Beware of Agile Marketing Theater

This post originally appeared on the CA Highlights blog in December 2017. It has been republished with the permission of its author. 

In my first post about our journey to Agile marketing, I noted there were three pivotal moments that compelled me to keep moving forward. The second post described the defining moment that led to the creation of an Agile delivery group.

From the team’s perspective, applying Agile to marketing was a positive change; engagement and satisfaction were up.

But I was still left with the question, will it be good for the business?

I needed more evidence before scaling Agile across CA marketing. And then I had a chance to see the “Agile way” and the “traditional way” at work, side by side.

What a difference.

A Day in the Life of a Marketing SVP

The Agile delivery group – the cross-functional team of marketers using Agile principles to align, prioritize, and manage their work – for one business unit (BU) was meeting across the hall from a product marketing team supporting a different BU.

Both were doing planning for their product lines. The Agile delivery group was doing Q3 planning, while the product marketing team was planning for the second half of the year.

As Senior Vice President, I had the fun job of running back and forth across the hall trying to stay informed, testing for business impact and steering the teams when necessary.

If it Looks Like Agile…

At the outset, the meetings appeared to be very similar and totally Agile.

Both rooms housed smart people and included a certified Agile coach to facilitate. They had all the accouterments apparently necessary for an Agile meeting:

  • Post-it notes in many colors
  • Sharpies
  • Pipe cleaners and Play-Doh for restless hands

The meeting agendas were both clear and time-boxed.

The Agile jargon was flowing freely.

And, if it mattered, they were all breathing the same Boulder air.

Then, as I walked back and forth across the hall, I saw the differences clearly unfold.

The Agile delivery group developed a shared vision, defined business objectives, and had everyone necessary to make decisions and commitments in the room.

I watched them align around business impact, define the quantified success metrics that they shared, make trade-offs, de-prioritize less critical work, map dependencies across the teams/functions, and sequence work across their two-week sprints.

When they adjourned the meeting after their “fist of five” confidence vote, they were ready and committed to act immediately on their plan and start their first sprint’s work.


In the other room, I watched the dependency list grow and the business commitments shrink over the day.

They could not commit to deliverables that would have measurable business impact, since the other dependent functions and their decision makers were not there.

The only deliverables they could truly commit to were what they alone could deliver: persona research and content. A month after the meeting some of the commitments required were still in play.

Herding the kittens to get cross-functional alignment was challenging, slow, and sometimes impossible.

After a few round trips across the hall the contrast was unmistakable.

…and sounds like Agile…

Later, I thought about the differences between the two meetings. There were only two.

The Agile delivery group had about 30 participants and they were cross-functional, including integrated, product and field marketing, communications, analytics, web, digital sales, etc.

The product marketing team, on the other hand, had about 12 participants representing only one function.

Despite the common belief that less is more when it comes to effective meetings, I saw the importance of having all cross-functional groups present to make decisions, in what we call “Big Room Planning.”

Even more importantly, I realized that the participants must be empowered to make those trade-off and alignment decisions.

It isn’t enough to send a representative who will go back and “check with” management before making commitments.

Real agile starts with Big Room Planning and results in real alignment for business impact.

…sometimes it’s just Agile theater

While the product marketing group had all the paraphernalia and jargon down, they didn’t have empowered, cross-functional representatives in attendance.

So, they could only legitimately commit to delivering marketing assets – a good thing – but not enough by itself for business impact.

Adding to their frustration, they left the meeting with numerous commitments to chase down from other groups, not an easy thing to do when priorities and success metrics could be different.

Herding is a low value use of time.

What makes for real Agile marketing?

First and foremost, you need a cross-functional delivery group of empowered individuals in one room, getting aligned rapidly for delivery.

In this application economy, we are all in a rapidly shifting market with compressed timelines.

Marketing is expected to have measurable business impact – like generating pipeline and increasing renewal and retention rates. Business impact requires integrated campaigns that are not simply limited to product or corporate or field marketing. Time compression means we can’t afford to inefficiently negotiate commitments across the silos.

The day of the two meetings was a real “in your face” moment for me, and when I really started seeing what true Agile could mean to marketing: higher velocity of decision making, improved alignment across functions, and commitments to business impact.

The last blog ended with me appreciating the benefit to the team, but looking for a way to measure business impact.

This pivotal moment showed me the difference between Agile theater and real Agile, and I started seeing the potential for marketing of the latter.

But I still wasn’t ready to scale it further until … (to be continued)


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