Creating Support for Agile Marketing

Let’s admit it: change is hard. Most people are more comfortable with the status quo, no matter how dysfunctional or painful, than they are with change. Change involves risk. Change may impact things that people like about their working environment and their relationships with their co-workers, the people who report to them, and their boss. That’s why, if you’re going to introduce something new like Agile Marketing, you need to build support for the change.

Every year, VersionOne surveys the global software-development community to determine the “State of Agile.” For several years, the report has included a section on the leading challenges to successful adoption of Agile. Care to guess what was the number one challenge to success? “General organizational resistance to change”. So we need to figure out some ways to overcome that organizational resistance to change.

Why Strong Support is Critical to Agile Marketing

I have seen many successful implementations of Agile marketing, but I have also seen some failures. Failed implementations can happen for a number of reasons, but the top two reasons they fail are inadequate management support and the departure of a key manager before Agile has taken root in the organization.

When I say inadequate management support, I don’t refer just to support from the CMO or other top-level marketing executive. Mid-level managers in particular most directly feel the impact of the shift to Agile. Ironically, while mid-level managers have the most to gain from Agile, they may be the most resistant to implementing Agile. When asked to give up day-to-day decision-making authority in favor of long-term strategic projects and the building of Agile teams and an Agile culture, they may react with resistance and rejection.So let’s take a look at how to build support for Agile. 

Your approach depends both on your role in the organization and if you’re not a senior manager, whether management is likely to be receptive to Agile. We’ll take a look at three scenarios. First, how to sell Agile into your organization if you think that management is likely to be receptive. Second, how to sell Agile into your organization if you think that management is not likely to be receptive. And last, how to introduce Agile if you’re an individual contributor and it’s too soon to enroll any of the management team to the idea of introducing Agile to the organization.

Scenario 1: Management is Likely to be Receptive to Agile

How do you build support if you think that management is likely to be receptive?

Start by educating them on the basics of Agile. If your development, IT, or operations departments already use Agile, refer to their experience. Other than using the term Agile, cool it on the Agile language. Don’t talk about daily standups, Scrum, Kanban or other Agile terminology unless management brings it up first.

Be prepared to answer at least three questions:

  • What is Agile marketing and how does it compare to Agile in other departments?
  • Why are you adopting Agile marketing? What benefits do you hope to realize? Be specific, but don’t overpromise.
  • Who else, particularly in your industry, is practicing Agile marketing?

Next, align with management’s vision and goals. Ask yourself, does any aspect of management’s goals align with the goals of Agile? How does implementing Agile help achieve something that is important to management? Remember, everyone operates from “What’s in it for me?”—also known as the WIFM principle.

Suggest that you start small, rather than starting with a big Agile “transformation”. Managers are in the business of risk management. If you show that you are managing risk in a responsible way, they’re more likely to be receptive. One client I worked with started with a commitment of only two weeks. They formed a cross-functional team of hand-picked people to develop a proof-of-concept for a new business initiative. It was tremendously successful, which led to further commitments.

Also, set realistic expectations. Don’t set the expectation that a tiny team of four or five marketers are suddenly going to be doing the work of ten. Set modest expectations or no expectations at all.

Once you have some success to report, ask management to sponsor Agile marketing in a visible way. Of course, you want the CMO and the highest levels of marketing management to sponsor the adoption of Agile. You also want middle managers to support Agile. I recommend asking senior management to appoint two or three middle managers, including one who you think might be resistant to Agile, and make them responsible for the success of Agile adoption in marketing.

Scenario 2: Management is Not Likely to Be Receptive to Agile

In my book, The Six Disciplines of Agile Marketing, I say “If you expect management to resist Agile, your best bet is to change jobs or to move to another manager who is more likely to be receptive.”

That was probably too harsh. But it can be very hard to change a non-receptive manager to support Agile. That said, let’s take a look at some ways that you might be able to convince them.

First, don’t try to educate them on the basics of Agile. But cool it on the Agile language. Don’t talk about daily standups, Scrum, Kanban or other Agile terminology. Don’t talk about who else in your industry is practicing Agile marketing.

Instead, say something like, “We are testing some new tools to track our work,” or “We scheduled some regular status meetings to make sure everything is kept on track.” Find another way to describe whatever Agile processes you put in place.

Next, align with their vision and goals. Just as you would do if management is receptive, ask yourself, does any aspect of management’s goals align with the goals of Agile? How does implementing Agile help achieve something that is important to management? Remember that everyone operates from the “What’s in it for me?” WIFM principle.

Start small, with just one team of perhaps four or five people for a limited amount of time. Don’t set any expectations. Instead, measure improvement. You want some hard data to make your case that Agile is a better way of operating marketing.

And most important, build allies. If you’re working closely with sales or a particular business unit, find someone who isn’t just OK with working with you on Agile, but who embraces and is enthusiastic about the idea. 

Explain to them that you’re committed to working differently and to being radically transparent with them. Make it clear that you’re committed to their success on their terms. Find out what metrics are most important to your allies, and work on improving those metrics.

You want your allies to speak for you about the success of these new methods of working. If upper management is skeptical, nothing diffuses this skepticism better than support from an unexpected source.

Scenario 3: You’re an Individual Contributor

What if you’re an individual contributor and it’s too soon to enroll any of the management team to the idea of introducing Agile to the organization?

You can practice Agile as an individual and by your example, show the way for others.  The change starts with you.

If this scenario applies to you, I’d like to recommend two resources. The first is Personal Kanban by Toni Anne DeMaria Barry and Jim Benson. As the title suggests, it is more Kanban or flow-based.

There are just two rules to personal Kanban:

  • Visualize your work,
  • Limit your work-in-progress

There are some other guidelines for how to prioritize your work, how to celebrate and learn from completion, and how to collaborate with others. But it is a very simple and flexible approach, and it can greatly improve your productivity, as well as your sense of control over your work and your life.

If you decide to go this route, I recommend reading their book as well as investigating the resources on their website,

The second resource is the website of the Personal Agility Institute. This website, which contains a number of free resources, training, and draft chapters of their new book, Personal Agility by Peter Stevens and Maria Matarelli.

Their approach uses Scrum, rather than Kanban, as a methodology. It can be used in either a business setting or in your personal life. 

At its core, Personal Agility uses the Scrum framework to reflect on your goals and intentions at regular intervals, usually weekly, to ensure that you’re doing work with intention and that you’re reflecting on what’s important and what’s not important, and that your actions align.

This approach also recommends the use of a “celebration coach” to ask key questions at your weekly planning sessions, ensuring that you’re being both honest with yourself, but also that you’re not being too hard on yourself and that you’re celebrating what you’ve accomplished.

Whichever method you choose, if people around you recognize the improvements in your productivity and your ability to collaborate with others, let them know that you’re practicing Agile, and that they can practice it both as individuals and as an organization.

Lead by your example!

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