5 Paths That Do NOT Lead to Marketing Agility

The climb towards marketing agility is different for everyone. Teams deal with a variety of obstacles on the way up as they figure out what works for them. Who are their Agile champions? Which framework are appropriate for their projects? What are their process KPIs for moving forward?

But regardless of the path, the ascent is almost always equally challenging.

There are also rarely shortcuts on the path to becoming a truly high-performing team.

Over the years, we have been AgileSherpas to a huge variety of teams. Over time, we've discovered five paths that are very tempting, either for leadership or for the team, but definitely do not lead to marketing agility in the long term.

Here are the dead end paths to marketing agility we have discovered, along with how to prepare your team and managers to avoid them as you climb towards Agile marketing success.

The Executive Mic Drop

You've probably been a witness to a fair number of "executive mic drops" in your day. It's the moment when the Marketing VP (or someone in a similar role) comes to the team with the laid out plan, campaign deadlines, launch dates, and everything they need to get working.

Usually, the presentation of "the ultimate plan"goes on and on. In fact, it seems never-ending.

At some point during the second half of the presentation, the team members start looking to each other, asking, “Does this look like a lot to you? It looks like a lot of work…”

Sure enough, it is. 

But, the VP ends on a positive note.

“You probably notice we’re trying to do a lot this year, but it’s OK because we’re going to be Agile this year. I’ve figured it out. I discovered this thing called Agile Marketing and it’s going to help us get a lot of stuff done.”

This situation happens all the time.

Fast forward to six months later, and things aren't going well. The marketing teams have closed ranks trying to figure out "this Agile thing," while at the same time trying to get way more work done than usual. 

As you can imagine, situations like this don't end well.

But there are a few things you can do to avoid ending up going down this dangerous path.

Promote Agile education

There are a lot of misconceptions about what Agile really means in the marketing context; education about Agile methodology and frameworks inside a marketing team is vital.

Agile is not just about going faster and faster. There’s a lot more to it. We need to deliberately look at the various Agile frameworks and decide what works for us. This means taking some time upfront to learn about them. 

Fortunately, there are many places you can get information about your first steps towards Agile marketing. There are books, certifications, and online resources to help you avoid believing that Agile is just barrelling ahead without a strategy.

Get Executive Support for Agile Marketing

Once we understand what Agile actually means, it’s time to convince executives that it’s actually worthwhile to pursue. Luckily, there are many training paths you can choose depending on the current pain points of your executive leadership. 

For example, if you have a new CMO, chances are that they’re going to be really excited to support an Agile marketing approach because they're “on the clock."

They live with a sense of urgency because the are painfully aware that the average tenure of a CMO is 3 years. This is 2.3 years less than other roles in the C-suite. It takes an average of 8 months to get a campaign out the door according to recent McKinsey research, and if you’re only at your job for 3 years that's just not acceptable. 

Fortunately, Agile holds the key to many of the problems that cause these lengthy 8-month release cadences. Position Agile as a solution to problems that everyone is aware of.

Takes too long to release? Agile teams go to market faster.

Have employees who are overworked and overwhelmed? Agile marketing improves team morale.

Further, Agile teams are very focused on doing higher quality work than traditional teams.

Whatever your executive’s pain points are, chances are there’s an Agile answer to it. So, we have to be good marketers about it and convince them that it’s worth the time to do the work of education, so we can avoid all of these missteps.


Navigating Agile Hold-outs 

Hold-outs refer to the situations in which we say to our teammates, “Let’s make some changes to improve the process!” and all they hear is, “You’ve been doing everything wrong!”

Then they give lip service to marketing agility, while actually working hard to undermine its success.

In some cases, because the team member feels that their position is threatened. This attitude may result in “information hoarding” on their part in order to keep their status within the team.


How to recognize an Agile hold-out? These are the team members who won’t share knowledge, passwords, steps to uploading new content, or anything else they can hold onto.

Of course, that's just one manifestation of a hold-out. There are a number of different ways that people can surreptitiously hold things back.

The way that we can get around all of these hold-out methods is if we commit, as a team or department, to a particular set of Agile values. In order to continue exploring these new ways of working together, we must all value transparency, honesty, trust, and visibility. 

Our goal should be to create teams that own their process and have the ability to be self-regulating. When there’s a hold-out in their midst, they should be able to understand and address that and be empowered to make changes. 

Access to Help on the Path to Marketing Agility

Most teams, especially new Agile marketing teams, will eventually hit a point from which they cannot improve anymore. Being prepared for this moment and having access to help for the move forward (like access to the Scrum master from your IT department or an external Agile coach) helps teams avoid crisis mode in the long-term.

Before calling in reinforcements, make sure your Agile system is working the way that it should on a consistent basis. Start by tracking whether you are keeping a consistent schedule of fruitful Agile meetings that are solving the problems they were intended to solve.

You should be having:

  • A daily standup meeting every day for 15 mins. In this meeting, you will be able to discover members of the team who are guilty of “information hoarding."  If we weren’t having daily standup, this problem would not be visible to us. 
  • A retrospective meeting in which you and your team deliberately hit pause and stop for 60-90 minutes every other week to discuss your process. This meeting is where the process issues that surface on a daily basis in the team can find solutions. 

Whatever strategy you choose to use when handling hold-outs in your team, consider this emerging idea of “psychological safety." This can be the single biggest predictor of whether a team will be successful. Psychological safety means making sure the team members feel encouraged to speak up within the team, so they can provide feedback, voice their opinions and, eventually, become a high-performing team. 

Part-time Agile Pilots

Typically, when a company decides to test out an Agile approach to processing their work, executives select members of existing teams, with varied expertise, to become a small, cross-functional Agile team that will test whether the entire organization can be successful in rolling out Agile frameworks.

The problem with this approach is that when this cross-functional Agile team gets together, it quickly becomes apparent that their focus is not entirely on the Agile project.

They still have regular work that needs to happen outside of the Agile process.

For example, if the decision was that 60% of the team member's time will be dedicated to the Agile team while 40% will not be, the usual advice is to "just balance."

Even if it's 60% dedication right now, soon, there will be a fire that needs to be put out and the original percentage will become 50%, then 40%, 30% and so on. Eventually, no one from the pilot team will be doing any work within the Agile system. They will view the Agile team as simply an experiment from which people often get pulled. 

The solution here is to create a dedicated Agile pilot team.

Yes, it’s tough.

But, if you are able to sit down and figure out how to get a dedicated pilot team, it'll be worth all the time and effort (we promise!). 

If it sounds like an impossible feat, begin considering some potential prospects to make up the Agile pilot team, such as (or just contact an AgileSherpa for help):

  • Teams that is starting a new type of work. Start off the new type of work as an Agile project instead of using traditional methods and then transforming to Agile. 
  • Mature teams that have been together for a while may be more likely to try something new with zeal.
  • Autonomous teams that do not rely on other teams and can work relatively independently.

If either of these types of teams work particularly well, building more of these types of teams might be the best way to scale Agile across the organization. 

The Leadership Swoop

Often, after the dedicated Agile pilot team has developed a repeatable daily work process,  marketing leaders make the common mistake that throws the team off of its path towards agility. Marketing leaders swoop in with a brilliant idea or additional unplanned work that prevents the team from working on what they’re doing and forces them to drop it.

Image result for leadership swoop in

Actual image of marketing leader swooping in to add a "VIP request" to the backlog

In these situations, the team is left with the impression that Agile is not as important as whatever the idea their marketing leader brought to them.

The result?

The team becomes hesitant to experiment with Agile and plan their work because they are in danger of another swoop at any moment. 

This can be challenging to fix because leaders don't realize the negative impact they create by doing this. That's why the team needs to be responsible for documenting, at a process level, what is happening when leaders swoop.

On way to document this new incoming work is a burndown chart


For example, when the team’s sprint begins (at the left of the chart, where the bars are highest), we can clearly see how much work the team has committed to completing by the end of the sprint.

Then, every day, at daily standup, they share what they have completed and the bar that represents "work remaining" shrinks a bit.

When we have a swoop, we would be able to see at which point in the sprint work was added. 

Now, we have an objective, data-driven way to show that when leaders bring new work into the team, other work does not get done by the time the sprint is over. Even if we can't eliminate the presence of swoops right away, creating visibility around them can help us work towards a solution in the future. 

Marketers Sit on All the Teams

Marketers usually have several projects running at once. That's why it's tempting to decide to run them all using an Agile process. This creates a number of different challenges that the team must deal with.

Imagine a marketer who is working on a number of different "Agile" projects. All good Agile teams hold a daily standup for 15 minutes per day. So now this person needs to attend 10+ different stand-ups in the morning to keep up with all initiatives. 

So in general, it's important for marketers to step away from being on a ton of projects at once.

The answer is to design teams differently.

Instead of flowing people to projects, creating persistent teams to which work can flow is a more sustainable solution.

These persistent teams must be customer-centric and working towards a set of unique KPIs. 

For example, your marketing department may choose to create teams dedicated to each phase of the demand generation funnel. These should be distinct teams, either serving the phase of retention, awareness, or consideration, but not all three at once.

This way, the team members have the opportunity to become experts in the type of customer they are focusing on.

This can be very impactful because it gives us the autonomy, as marketers, to say “no” to tasks that are not relevant to customers at the stage we are focusing on. 

2019's Marketer Happiness Report has collected survey data from marketers that would suggest the word "no" is not a part of a marketer's vocabulary. 


This research suggests that our to-do lists just grow and grow without anything ever getting finished, because we are incapable of saying "no" to new work.

By organizing teams around the customer and giving them core KPIs that measure their success, we are empowering the team to sort between what is relevant to their customer and what is not. For example, a request comes in that is not relevant to the focal customer. It also does not allow the team to deliver on their particular KPI. In these cases, they can say "no" to it.

Prepare Your Team for the Journey to Marketing Agility

The journey towards marketing agility is different for every team. But, it's equally challenging for all. Use this checklist with your team to avoid stumbling down the five paths that definitely do not lead to the marketing agility you seek.

The checklist includes:

  • Making time for education in Agile
  • Ensuring the executives you work with understand why education is important for the team
  • Using your newly-acquired knowledge about Agile to create a good meeting schedule that helps the team to self-regulate 
  • Piloting Agile with teams that are use dedicated, so you can actually see results at the end of a pilot
  • Documenting the impact of leaders swooping in to add new work to your team's backlog
  • Making sure you have customer-centric teams with good reasons to collaborate, such as KPIs they are delivering together

No path to agility is perfect. Do your team a favor and leave room for experimentation. Sometimes trial and error is exactly what you need to find an Agile framework that works for you in the long-term.

One Final Guidepost

Whatever the problem is, if you can’t fix it, make it visible first.

There’s a very good chance that, in doing this, you will also reveal your team's way through it, over it, or around it. 

But, whatever you do - keep climbing! 

If you and your team have encountered another path that does not lead to marketing agility, let us know in the comments. If we make these paths visible, we'll know to avoid them (wink, wink!)

This article was originally presented by Andrea Fryrear as a talk at 2019's CONEX: The Content Experience event in Toronto at the Conservatory of Music.


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