As an Agile software development company, our Sales and Marketing departments are constantly discussing the benefits of Agile development and articulating how those translate to better business outcomes for our clients. Our Marketing department hypothesized that they, too, could boost results by “going Agile.” The Gorilla Logic attitude for continuous development, a Trello revamp (or two), some Fibonacci understanding, and an Agile marketing training later; they’ve become a powerhouse Agile team. As the Sales team, we are grateful, and in awe, as we watch our Marketing counterparts gracefully plan and execute their work while seamlessly incorporating changing priorities and feedback.
Agile Marketing: How It Started
For many marketing teams, the frequency of disparate requests from various departments can be difficult to prioritize, organize, and track. Our marketing team was feeling that pain. They needed a way to better plan out their work for the weeks ahead, rather than just the next few hours. They also needed a way to be more transparent about their workload and priorities to other departments. By doing so, they could provide more accurate timelines and, when they couldn’t complete a task in the timeline another department wanted, they could provide context. This meant a new swag request would no longer take priority over a new lead generation campaign. It also meant requests would no longer be thrown over the wall—waterfall style—to marketing. Instead, other departments had more transparency and opportunities for collaboration so that the results were more closely aligned with everyone’s expectations and desires—even if those evolved over time.
How They Do It: Important Concepts and Structure
Since the Marketing team started their Agile journey, they’ve adopted a few important ways to structure their work in order to achieve a more optimal burndown rate, better forecast their completed story points, and complete more work within a Sprint.
Embracing the Agile Ceremonies: Retros, Plannings, Stand Ups & Formal Sprints
The Marketing team works on month-long Sprints. After a few iterations, they learned this time frame is long enough to make significant progress while also delivering results in a business-responsive cadence. At the beginning of each Sprint, they block a two-hour planning session. Before that session, each team member has been asked to groom the Backlog to ensure the highest priority projects have been moved over to the Next Month Sprint Backlog. Each team member has also been asked to ensure that all information in the Trello card is filled out to the best of their ability (title, description, due date, story points, members, label, etc). Then, during the Sprint Planning session, the entire team (currently six team members in three locations) uses video conferencing to go through each card in the shared Trello board. This process ensures everyone is on the same page, assigns a priority, and moves the card into the To Do column. Each morning during the Sprint, the team uses video conferencing to hold a daily Stand Up where team members discuss what they did the day before, what they will be working on that day, and any blockers they may have. At the end of the Sprint, the team conducts a Retro where they discuss what they thought went well that Sprint, what did not go so well, and what improvements should be made.
Tasks Over Projects
One of the most difficult ideas for the Marketing team to master has been the concept of tasks over projects. In the past, the team would create a card titled something like White Paper for Forbes and use one card for the entire project. The tasks involved in such a project include a project brief, multiple drafts, design, and a promotion plan. A card like that would include massive amounts of information, be passed back and forth by nearly the entire team, and sit in one column for most of the Sprint. Realizing the inefficiencies and complications, they’ve better aligned with the Agile practice of breaking each project into smaller tasks. Not only does this help with organization and moving things along, it also allows them to break projects up across various Sprints. For example, a white paper draft can be completed in the January Sprint while the final draft is not completed until February. Marketing can track their progress, continue to chug along bit by bit, and maintain a positive focus, rather than feeling dragged down by cards that don’t seem to move.
MVP (Minimum Viable Product)
Traditionally, marketing departments have been beholden to the idea of the “big launch.” Every idea needed to be perfect and have a red carpet roll-out. After realizing how long this process could take and the number of dependencies involved, they have embraced the idea of MVP. In Marketing, an MVP could mean launching a blog on a topic they believe our audience would be interested in. If the blog does well, they explore the idea of evolving the piece. That could mean developing the post into a series or an additional format such as an e-book or white paper. It could also mean building a campaign to promote the blog. Breaking activities and deliverables into concise chunks helps them use their time and budget more efficiently. Rather than spending precious time and dollars on content that might not resonate with our audience, their decisions are guided by audience reactions. The MVP strategy allows for more feedback, faster and in the end, better results.
Story Points & Unplanned Work
Using story points in their Trello board is the best way for the Marketing team to predict their work. After completing numerous Sprints, they had a benchmark for understanding just how much work they can finish each month. For their current team of six, they typically complete around 350 points each Sprint. When planning, they move around 320 points into the To Do column—less if the Sprint will be impacted by holidays or team member PTO. This method leaves them room for about 30 points of unplanned work. Marketing, especially, needs the flexibility to be responsive to prospecting and client needs. Sometimes an urgent task comes down from the executive level, or a bit of martech breaks and needs to be urgently fixed. Rather than scrambling when this happens, Marketing has anticipated these needs so that their planned work can continue on-time. The team also makes Trello cards to account for tasks such as strategic planning meetings. If the team is planning on having a three-hour meeting to discuss a new campaign idea, they create a card and allot it the appropriate points. These meetings require time away from other projects and documenting it continues to help them fine-tune their ability to forecast their work.
Customizing The Process
The most important concept our Marketing team has learned is how to make the process work for their team. They use Agile concepts as their guiding principles but make adjustments when necessary. Some aspects of Kanban work best for their team while other aspects of Scrum work best. This customization removes frustrations that could arise if the team felt forced into a process that didn’t align with the business or team. It allows them to be their most productive, infusing a sense of joy, power, and esprit de corps.
How They Do It: Tools
As is essential to all things Agile, our Marketing team’s process is always improving. Here are some essentials that have evolved for their workflow.
While this tool satisfies Marketing’s love of color and imagery, it serves a greater purpose. Trello is a web-based Kanban-style application. It is a subsidiary of Atlassian which offers other Agile products (like Jira) as well. Trello has some free functionality, but our Marketing team uses the paid versions. They organize the board using the following columns:
Backlog: These items (cards) are things that have been requested by other departments or determined by Marketing but have not yet made it into a Sprint.
Next month Backlog: These cards did not make it into the current Sprint due to workload, however, they are considered next in priority. This column allows the team to separate these tasks from the larger Backlog creating something more manageable in preparation for the next Sprint planning.
To Do: This serves as the Sprint Backlog and includes cards that need to be completed in the current Sprint but are not yet actively being worked on.
In Progress: These cards are actively being worked on by someone(s) in the Marketing department.
Blocked: These cards are currently sitting with someone outside of Marketing or their contractors. It captures dependencies on another department, a vendor, or a client.
Done: Completed cards from the current Sprint.
While the team works hard to move an item smoothly from To Do to Done, there are times when a card moves back and forth because of changing priorities or a blocker. For example, a content writer might move a white paper to Blocked when it’s being reviewed by another department, and pull a card for creating ad copy into In Progress. If the white paper review is completed before the ad copy is done, and the white paper is a higher priority, then the white paper would be moved back into In Progress for the writer to address feedback and push the ad copy card back into To Do to be completed after the white paper.
Each card in these columns has the following information:
Title: The Marketing department spells out the entire title, avoiding abbreviations, to make searching easier. They follow this naming convention: Project Type: Project Title – Task Name
Example: Blog: Forbes Business Council Agile Marketing – First Draft
Description: Everything you need to know about a project: user story, messaging, notes, etc
Labels: Each person on the team has a label. When their label is selected they have something to do for that card. If you are familiar with JIRA, this is similar to an assignee.
Members: Each person on the team can be selected as a member. Members are individuals that need to be aware of what is happening on a project. If you are familiar with JIRA, this is similar to a watcher. *An individual can be both a label and a member on a card at one time.
Story Points: Uses the Fibonacci Scale as a relative estimate of time and effort.
Due Date: When the task should be completed by.
Attachments: Any accompanying documents, images, project briefs, etc.
Parent and Children Cards: If the task is part of a larger project, as it often is, the team can link cards using this functionality.
Custom Fields: The Marketing team added two additional custom fields to their cards, project owner and blocker. Both are text fields. The project owner is whoever is responsible for shepherding the card to the Done column. Blocker is more information about what specifically is holding up a card when it is in the Blocked column for example, “Chris reviewing”.
The team also uses two Trello add ons, Corrello and Agile Tools.
Agile Tools allows them to keep track of the number of story points in each column so that they can easily see work in progress and completed points.
Corello is mainly used to monitor burndown progress but can also show past-due cards and the time each card has been in a column.
Here is a burndown chart from a few months into their process. The red line reflects the ideal burndown rate determined by Corrello.
Here is a more recent burndown chart. In this chart, the dotted blue line reflects the ideal burndown rate. The more the team learns, the more they are able to evolve and improve.
Agile Marketing and the Benefit To Other Departments
While the Marketing team definitely feels more confident with the way they work using an Agile workflow, the benefits are not limited to their team. As the leader of the Sales team, our regular collaborations are exponentially better and our interdependency feels seamless.
Because Marketing is able to better forecast their completed work, we have a better understanding of when we can expect things from them. We are able to prioritize with them and they are able to tell us what tasks made it into their current Sprint. Rather than an ambiguous “we are working on it” we are able to get very detailed and specific status updates. If we, or another team, come to them with a request we are able to have a candid conversation on the priority of that request and the impact it will have on current work. This helps keep everyone on the same page and manage expectations. The insight into their work flow and progress also improves our continued collaboration.
The work required for the Marketing team to become Agile certainly wasn’t a small feat—and that work continues as they iterate and improve. However, the payoff is huge. The Marketing team sees the benefits, my Sales team sees the benefits, really, the whole company benefits. We are able to get better results, faster and more quickly accommodate feedback. This truly is a go slow to go fast scenario and it has absolutely paid off.
* This article originally appeared in Forbes and can be found here.