How to build an agile marketing organization without authority

Many agile marketing teams have successfully been launched by passionate team members willing to challenge the status quo in a forward-thinking way.

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While a lot of marketers who are new to agile marketing think it’s a process change, but that’s only a small piece of the puzzle (and that’s the easy part). What’s trickier is changing culture in an organization, especially when you’re a team member without authority and you must navigate through big egos and office politics.

Here’s a common scenario that happens all the time: 

You’re a team member and your company leadership believes in agile ways of working. Your direct manager, however, isn’t buying into the new ideas and displays a lot of agile anti-patterns that create confusion for your team. So, how do you ‘manage up’ to move the team forward without compromising your job?

Here are a few common agile anti-patterns and some ways that you can respond as a team member.

Anti-pattern #1: Assigning work to the team

One of the great benefits of agile marketing is the team being able to work through a single prioritized backlog of work, which keeps the team focused and productive. However, middle managers are used to being the ones to assign work to their employees, so this is one of the most difficult changes for your manager to make. 

The best way to navigate through this is to educate her on the agile ways of working. Instead of saying, “You can’t assign us work anymore,” which can come off as rude and out of place, a better approach is to explain the benefits of agile and how the backlog helps the team be more focused and productive. 

If that alone doesn’t work, ask her if you can experiment for one week. Request one week where the team only works off of the backlog and explain that you’ll share the results of the experiment by how much work gets done that way versus how you’re currently working. 

Unless there are other major team blockers, when a team is able to commit to work from the backlog, there’s almost always a significant gain in how much work the team accomplishes. 

While pure productivity should never be the ultimate goal in agile marketing (it should be about your customers), it’s a metric middle managers find useful and can help your team with agile practices.

Anti-pattern #2: Micromanaging the team

Agile marketing requires trusting the team doing the work and minimizing process overhead that slows them down. In agile marketing, the manager’s role becomes one of a leader who’s there to help build skills, create the right environment for the team to succeed and to empower people. If you’re on a team and your manager is still micromanaging, what do you do? 

First, you need to build up trust with this manager, which may take time, but remember that every small change is a change in the right direction.

To build trust, the team needs to be very transparent. Have a virtual board that your manager can see every day in real time. Invite her to your standup meetings, but just as an observer so she can see that the team can handle its own problems.

Additionally, work on your relationship with this person and find out what she fears, what would make her trust the team and work on small wins. 

Instead of asking for full trust all at once, see if there is one small project or task that the team can try to work on by themselves. If this small, non-risky item is done to her satisfaction, it will eventually lead to bigger opportunities for the team’s empowerment.

Anti-pattern #3: Not keeping teams sticky

Traditionally marketing is done by functional department or project teams. In agile marketing, the idea is to have a team that sticks together and work comes to them. Sticky teams have been proven to be more productive because the real gain is the people and how they learn to work together.

Your manager is used to making sure that each individual that reports to him is productive, which is really counterculture to agile. In agile, the real gain is when the team delivers value to customers.

First, explain to your manager why sticky teams are important—he may not have that context. Explain how this will allow your team to become more focused and you’ll save a lot of energy by not having people context switch.

Next, ask for a small experiment. See if you can get a small team of 4 or 5 people to work together on a low-risk campaign for a month and see what happens. Track what work the team commits to and how much of that work gets completed. If you have a team that is not sticky, see if you can do some initial benchmarking and compare the two (just don’t compare individual performance or you’ll lose trust from the team).

It takes a lot of courage to be a team member who’s trying to change culture, but many agile marketing teams have successfully been launched by passionate team members who are willing to challenge the status quo in a productive, forward-thinking way.

Contributing authors are invited to create content for MarTech and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the martech community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

About the author

Stacey Ackerman
Stacey knows what it’s like to be a marketer, after all, she’s one of the few agile coaches and trainers that got her start there. After graduating from journalism school, she worked as a content writer, strategist, director and adjunct marketing professor. She became passionate about agile as a better way to work in 2012 when she experimented with it for an ad agency client. Since then she has been a scrum master, agile coach and has helped with numerous agile transformations with teams across the globe. Stacey speaks at several agile conferences, has more certs to her name than she can remember and loves to practice agile at home with her family. As a lifelong Minnesotan, she recently relocated to North Carolina where she’s busy learning how to cook grits and say “y’all."

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