Piloting the Right Way


“I want to put someone onto our Agile marketing pilot team, but they need to keep working on their current projects. It’s OK to just put them onto the pilot part time, right?” 

Our coaches hear variations on this phrase ALL. THE. TIME. 

It’s getting to the point that I’m going to start a new kind of swear jar for Agile marketers. 

Any time you even think about doing a part time Agile marketing pilot, you have to put a dollar in this jar.

Let me answer the above question (and all its possible variations) quite definitively: no. 

No, it’s not okay to put someone onto an Agile team part time. 

Well, it’s okay if you want to stress people out and make your pilot efforts WAY more likely to fail. 

But if you want to actually achieve lasting marketing agility you can’t succumb to the siren call of part time pilots. This article will show you the dangers of this approach (and there are many), as well as give you an option for how to pilot the right way.  

Part-Time Pilot Origins

The part time pilot approach has wormed its way into Agile marketing implementations for a very simple reason: building traditional Agile teams inside most marketing departments is hard. 

Here’s why. 

Our usual approach in marketing is to build teams along functional lines.

Under this school of thought we create groups of marketers who all perform similar activities, or functions, like copywriting, event management, or email marketing.

These marketers have a functional manager who oversees their workload and hands out projects to the people best suited to work on them. 

Such an approach seems intuitive; it makes sense to have people doing the same kind of work managed by the same person and grouped together (at least on an org chart). 

The downside of this arrangement is that we create silos. The copywriters don’t talk to the event people or the email marketers. So, we end up with duplicated work, inconsistent messaging, and lots of acrimonious finger pointing when projects are delayed. 

The Creation of Project Teams

The proposed solution for this unpleasantness is the creation of project teams. When something needs to get done, like promoting a new event that’s happening next quarter, we grab a writer, an event person, and an email marketer, send them to a project manager, and sit back to watch the magic happen. 

Sadly, each of those people still has approximately 80 million other tasks they need to do. They can’t work on their new project 100% of the time. 

Their functional manager, whose career growth depends on successfully managing a tiny piece of the marketing function, like copywriting, also wants to keep dictating their workload. The copywriting manager doesn’t care about the new event project if it doesn’t contribute to her numbers. 

So now, despite building what seemed like a silo-busting group to tackle this project, we’ve actually just thrown another ball at the marketers who were already trying to juggle too many things. 

Everything continues to take too long, burnout runs rampant, and everybody races from one deadline to the next, neglecting customers and strategy alike. 

Let’s Do Agile...But Not All the Time

Agile marketing is often hailed as the solution to the exact issues we are describing above. It improves collaboration, increases delivery speed, and raises group morale (among many other things). 

Yay! Let’s do that! 

So let’s see...Agile says we need to make cross-functional teams, which means we’ll need a couple of copywriters, some email marketers, an events person, someone to manage them...oh and they need someone to set up automations for them, so we need a martech person. And without a strategist they won’t know what to do for each event, so we need one of those on the team. 

Marketing operations sends out an email along the lines of, “Hey functional managers! You need to give us some of your people to put onto this cool Agile pilot!” 

The theory is sound, but the reality doesn’t jive. The copywriting manager still needs to update the website, populate the weekly newsletter, create new sales enablement collateral, and all those other things that she’s getting evaluated on making happen. 

She’s not at all keen on sending some of her people onto this Agile team. Who knows what they’re going to do all day. Why should she put her initiatives at risk for this Agile thing? 

Her compromise is to loan some copywriters out. 

Two copywriters can join the Agile team, but only 50% of the time. 

As with many easy answers, it sounds good on paper, but quickly blows up in everyone’s faces

Why Part-time Pilots Don’t Work

First of all, that 50% that our copywriting manager promised us will evaporate very, very quickly. 

When there’s a PR issue that requires a press release, the Agile marketing pilot team’s copywriters will get tapped to write it (because as far as their boss is concerned they’re only spending 50% of their time on copywriting work, so obviously they have capacity). 

If sales needs a rush job to support a hot new opportunity, the Agile copywriters aren’t exempt from the request. 

Eventually, the 50% of their time that was set aside for Agile becomes 35%, then 20%, then 5%. 

As the commitment declines, so does the effectiveness of the Agile “team.”

Agile is perceived to have failed, and the experiment is abandoned. 

The second reason part-time pilots don’t work is that Agile frameworks simply weren’t made to work that way. 

Backlogs, standups, visualized workflows, Sprints -- each and every Agile practice works best with a single, intact, persistent team. 

A part-time copywriter on an Agile marketing pilot may not be able to meet his Sprint commitment if his functional boss demands he drop everything and write press releases. 

The events person who’s still serving her functional team will still be expected to juggle “Agile work” and “normal work” somehow...but there’s nobody to tell her which one is really the most important. Her cognitive load has increased, not decreased as it should have done on a real Agile team. 

There are many variations on these two core reasons, but we’ve seen them happen time and time again. Part-time pilots simply don’t work. 

Don’t Part-Time Pilot. Do This Instead. 

Yes, it’s hard to pull people 100% onto a new Agile team. Our coaches spend hours and hours with clients figuring out how to do it. 

But it’s far, far better to delay your Agile marketing journey while you sort it out rather than jump into a part-time pilot. 

We can help you figure this thorny question out if you like. Or, if you’re ready to give it a go on your own...

Here’s one way to lay the groundwork for your Agile pilot:

  1. Sit your marketing leadership down. Make a list of all the projects that need to get done in the next six months. Make the list visible by writing it on a whiteboard or in a shared online document. 
  2. Look at all the work and see if you can find a common theme. Is there a bunch of stuff supporting a new product launch? Does a particular business unit need a lot? Are you trying to make a big impact on a core KPI? Look for work with a shared purpose that you could send to your pilot team. You’ll need enough to keep them busy full-time without making them crazy. 
  3. Identify the roles you’d need to complete the work you targeted. Not every single role from your department will necessarily be represented here. You may also find there are people who are needed for only part of the work, but wouldn’t be kept busy as a full-time team member. Those folks may end up acting as subject matter experts for the team without truly being team members, because remember a true Agile team member is 100% dedicated to the team. 
  4. Map those roles to actual people. Consider skill sets as well as mindset. You’ll want motivated people who are excited to join the Agile pilot, not reluctant recruits who’ve been “voluntold” they’re going Agile. 
  5. Find a strong leader to support the team. This person will facilitate the execution of work inside an Agile system, help filter out non-value adding work requests, measure the team’s progress, and otherwise help ensure the success of the pilot. They might be an existing leader, or you might have a project manager who fits this role. 
  6. Conduct a formal kickoff event for the new team, after which time they are 100% dedicated to their pilot team until the effort concludes in a few months (most good pilots last 3-6 months). 

Meaningful Reason to Collaborate

If needed, the pilot team may bring some of their recurring daily activities with them to the pilot team. But ideally the only work the pilot team is doing is tied to their core objective, their meaningful reason to collaborate

If team members bring these tasks with them, they need to be visualized alongside the team’s core work. Their team lead may deprioritize the recurring activities to deliver on the Agile team’s goals, and the team members’ functional managers can’t interfere.

Agile pilot team members’ first responsibility is to their Agile team. 

(Note: not every Agile pilot must be cross-functional. See this article for more on when functional groups can coexist with agility.)

If It Was Easy, Everybody Would Do It

Building dedicated Agile teams isn’t easy. However, it is central to real marketing agility. 

Without these kinds of teams, you’ll be bolting Agile practices onto existing systems. You won’t get the benefits you’re after, and you may even sour your whole department on the idea of agility. 

You can probably find a consultant to tell you that part-time pilots are okay (some of them will charge you seven figures to say this). 

But implementing partial agility is like wrapping a broken leg with gauze without resetting the bone. 

Sure, you might feel better because you did something. The issue might even look a little better on the outside. 

But the root problem is still there. It’s also not going away until you pilot -- and then proceed -- the right way.