How Agile Marketing Leaders Handle Crisis

Over the last year and a half, I’ve worked with dozens of senior marketing leaders as they’ve grappled with an onslaught of change. From the almost overnight move to remote work to cancellation of in-person events to social turmoil, the hits just keep on coming.

Whatever our original annual marketing plan looked like, there’s likely very little of it currently in play.

Then, of course, there’s the lurking knowledge that in an economic downturn marketing budgets and departments are often the first to contract (even though this function is vital to organizational and brand health). Many leaders have already had to reduce staff or delay major projects because of these constraints.

I won’t pretend that Agile leaders are sailing through all of this unruffled. They’re feeling the pain just as much as the rest of us. 

The difference lies in the way they respond to these crises, and, even more importantly, what they take with them from the experience.

Being Responsive Beats Being Reactive

In the midst of all this change, we have two possible paths to follow: We can be responsive, or we can be reactive.

The former means listening, learning, understanding what’s going on around us, and making a deliberately informed choice about how to change what we’re doing based on that new information.

The latter means hearing something that triggers a response and acting without consideration. It might be faster, but it’s rarely more effective than a responsive attitude.

One of the core Agile values is responding to change over following a plan. This means that faced with a choice between the status quo and a meaningful change, we choose change. What this value doesn’t mean is reacting unthinkingly to incoming information.

The Agile principle that balances out this value states that in an agile environment we, “Welcome and plan for change” because “Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.”

Think about that for a second: “Welcome and plan for change.” Not “Give a resigned sigh and start working 60-hour weeks when things change.”

Agile leaders enjoy a system that was built for change. It’s ready and willing to take in new data and respond accordingly to deliver a competitive advantage. Of course, like all things in agile systems, that doesn’t happen by accident.

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Making time for mindfulness and self-awareness, and building slack into their work week allow agile leaders to provide considered responses instead of knee-jerk reactions.

Responses are more effective, and less likely to provoke unforeseen reactions in the market. Reactions have a greater chance of failure, which can include everything from no response at all from our audience to detrimental impacts on the brand if we’re seen as opportunistic or mercenary based on our reactive work.

Doing the Right Work Beats Doing More Work

Part of the way we find time and mental space for responsiveness instead of reactivity is by focusing on doing the right work at the right time. Traditional command-and-control leaders demand more and more and more, while agile leaders support their teams by focusing on doing important work now and delaying (or deleting) the other stuff. 

Take for instance a newer Agile marketing team who had been tracking their sprint velocity (the amount of work they could complete inside their recurring two-week sprints) for a couple of months. They could prove that as a team they could complete around 150 points of work in two weeks.

Then, as they were planning their next sprint, they discovered that preexisting commitments from the team around recurring activities and upcoming projects already totaled over 175 points.

“Great,” they said to themselves. “We’ll just let our leaders know we’re over capacity and see what they’d like us to take out of this sprint.” Sadly, their leaders basically told them to figure it out and get it all done.

Not long after, 90% of the team left the organization.

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Forcing more and more work onto people isn’t the answer, even in the midst of a pandemic and social upheaval. Quality of work will suffer, innovation will die, results will stagnate, and eventually people will get fed up and leave.

Instead, Agile leaders make the hard decisions for their teams. They choose the most important work and give people permission to ignore, delay or delete the rest.

When this happens, the right work gets done. When it doesn’t happen, more work gets started, but less work gets finished. 

Lessons Agile Leaders Are Learning

The last, and arguably most important, difference between Agile marketing leaders and their traditional counterparts is what they’re learning from these turbulent times. Agile leaders display a growth mindset — the belief that we can learn new skills, evolve when facing obstacles, and generally grow — while their traditional counterparts are more likely to display a fixed mindset — the belief that the way we are is the way we are and won’t ever change.

Carol Dweck developed this theory to apply to individuals, but it applies to the marketing function as a whole, as well as to teams.

The Agile marketing leaders I speak with are using the pandemic as a springboard. They’re leveraging it to build better systems, establish more Agile ways of working, and create alternative paths that would otherwise have taken them years to forge.

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Traditional marketing leaders are far more likely to lean on what they know, close ranks, and shut down innovation to try and reduce risk.

As marketing leaders we should never let a crisis go to waste, least of all this one.

For instance, use COVID-19 to create Agile tiger teams, who serve as de facto pilots for Agile ways of working. Or maybe you can divert event budgets to training and development to help your teams get comfortable with agility. Or maybe now is the time to find support for adopting the software needed to enable Agile workflow visualization.

Embrace crisis as a tool for growth. Don’t assume your marketing is the way it is and won’t ever evolve. 

Crisis Creates Opportunities

My father-in-law has spent much of his professional life in chambers of commerce, supporting local businesses. He’s talked for years about how pedestrian-only areas in downtowns are great for business, but extremely hard to implement if the roads have historically been given over to vehicles.

In the midst of the pandemic, streets everywhere are closing to cars and opening to al fresco dining and foot traffic.

What’s the opportunity that’s always seemed out of reach for you, but whose logistical hurdles have suddenly been cleared by these extraordinary circumstances?

Agile leaders are finding these opportunities within crisis. Seemingly unthinkable change now has momentum, if we apply a little pressure in the right place.

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