t immediately enjoy massive gains from any kind of change. There’s inevitably a period of adjustment.

People first enter denial, hoping that the change can somehow be avoided. You may even see an uptick in productivity, as people strive to avoid the difficult process of change by working harder.

Then, when the change happens anyway, a period of frustration and depression occurs. To move past this phase we begin to experiment, to try new ways of integrating the change into established processes. Once we do that, it’s possible to embrace the change as positive and enjoy the benefits of doing things more effectively.

Everyone goes through this process in response to change, but some of us race through quickly and excitedly, while others get mired in the pit of depression.

Allow people to experience their initial negative responses and be prepared to help them experiment with the new ways of working and internalize the change at their own pace.

Each and every team will go through this curve, as will each and every member of the teams. Ideally, have someone available to help coach you through the early, tempestuous stages of adoption. Trainers, consultants, and coaches who have seen major change happen can provide good perspective, as well as help guide people along their journey to acceptance and, eventually, awesomeness.

(This article is excerpted from my recent book Mastering Marketing Agility)