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The New Marketing Dichotomy: Be Agile or Be Obsolete

Andrea Fryrear
Andrea Fryrear

Remote work has proven to be effective, but it can become a recipe for misalignment and miscommunication if the right processes aren't in place. Agile was built for just such situations.

In the years since its inception, Agile marketing has provided enormous benefits to the organizations willing to do the hard work needed to adopt it. But in the months since the COVID-19 pandemic upended marketers' entire worlds, an even broader chasm has opened up between Agile and  non-Agile teams. Agility is no longer a nice-to-have or a bonus operating model. Marketing teams now face the choice of being truly Agile or becoming obsolete. 

Remote work demands agility

"I don’t know how we would have managed the office closing without our daily standup."

"We moved pretty easily into remote work because we had our Kanban board that everyone could refer to."

"The teams were already comfortable changing quickly, so they responded well to the first few roller coaster months."

I heard these statements, and many more like them, from Agile marketing leaders as the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns rippled through industries of all shapes and sizes. Agile teams were better prepared to be suddenly dispersed, and they've responded better to subsequent upheavals. 

As remote work increasingly becomes the norm, the more frequent touchpoints and higher levels of visibility that Agile offers are likewise growing in importance.

If we can't amble across the hall and chat with a co-worker about the status of a project, we need regular, regimented opportunities to connect, such as the ever-popular daily standup meeting. A shared, easy-to-understand workflow visualization is also vital when multiple people or teams need to collaborate effectively across projects or over time.

Remote work has proven far more effective than most of us imagined, but it can also become a recipe for misalignment and miscommunication if we don't provide people with the right processes.

Agile was built for just such situations. 

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented practices

The word "unprecedented" was thrown around a lot this summer, but despite becoming rather passe, it's still applicable. No one's marketing career has prepared them for the situations we're currently navigating, so it's absurd to think that we can continue to execute our pre-pandemic playbook and achieve results.

Previously effective tactics can come across as callous and tone-deaf; instead of plowing blindly ahead, we have to embrace uncertainty by adopting a test-and-learn approach. In some ways, it's like learning about our audiences all over again. 

Marketers need to lean heavily on Agile operations that deliver some sort of valuable material (collateral, campaigns, tests, etc.) every couple of weeks, rather than get hung up on the usual multi-month delivery cycles. Doing so can give you more data about what's resonating with your audiences and what's falling flat. If your campaign or materials turn out to not have the desired impact, you're fine walking away from it. Or, if there's a nugget of a good idea peeking through, you can use it the next couple of weeks to expand on it.

Either way, you can explore new channels, new messaging, and new offers quickly and effectively. This increased cadence can enable you to evolve in sync with your customers' new realities.

Marketers must plan in maximum ignorance

Last but not least, marketing leaders need to recognize that they are creating plans at the moment of maximum ignorance. Before work has ever begun, non-Agile teams lay out elaborate schedules, Gantt charts and project plans, only to have them obliterated by the first stumbling block they encounter.

Rather than obsess over perfect plans, we need to embrace our ignorance and plan lightly. Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating for no planning at all. Without knowing our ultimate destination, we'll spend all our time meandering aimlessly. But our plans will never be totally accurate. Their job is to guide us in the right general direction.

That's why Agile teams use things like sprint plans: They focus only on what the team needs to accomplish in the next couple of weeks. Then the next sprint plan is informed by both the larger strategic goals and what happened during the previous sprints.

In that way, we stay aligned to organizational objectives while evolving the plan we wrote when we had very little information about what the future would hold.

How to go Agile if you don't know what that is

For those who like the idea of agility but aren't sure how to get there, two principles should guide you in the transition: transparency and focus.

Transparency forces us to get all the work we could be doing out in the open so we can make fully informed decisions about how to handle it. If you're on a small team or even a team of one, this can seem excessive, but it's a must have for making Agile work.

To ease the transition, think only about what you're working on for the next two to three weeks, and write it all down. You can save yourself some time by doing this using a digital tool like Trello or Miro. Both of these mirror the use of physical sticky notes, which allow you to easily move your work items around as your priorities change (as we know they will).

Once the full scope of work is visible, we can then begin to make the hard choices that create focus. Looking at the list, consider what the absolute most important item is for you to complete. If you could only do one thing, what would it be? It goes at the top of the pile.

Repeat that process, resisting the urge to make everything urgent or put things side by side to show they have an equal priority. Get ruthless now, and it will save you time later.

At the end of this process, you'll have created your first Agile backlog, which will serve as the engine for all your efforts going forward. As you complete items, or new ideas/requests come in, you’ll add new things to the list based on their relative priority.

Now it's time for focused effort on just a few things. For small teams or entrepreneurs, work in progress (WIP) limits are the best mechanism for this. They put a hard ceiling on the number of things we can be doing at any given time. Ideally, for a single person, your WIP is very small, i.e. no higher than two or three. That doesn’t mean you can only do two things per day, but it does mean you can't start on eight different things.

WIP limits force us to work on one or two things at a time until one of them is done. Then, and only then, can we move on to something else.

Transparency and focus, provided through the backlog and WIP limits, allow marketers, business owners, and entrepreneurs alike to take advantage of Agile ways of working quickly and easily so they can remain relevant even in the face of uncertainty. 

The choice between agility and obsolescence 

Agile marketing has conferred a competitive advantage on its practitioners for years, but like so much during 2020, its relevance has been transformed.

Only by fully committing to Agile frameworks, team structures and ways of working can marketers hope to keep pace with the extraordinary pace of change all around us. If we don't, our marketing will degrade into a series of desperate flails, each more ignored and ineffective than the last.

Image Credit: Kerkez / Getty Images
Andrea Fryrear
Andrea Fryrear Member
Andrea Fryrear is the co-founder of AgileSherpas and a leading authority on optimizing customer acquisition and retention processes. She’s the author of two books on organizational agility, and an international speaker and trainer. In addition to working in the trenches with dozens of the world’s most innovative companies, Andrea has spent years achieving numerous certifications in how to improve all aspects of organizational performance. When not on a plane or at a keyboard, she can be found in the mountains of her adopted home in Boulder, Colorado.