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Redefining Agility: Marketers Need More Focus, Not More Speed

Andrea Fryrear
Andrea Fryrear

What marketers really need, and what Agile marketing provides us when we get it right, is focus.

There's no need to tell marketers we need to move fast. Chances are, our day began with multiple emails carrying time-sensitive requests that we spent the whole morning frantically (yet successfully) delivering. 

Fast we can do. 

What marketers really need, and what Agile marketing provides us when we get it right, is focus. 

We need the ability to know what’s important and go do it, without being pulled in a dozen different directions

Paradoxically, focus on fewer things generates a huge uptick in productivity, improving our pace of delivery without asking us to run faster. Agile marketing frameworks force this kind of focus, even when it's uncomfortable. That's why Agile teams are more productive, not because they've figured out how to squeeze a few more minutes out of their days. 

So how do we achieve this fabulous focus? We have two choices: timeboxed sprints or limited work in progress. The option you choose should be based largely on the predictability of your work, but the important thing is to choose a focusing mechanism as the first step on your Agile marketing journey. 

Creating focus through short sprints

Short spurts of focused effort are great ways to get things done, and this idea forms the foundation for Agile sprints. They originated in the Scrum framework, but we can borrow their mechanics to achieve the focus we're after without going all in on the rest of Scrum.

The concept of a sprint is that a team takes a look at all the work that's coming up and chooses only some of it to tackle in the next few weeks. Whatever work they choose should be useful and valuable on its own so that there's some value being delivered at the end of the sprint. 

In other words, we don't want to just work steadily on a random assortment of stuff for two weeks. We're looking to slice off a chunk of work that's useful when it's done. 

Once the team selects their sprint work, they put their heads down and focus only on those tasks. Any new work gets put on a to-do list for consideration in upcoming sprints; it doesn’t get started immediately. 

That last part is key, because it's where the focus comes from. 

The team has the power to say no, or at least not right now, to unplanned requests so they can use all their energy to deliver the valuable work they chose for the sprint. 

Of course, marketers, in particular, have lots of people making requests of us. It can be unrealistic to ask these teams to lock themselves down 100% during the sprint. In those cases, we can leave some capacity, say 30%, of our time open to take on these requests. 

We can then stay focused most of the time and still be responsive to valuable new requests. 

The power of limiting work in progress

If the sprints feel too restrictive (and they often are for marketers), there's a second option for creating focus, known as WIP (work in progress) limits. A WIP limit places a firm ceiling on the number of things a team or individual can be doing at any given time. 

For instance, I have a personal WIP limit of two. That means while I'm writing this article I'm also pulling together the agenda for my team's third-quarter planning session, but I can't add a third active piece of work because it would break my WIP limit. 

The phrasing of that last sentence should give you a clue as to why WIP limits are so powerful. Of course, I'm not simultaneously writing this article and filling out a quarterly planning agenda. 

To tackle that other task, I'd have to stop writing, jump to a new program, remember where I left off last time I had it open, and then proceed with the actual work. 

The more often we do that kind of jump, formally known as context switching, the more time gets wasted in our workday. We intuitively know this, but we succumb to the siren call of multitasking all the same. 

WIP limits create the willpower most of us don't have. They force us to stop starting and start finishing. 

Once I’m done with this article or the planning document, I'll begin preparation for a presentation I'm giving to a client next week. But that third item is off-limits until one of the others is finished. 

How teams limit work in progress

If you have a team that needs to apply the focusing power of WIP limits, the theory remains the same: We want to put a ceiling on the number of tasks they can be doing as a group. 

We can do this holistically, i.e., our team of five has a collective WIP limit of 12, or based on where work items are in their life cycle. 

In the first instance, some team members might be doing three things while others are doing two, but as a group, we're keeping the total number of active items under our WIP limit. 

In the latter, we need a visualized workflow to show us where work is and allow us to put limits on certain stages. If our stages were simply To Do, Doing, Review, and Done, we'd put one WIP limit on the Doing column, maybe seven for our team of five. That means we could only be doing a total of seven things as a team. 

But maybe reviews are faster – work doesn't stay there very long – so our WIP limit might be lower for that stage of work, maybe just four. 

In this approach, we're pushing the team's focus to high-value (and/or high-volume) stages of the workflow by setting higher WIP limits there. Yet we're also forcing them to get things all the way to Done by keeping the WIP limits fairly low in each stage.  

Pick your focusing mechanism

Whether you choose sprints or WIP limits depends largely on how well you can predict your work. If you know with confidence what you'll be doing in the next few weeks, you'll be able to plan a strong sprint. 

If, on the other hand, you know unplanned work will be flying at you from all sides, WIP limits are likely to serve you better. 

However you proceed, you can start your journey to complete marketing agility by focusing on the most important and impactful work until it's 100% done.


Image Credit: Pinkypills / 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.