To be more agile, it’s time MOPs teams get comfortable saying ‘No’
Being able to keep consistent work processes and practices are key to a adopting an agile approach, but it's difficult to do when every project is a priority.
Marketing operations teams that are most successful adopting an agile approach are the ones whose systems remain stable even as the work that flows through them radically changes, according to founder of AgileSherpas and agile coach Andrea Fryrear.
“The balance marketers need to strike is an appropriate amount of agility with some degree of stability,” says Fryear.
Her team recently released its third annual State of Agile Marketing Report, a survey of more than 400 marketers. For Fryrear, the most concerning data from AgileSherpa’s report was the high percentage of respondents who said they aren’t more agile because of current problematic processes. In fact, “current processes not working well” was cited as a leading barrier to adopting an agile approach by survey respondents, second only to lack of education and training.
“We’ve seen similar data over the past three years of doing the report, and I think it speaks to marketers’ high level of busyness,” said Fryrear. She says the pandemic has accelerated a lot of trends, and that agile marketing may very well turn out to be one of them — allowing marketers to act less like short order cooks and more like strategic, customer-centric partners in the business.
If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority
“No is a word marketers need to get more comfortable with,” said Fryrear, “Agile systems can be immensely helpful here. The trouble is that if everything is a priority, nothing is. When we’re trying to do ten things at once, they’ll all end up taking ten times longer than if we were focusing on one thing until it’s done.”
Marketing technology lead and 3X Marketo champion Helen Abramova says she sees marketing operations teams regularly suffering — not from a lack of agility — but lack of stability and predictability attached to daily work processes. A circumstance that speaks directly to inconsistent processes and practices.
“The biggest challenge is constant fire drills and imposed urgencies to be addressed immediately,” said Abramova, “Marketing ops need agile practices — but not to become faster and more flexible, but rather more consistently focused on the priorities and more grounded into the user stories and sprints.”
Abramova insists agile marketers need to stop task-switching and jumping from subject to subject, a habit that kills both productivity and a strategic approach to work practices.
Enabling a more agile approach amidst the chaos
Fryrear echoes Abramova’s comments, emphasizing that marketers and MOPs teams need a process for protecting their focused efforts. She offers two options: Identify a Team Lead, someone to act the same as a product owner on a software scrum team, or enacting short sprints, lasting for one to two-weeks, where marketers are allowed to put up guardrails around their work efforts.
“They [Team Leads] own the backlog, making sure that the highest priority, highest value work is at the top and gets done next,” said Fryrear, “Incoming requests get accepted, but they don’t instantly get started — they go into the backlog at the appropriate spot based on business value and marketing priorities.”
For teams using a “short sprint” approach, Fryrear recommends committing to completing a certain amount of work with a short timebox, and focusing on nothing but those work items.
“If the sprint is nice and short, we can again accept incoming requests, but put them into our backlog to be prioritized and (maybe) addressed in an upcoming sprint. In particularly volatile times like these, one-week sprints may be useful for allowing new work to get processed quickly,” said Fryrear.
More training and education needed to be truly agile
Lack of education and training around agile marketing strategies was the top barrier to adopting an agile approach, according to AgileSherpa’s survey.
“The idea of a long-term commitment to achieve a certification can be daunting, especially when you’re looking at an ever-growing pile of work,” said Fryrear. To make training more accessible, Fryrear’s company has opened up its “Introduction to Agile Marketing Course” for free, a course that cost $79 before the pandemic.
“Everywhere you look, you see calls for marketers to be agile right now, but that can translate into just being fast or changing your mind every day — and that’s not really what we need,” said Fryrear, “Marketers need to stop starting and starting finishing to actually get value out the door and into the hands of our audiences. That’s what agile systems are supposed to do.”
But, not all marketers believe lack of education is keeping their team from being more agile.
“I would disagree with this point,” said Abramova, “The main obstacle is culture and decision-making processes that define how things are practically done in the organization. It’s the difference between knowing how to do something and actually doing something.”
She says that the ability for an organization to establish and enforce agile practices depends on where the company is in its maturity and life cycle — businesses that have more advanced maturity levels are more capable of adopting and sticking to agile processes.
Technology’s role in agile
Richard Demato, GM and head of transformation for Simon Data, said the biggest challenges, when it comes to agile, is the underlying technology platforms teams are using.
“Agile project management tools will still fail to enable a real shift if you have siloed legacy tech at the foundation,” said Demato. According to Demato, the new wave of purpose-built customer data platforms and customer experience platforms — that open up all data to marketing teams and make it possible to centrally orchestrate the customer experience — are a key enabler to agile practices, streamlining internal workflows across functions, channels, journeys and clouds.
For Raj Jain, a marketing automation and operations manager, even when there is not a lot of change happening, the real challenges for agile teams are centered on communication capabilities and democratizing knowledge.
“Having things like a company wiki — using tools like Confluent, G-Suite Tools, and Sharepoint, along with Slack and email groups — makes it easier to create new processes and practices to keep up with change,” said Jain, “We spent a lot of time setting up our tools and building out the environments so that our stakeholders can self-serve and find new information fast.”
Jain’s team uses a scrum approach — the second most common agile marketing approach among AgileSherpa’s survey respondents, with 21% citing scrum as their methodology. (More than half — 54% — of the survey participants reported using a hybrid approach which implements multiple methodologies.)
“For our team, we focus on how the agile method allows us to work together to align our priorities, be dynamic through change, and to budget the time resource of our people’s talent,” said Jain, “When we onboard new team members we help them understand the question of ‘Why agile?‘ instead of the question ‘What is agile?’.”