woman leaping in middle of the road
PHOTO: Alexei Scutari

How do you move from operating as a large, dispersed marketing staff working on long-duration campaigns, to a nimble marketing team focused on a well-defined deliverable? Furthermore, how do you tell the difference between claiming to be agile and actually practicing it correctly?

As a leader of product marketing at a large software company, that has been my constant challenge: How can we learn from our counterparts in the product organization to deliver faster to market, iterate more rapidly, have greater impact and ultimately, a more engaged and satisfied team? I was familiar with the principles of agile and had been applying some of them to product marketing, but I knew we weren’t truly agile. Agile looked promising, but the question remained: could I apply it at scale to a large, global marketing organization?

I decided to give the agile approach a shot. And while it hasn’t been easy, it’s resulted in valuable learnings that have led to many successes at scale. Now, two years into our journey, I can reflect on some of the major milestones that drove us to take on this challenging — yet rewarding — transformation.

The Smell Test: Are We Truly Agile?

Picture this: two meetings, across the hall from each other. One was an “agile delivery group,” a cross-functional team of marketers using agile principles to align, prioritize and manage their work for a business unit. The other was a product marketing team supporting a different business unit. Both were planning for their product lines. The agile delivery group was doing third quarter planning while the product marketing team was planning the second half of the year.

At first, the meetings appeared to be both identical and agile, with a certified agile coach to facilitate. They each had all the tools for an agile meeting: multi-colored post-its, sharpies, pipe cleaners and clearly laid out and time-boxed agendas. Both teams felt applying agile to marketing was a change for the better — engagement and satisfaction were up.

But it didn’t take long to realize they were not the same. The agile delivery group came up with a shared vision and defined business objectives with all decision makers in the room. Everyone was on the same page with business impact, success metrics, tasks prioritization, dependencies across the teams and a sequence of plans to fill their two-week sprints. When it ended, everyone knew their role and went to work.

In the other meeting, the dependency list grew and commitments shrank over the course of the day. They had trouble committing to deliverables that would have measurable business impact, since the other dependent functions and their decision-makers were not present. A month after the meeting, some commitments were still under discussion.

Related Article: Step Up Your Agile Marketing Game

What We Learned From Our Agile Experiment

So, what was the difference, and what can we learn from this?

1. Agile Starts With Big Room Planning

The agile delivery group had 30 participants who were cross-functional, including integrated, product and field marketing, communications, analytics, web, digital sales etc. The product marketing team had 12 participants representing only one function.

It isn’t enough to send a representative who will go back and “check with” management before making commitments. Real agile starts with Big Room Planning and results in real alignment for business impact.

2. Meet Strategic Needs With Both Persistent and Initiative-Based Teams

Marketing and app development teams are very different. Marketing needs more vision and context to develop solid messaging and campaigns, which is harder to deliver in two-week sprints. Our Marketing team created temporal or initiative-based teams to handle specific events, such as a product launch or industry conference, and established persistent teams to handle ongoing, demand campaigns. Additionally, we flexibly staff the temporal teams based on the need at the time, from one person to many.

Temporal and persistent agile marketing teams maintain the same planning cadences and collaborative practices to support value-stream visibility and overall strategic alignment.

Related Article: 4 Agile Principles for the Modern Marketer

3. Leaders Must Pivot From Directing to Coaching

We found ways to adapt our agile marketing team practices to the constraints listed above, and our teams quickly adopted and evangelized our new agile ways. However, departmental managers had a harder time adjusting. They couldn’t just give new work to a team member who was part of the agile team, which was intent on completion of a well-defined shared deliverable.

Leaders must also have an agile mindset. They have to relinquish control and shift gears from directing to coaching.

4. Agile Runs on Clear Ownership and Strong Communication

There are ways to avoid surprises. If ownership is unclear and communication is inconsistent, there is a lot of waiting around. We heard from non-agile marketing teams that visibility into what other team members were doing was not very good, with the status of others’ deliverables unclear.  In contrast, the agile delivery group took common ownership and accountability for the outcome, collectively prioritized the campaign against their other work and mapped out the dependencies they had on resources—and each other—reinforced by two to three standup meetings per week.

It was essential to synchronize the work across the team and across the sprints, so each person knew who was doing what, and when.

Related Article: How to Build an Agile Marketing Team Across Time Zones

5. Two Metrics That Count

Two concrete metrics are important: the satisfaction, engagement and productivity of the teams and the impact of agile marketing on the business. The success rate of each of those two metrics will affect the other, for better or worse.

Where We Are as an Agile Marketing Organization

We’ve been on our marketing transformation journey for more than two years, applying agile principles and methodologies to our cross-functional marketing teams, at scale, and have structured around that. We have six business unit aligned delivery groups, each consisting of all the marketers who actively support the business activities of their unit.

Within each unit there are several persistent and temporal or initiative-based teams. Our agile marketing reach is now over 100 people, approximately 60 of whom are practicing every day as part of our core agile delivery teams. The others are engaged leaders, specialists such as communications professionals, data scientists and regional marketers who support the core teams as needed. Active stakeholders meet with our teams regularly to provide critical guidance and feedback on our work.

Along the way we’ve seen a 20 percent improvement in pipeline — with flat budgets. Our campaign delivery times has gone from months to weeks. We have tripled of the win rate of marketing-sourced opportunities.

Agile marketing has proven to be a better way. We are faster to market, have more business impact and our team members are more engaged, and happier, in their jobs. No wonder agile companies outperform their competitors.