After many years of training and coaching on Agile marketing, few questions surprise me anymore. But recently I got one that I don’t hear often:
“It seems like Agile is typically used for execution work,” a marketer said to me. “Do we need to incorporate it into our strategy too?
My short answer was, “Yes. Yes you do.”
The longer answer is that Agile ways of working concentrate on the “how” part of work, the tactical, day-to-day activities that help us achieve our goals. But without a clearly defined “what and why,” that work ends up being nothing more than very efficient flailing.
So if you’re wondering where strategy fits in the Agile world, this piece is for you. We’ll tackle what Agile strategy really means, why you need it, and, most importantly, how to make it happen.
What is Agile Strategy?
Agile strategy is an admission that we can’t possibly know everything up front, and should therefore design plans that are meant to adapt, evolve, and respond to new information.
Traditional strategy relies on research, documentation, and lengthy meetings to lay out intricately woven plans. The Harvard Business Review describes it this way:
“Designed as a thoughtful multi-stakeholder process, strategy has long been the domain of careful deliberation based on a maximum amount of information.”
As you can imagine, these kinds of strategies tend to grate unpleasantly against Agile ways of working. It’s hard to execute in a test-learn-iterate fashion when you’re handed a massive multi-year plan with every step already laid out.
To align more closely with Agile frameworks, we need Agile strategy.
These rely on shared purpose and vision that allows for flexible execution in the pursuit of those goals. Here’s a side by side comparison to give you a better look at how Agile strategy differs from the traditional kind:
Weeks or months of up-front research needed
Learn by putting work in front of customers
Rely on perfect documentation to deliver exactly what the strategy describes
Achieve shared understanding of the vision without dictating how it will be achieved
Handed down from senior leaders with little or no input from teams
Teams have autonomy to use their expertise to decide how to achieve goals
Set in stone (or PowerPoint) and never changed
Updated and refined as needed based on the outcomes of execution team work
What Agile Strategy Does for Marketing
In marketing in particular, taking an Agile approach to strategy frees us up in lots of exciting ways.
First of all, our functional KPIs give way to the bigger picture of what marketing is trying to achieve.
We align ourselves around higher level goals, rather than staying fixated on hitting our own tactical targets. The most eye-opening example of this I’ve seen with a team was when we were agreeing on key objectives for a pharmaceutical business unit’s marketing organization.
Although there was agreement that in-market communication with doctors was the best channel to test new messaging, the email team was adamant that there be an email component to the upcoming work. They were evaluated on the success of email, and needed to send them even if they weren’t part of the agreed-upon strategy.
If we can successfully put together an Agile strategy, we can break away from this focus on our own function and instead get creative about how our skills can deliver against the bigger marketing objectives.
As a bonus, this also frees up marketing subject matter experts to exercise their expertise, instead of being order takers. If we have a strategic plan we can point to and are executing against, it’s easier to push back against unplanned work requests (more on this later).
How to Achieve Strategic Agility
Ok, now that we’ve got clarity around what Agile strategy is and why it matters for Agile marketers, let’s get into how we make it happen. If you’re used to strategies that span hundreds of slides and get presented by the CMO every January, it may take some time to move in a more Agile direction. But take it step by step and embrace the process of iteration.
Be Clear and Consistent
Clearly articulate, document, and share your strategy. Teams will use it as their north star for planning and execution, so try to keep it as stable as possible.
This can seem counterintuitive, since we’re talking about a strategy being Agile. But think of it like a cross-country road trip.
If we start off from California heading for New York, but then change our minds halfway and decide to make for Florida instead, we’ve wasted tons of time and effort going the wrong way.
Next time we set a destination our driver is going to be skeptical that we won’t change it. They might not even bother to create a route, because last time they did it got thrown out the window.
Likewise our strategy needs to be stable in its big goal, even as we allow for adjustments along the way.
Leaders can strike this balance by deliberately compartmentalizing “perfect” strategic planning to certain moments, e.g. 1-time annual planning, and then embracing agility after that session.
Of course, we must be willing to act on less than perfect data, so long as we have a robust test and learn system in place. This typically means we’re running sprints with key metrics carefully tracked, so we learn by doing instead of relying on the planning process to map everything out in advance.
Ask Senior Leaders to Document Differently
Sticking with our road trip example, we wouldn’t map our cross country drive by saying, “Go 5 miles on Highway 2 at 47 miles per hour, then change lanes to get around a slow truck while accelerating to 52 miles per hour” and so on until we reach our destination.
Yet many marketing teams try to plan down to that level of detail before they’ve even left the house.
In an Agile strategy, the focus shifts away from detailed deliverables and due dates and toward desired outcomes. Work is aligned both to overarching organizational goals and customer-centric value delivery.
The objective in Agile planning is to provide:
- Enough detail to begin work with confidence, combined with a high degree of flexibility around later stages of work to allow for responsiveness
- Clear directional criteria for both success (so we can put more resources into the effort) and failure (so we can rapidly iterate away from it)
- The desired outcomes for the work, ideally aligned to core marketing objectives. Work that doesn’t clearly ladder up to marketing’s ultimate goals shouldn’t take up capacity.
If you’re struggling to imagine how this works without 150 slides of planning documents, here’s a lightweight template (hat tip to Boardview.io, whose plan success criteria list this template is modeled on):
As a senior product marketing manager, my goal is to deliver more sales qualified leads to contribute to the company-wide goal of growing our customer base 40%. I suggest a series of highly targeted, invite-only webinars to achieve this outcome, but will work with my team to identify the precise channel mix for our first push. We can complete our initial phase of work for $10,000. The target I aim for is 50 sales qualified leads from the initial round of effort before February 28 targeting the high-growth technology segment focusing on our enterprise product suite. If we achieve this target, we will expand the next round of work with additional paid promotion and possibly into additional channels, increasing our budget 10-15%. If we do not achieve this target, we will iterate around target audience, channel mix, and/or promotional strategy depending on the data.
This kind of format allows you to get an idea of what's coming up without getting bogged down in excessive planning. You can easily document the work on a single card in a digital tool (e.g. Trello, Miro, Mural), and then prioritize them against one another too.
If you take all of these steps you end up with a lovely list of high priority initiatives in a clearly ranked list, known in the Agile world as a backlog, as your output. It's more than enough for people to begin work, but not so prescriptive that it precludes agility.
And when the next crazy event comes around, or a project turns into an unexpected success, it’s far easier to adjust this simple outline than it is to redo an entire Gantt chart and accompanying project plan.
Of course as work begins you’ll likely create more detailed documentation to guide the execution, but that needn’t happen until the work really gets underway. Excessive planning months prior to the first steps is simply wasted time, especially in our current hyper-volatile environment.
Empower Teams to Say No
Once the plan is set and work begins, the teams executing it need to be able to say no or not right now to incoming work. If they have no choice but to take on every single request, they’ll never make progress against the lovely Agile strategy we provided them with.
Teams that can’t say no get reduced to short-order cooks, reacting to every new need and never spending time on strategic priorities.
Many new Agile leaders overlook the impact that the inability to say no has on their chances of successfully executing strategy, but it’s one of the biggest risks in Agile marketing.
Teams cannot be simultaneously reactive and strategic; they have to pick one.
So if your marketing department is prone to unforeseen requests, you may need to confine those to a single “churn and burn” team that uses kanban and continuous flow to process work items as quickly as possible.
The strategic work can then be concentrated into another Agile team that does nothing but focus on those activities.
However you address the issue, make sure you’ve explicitly given teams permission to push back when unplanned requests threaten strategic priorities. Otherwise your lovely Agile strategy will never come to fruition.