Agile 'Aha' Moments from the Teams We Have Coached


Throughout the years, our AgileSherpas have coached marketing teams of varying sizes that support different types of products and services. All the teams we've coached are different. Yet, there is a distinct pattern in the "Aha" moments they've experienced as they explore the Agile mindset and its practices. These Agile "aha" moments have managed to make optimists out of some of the most adamant skeptics about Agile. So, we asked our most experienced trainers to share the “aha” moments that have helped their teams embrace agility.

Top Team Agile ‘Aha’ Moments from Monica Georgieff 

Saying “not right now” to external requests has benefits on all levels

The annual Marketer Happiness report from 2019 queries marketers from a wide variety of industries each year. Last year, it provided definitive data surrounding the largest issues about being a modern marketer. The biggest one was that we're not empowered to say "no" or say "not right now" to incoming work. The result? We feel like we need to take on any and all unplanned work at any point of our process, no matter its priority. 
 
agile-aha-moments
Statistically, 12% of marketers never say "no" to work that doesn't fit their team’s goals and priorities. Forty-one percent say "no" a few times per year (which is exactly like never saying 'no'). Further, 26% of us don't feel we have the authority or autonomy to ever refuse new work.

During our coaching, we bring up the Marketer Happiness Report and break up into teams to challenge this widely accepted and damaging assumption. Without fail, teams discover that there are benefits for stakeholders as well as the execution team when Agile marketing teams take the time to position new, incoming requests against our existing backlog items.

In fact, delaying starting on something immediately and making decisions about the appropriate time to begin a new work item means a team is likely to finish the work at a faster pace. The waiting stakeholder on the other end is likely to receive the completed work more quickly, even with a slower start. 

We don’t necessarily need a digital tool to start using Agile practices

For larger, distributed teams, putting a digital process management tool in place might be essential for a successful Agile transformation on the organizational level. However, digital tools are not mandatory to adopt the Agile mindset and practices on the team level. Instead, marketing teams can implement a simple physical Kanban or Scrum board in their workspace and start building some new habits. This way they will avoid an impediment to making progress on their journey towards agility. In many cases, holding out for an organizationally-approved digital tool has the potential to stall the adoption of Agile. Don’t fall into the trap of waiting for 'the coming of the digital tool'. Start incorporating the Agile practices your team is excited about as soon as you can. Initially, it is fine to use any tools you have on hand, such as post-its, whiteboards, and sharpies. 

Having more frequent touchpoints can help us avoid spending our days in back-to-back meetings 

 
An Asian woman in front of a physical Kanban board surrounded by her team.
When our teams first encounter Agile meetings, their initial reaction is to look at their already full calendars and ask, understandably: “When are we supposed to fit in these new ceremonies?” The teams usually recognize some of the benefits of spending 1 hour every 2 weeks talking about process during their retrospectives. In addition, they see the value of building short-term strategies with their team members every morning during standups.

Taking 2 hours each week planning out their next spurt of active work and hosting a review show-and-tell with stakeholders sounds reasonable. However, they just can't imagine integrating these meetings without spending all of their time in a conference room, instead of being productive.

What's not immediately clear is how these meetings replace other ad hoc touchpoints that are interrupting our days and derailing our progress on strategic initiatives. Once we position retros, reviews, standups and planning meetings as alternatives to the separate team and stakeholder updates, we see almost immediate improvement.

For example, we spend much less time waiting for impediments to be resolved because we talk about them and work together to remove them. In addition, there's a decrease in the infinite back and forth email threads, and we find ourselves pulled into far fewer unplanned meetings. As those outcomes start to happen, this big "aha" around Agile meetings starts to sink in.
 

Top Team Agile "Aha" Moments from Raviv Turner

WIP Limits and the power of "Stop starting, start finishing" 

With all of the teams we coach, no matter the length of our training, we simulate the awesome power of putting work in progress limits on phases of our workflow using hands-on, interactive exercises. Initially, limiting the number of work items you are doing at one time within your team seems almost counter-intuitive. A popular question that usually pops up in the early conversations around what WIP limits are and how we might use them is: “But isn’t being able to multitask a good quality to have as a professional?”

The short answer: "Nope." It turns out that this long-held assumption has actually been wreaking havoc within our marketing teams for decades. In reality, multitasking causes us to context switch frantically. As a result, we are working on bits and pieces of tasks that eventually take months to make it out the door to our audiences. In our simulations, we explore and observe the consequences of context switching. They are in the form of an inventory of half-done work that's not reaching our customers. Observing them is among the Agile "Aha" moments and a source of impactful takeaways in our training groups.

"We can't be like IT" (or Scrum just doesn't work for marketing) 

Ten years ago, content on building agility within a marketing environment was scarce. In fact, you would have discovered only content about Agile in the context of IT. More specifically, you would have encountered the Scrum framework. At the time, it was known as the only real way to practice the Agile methodology on a daily basis. This has created a palpable bias that if we want to be an Agile team, we have to be a Scrum team no matter what our context is.

In reality, and especially in the marketing reality, Scrum is not always the most appropriate framework for Agile practices to manifest in our teams. On a wide scale, this has resulted in many marketers getting turned off of practicing Agile in general, associating it only with a framework that does not fit how they work. Since then, organizations like ours and others focused on agility outside of IT, have built out a much richer set of resources that explore the various faces of agility. That's why, during our training, we aim to explore Scrum as well as its alternatives. 
 
The sentence "How to implement Agile" at the center of the image surrounded by the most popular ways of implementing it.
Image from plan.io blog 

Measuring business outcomes vs. marketing outputs

In an Agile environment, measuring success tends to look rather different than it might in a traditional marketing team. That's why our coaches spend a good amount of time discussing the difference between aiming for marketing outputs vs customer outcomes.

Мany of the teams we work with consist of people who feel like they're taking on too many outputs at the same time. Therefore, the conversation around aiming for customer outcomes instead of outputs really clicks. In fact, the common feeling around one of our favorite Agile mantras of "maximizing the work NOT done" is at first uncomfortable and then, completely rational.

We have only a set number of productive working hours in a day. Making the most of these hours shouldn't mean staying overtime to get another piece of marketing output out the door. It should mean maximizing customer happiness during the time you spend with your team. 

Top Aha Moments from AgileSherpas Co-Founder Andrea Fryrear 

We can't apply real agility at the project level 

One of the most significant "Aha" moments that has consistently moved the needle in how marketing teams perceive the role of agility in their organizations is that of having persistent teams. Most enterprise marketing departments flow team members to different projects.

This usually happens when there's a need for their particular expertise or more hands on deck. As a result, one marketer sits on a number of different project "pseudo-teams" and contributes to all of them. Trying to weave in Agile practices into each of the project teams seems like a good starting point. So, all the project teams build visual workflows, agree on times for their Agile meetings, and begin working.

What does that mean for the marketer who sits on 5 or more project teams? They start going to 5 standups, 5 planning sessions, 5 reviews, and 5 retros, etc. This quickly becomes unmanageable. As a result, the organization abandons their pursuit of agility, thinking these practices just don’t fit with their structure. Agile only works when teams act persistently. With stable teams, the work still gets done, but projects flow to teams instead of individuals flowing to projects. 


We also do our best work in stable teams. There, we can actually grow with our teammates, develop our process and figure out our quirks.

Effective leadership is vital for long term agile success

For most teams, the journey towards true agility and high performance is a long one. Like all good things, agility doesn't happen overnight. That's why it's vitally important for all levels of the organizational hierarchy to be supporting each other on the quest. This may simply mean having a good Marketing Owner who's invested in creating clear prioritization in his or her team’s backlogs.

It's even better when that person is open-minded regarding the process frameworks their team/s want to experiment with. But, the effective leadership that may be required to achieve long-term Agile success doesn't stop at the team leader level. Executives within the organization must also have, at least, a general understanding of what agility looks like, so they can encourage the adoption of Agile practices instead of creating obstacles along the way.

WIP Limits and the power of ‘Stop starting, start finishing’  

I'm with our other trainers on this one. Two hands way up for WIP limits! They are vital for exploring the effects of context switching on the quality of our work and the pace of our team!

applause

When Agile concepts click, you'll feel it

Share your individual or team Agile "Aha" moments in the comments below. Let our team know what made Agile click for you!