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PHOTO: Filip Mroz

The debate raging in marketing departments everywhere right now is between two seemingly opposing options: pivot or persevere?

In the face of ongoing uncertainty about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the entire spectrum of industries, leaders must rapidly and continuously decide what plans are worth keeping, and which ones to scrap. It’s a thorny choice, and not just because the wrong move could create negative ripples for many quarters to come. Decades of research shows us that abandoning efforts mid-stream creates huge amounts of waste in a system, so we shouldn’t hit pause lightly.

By pivoting unnecessarily, we could be walking away from huge chunks of our marketing strategy that were already in flight. We’re not getting that time or budget back.

Of course, unswerving perseverance can be just as detrimental. Unresponsive organizations risk sounding tone deaf, alienating customers, and missing opportunities to thrive in emerging scenarios.

So what’s the balance here?

How do we achieve agility now without abandoning our long-term strategic objectives? The answer lies, as so many do, at the intersection between agile values and practices.

Agile Marketers Welcome and Plan for Change

I’m paraphrasing here, but one of the core values outlined in the Agile manifesto calls on us to welcome and plan for change within our systems. The manifesto’s authors realized that responsiveness could be a competitive advantage, as long as it wasn’t allowed to run amok.

With this value in mind, agile systems should always be ready to react to incoming data.

Lately that’s daily information on market reactions, consumer confidence or buying trends. In non-pandemic moments it could be an active competitor, evolving customer behavior or emerging new markets.

The world is volatile, and the year-long plans that many traditional marketers are so deeply attached to just don’t reflect the changing landscape we work in. Agile calls on marketers to consider what value we could deliver in a much shorter time frame.

What could we put in front of customers in the next couple of weeks to help them?

How can we respond today to what concerns our audience?

These are conversations happening in agile marketing daily standups right now.

Agile teams are comfortable operating with a shorter time horizon ahead of them, so they’re better equipped to make the pivots necessary to respond to incoming data. However, they still have large, long-term objectives that have been identified by their leaders, and these will serve as the north star for their short-term decisions.

Related Article: Agile Marketing Your Way Through the Next Recession

Pivot Intelligently

Being agile doesn’t mean changing your mind all the time. As agile teams discuss the immediate actions needed to address new challenges, they do so with an eye to the big picture.

The ultimate destination of their marketing efforts (usually) remains the same; it’s the path they’re taking that needs to evolve.

For instance, high performing agile marketing teams typically tie each of their short-term campaigns and projects to quarterly goals or OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). This way, when they decide to delay or cancel a particular set of activities, they know exactly which goal they’re impacting.

The new work related to COVID-19 might be added to a team’s existing workload, and some of it may still contribute to existing goals like protecting pipeline or converting more leads to customers. If, on the other hand, much of this unplanned reactive work does not have a strong tie to an existing goal, leadership can make an informed call about how much of the team’s time needs to be devoted to the pivot, and how much should persevere along its current path.

Related Article: Marketing in a Crisis, One Month Later

Prioritize Ruthlessly

When it comes time to identify the balance between pivot or persevere, keep in mind that it’s very much an “OR” conversation. Planning and strategy is about making hard choices. It’s not doing everything originally planned AND adding in tons of new unplanned work.

This is, of course, important for work-life balance and sustainable pace of work, but overloading the to-do list is also bad for productivity. The more things being worked on, the longer each one takes. So it’s vital to create focus at the individual, team and departmental level to deliver valuable work quickly and often.

If we take too much of an “and” approach, we lose the ability to act altogether. The time it takes to complete all kinds of work will extend and nobody will hear from us for ages. 

To avoid this all too common problem, we have to get comfortable prioritizing ruthlessly. This means theres’s always one top priority, and only one. When everything is a priority, nothing is. To be able to confidently make that kind of decision, we need to have strong visibility across everything we could be doing.

Agile backlogs, or prioritized to-do lists for the team, force us to do both these things. We must take the time to visualize everything we could work on, and then put them in strict priority order. Then the team focuses on finishing high value work from the top of the list before they begin something new.

Related Article: Step Up Your Agile Marketing Game

Speed Up Your Marketing Metabolism

Ultimately, the choice to pivot or persevere is not about reactivity, but about intelligent processing of incoming data. We internalize, evaluate and respond to the sea of potential choices with open eyes thanks to our backlog and clearly visualized workflow that form the backbone of the agile way of working.

We don’t take a purely additive approach, but instead deliberately choose not to do certain things right now so we can focus all our energy on what’s going to have the biggest impact. So whether we pivot, persevere or do a little of both, we know we’re doing the right work at the right time.