Effective Planning for Agile Marketing Teams


This article is based on Andrea’s forthcoming book, Mastering Marketing Agility (Berrett-Koehler, June 2020). 

One of the most common myths about Agile marketing is that it eliminates the need to plan. 

In fact, Agile teams plan just as much, if not more, than a traditional team. Their plans are just different. 

Successful Agile marketing departments create plans that provide a balance between stability in the long term and flexibility in the short term. There’s a clear destination in mind, but the precise route can be adapted based on the conditions of travel. 

With that in mind, I want to present an Agile approach to a very common marketing activity (and one you may be in the midst of right now): marketing planning. 

Even if you’re not creating a formal annual plan, you can use the guiding principles below to create Agile roadmaps that get you where you want to go without dictating the steps you take. 

The Trouble With Traditional Planning

Most planning activities take place at the point of maximum ignorance. Мeaning, we plan the most during the time when we know the least. 

Because we haven’t done anything yet, there’s no indication whether our plans will work.

Despite this gap, we usually create elaborate documents filled with dates, requirements, and charts. For sure this will work if these boxes all line up! Plans make us feel productive and safe, but they’re typically wrong within hours of completion. 

Complex plans can also introduce enormous amounts of waste into a system, because a change in one part of the plan decimates all the carefully calculated steps that follow.

For instance, project managers create the always-popular Gantt chart to guide the timing for all the tasks that are required for an upcoming project.

Image from Dzone.com

But, then one of the early ones faces a delay for some reason. So now, every single subsequent date is now wrong. 

If you’re fortunate enough to have a fancy workflow management tool you might be able to change one date in the project and have the rest update automatically. But, many project managers aren’t that lucky. They’ve got to go back to their Gantt chart or project plan and update every date based on the early change. 

And then, of course, they’ve got to go talk to all the people that change affects to let them know their piece will be delayed. 

To put it mildly, this kind of project management isn’t efficient. 

It uses up a lot of people’s time, i.e. makes us look very busy, but it doesn’t deliver the rapid, customer-centric marketing that audiences expect. It also doesn’t reflect the realities of the complex knowledge work we now do in marketing. 

Gantt charts and perfect project plans assume no variability. 

They’re designed to work in a closed system where nothing ever changes. 

Ever seen a marketing department where nothing changes for months at a time? 

Ya, me neither. 

Enter the Agile Plan

In contrast, the objective of an Agile plan is not to lay out in minute detail every activity or campaign that marketing will deliver within a year. We can’t possibly know that, because we’re planning too far ahead, and everything changes all the time. 

Instead, its purpose is to provide the destination for this year’s journey; the path itself will emerge while we execute the work. 

It’s NOT a huge marketing plan. 

It’s a clear, finite set of guiding objectives to which the team will refer back as they execute.

The Agile plan should be aligned with the goals and needs of the organization as a whole, but it should focus on how marketing plans to contribute to those goals and needs. 

traditional-vs-agile-planning

Image from Kanbanize.com

If one of the overarching goals of a B2B organization is to increase their software’s reach into more departments within the enterprise, marketing’s annual plan should articulate how they plan to assist in achieving those goals. 

Maybe they’ll run some experiments to test existing messaging with new audiences. 

Or maybe they’ll conduct a content audit to identify assets that can be reused. 

Perhaps they need to craft unique social media strategies for each of the new departments on the roadmap. 

They could do a lot of different things, but any activities that don’t clearly roll up to organizational priorities need to be strongly justified to make it onto marketing’s annual plan. 

Reasonable Scope for Agile Planning

Additionally, the Agile plan will be most effective if it’s focused and small. 

We’ll take a page from the original Agile Manifesto for Software Development here, and remind ourselves to maximize the amount of work not done. The best strategies focus on removing activities; only then can we make real progress on the remaining items. 

For best results, try to limit your annual objectives to twice the number of Agile teams who’ll be executing on that plan. 

So if you have eight teams, you get no more than 16 annual objectives (and you don’t have to use them all!). If you only have two teams, you get four annual objectives. 

Again, this doesn’t mean you’ll only be running four campaigns this year. It just means there are only four core goals to which your campaigns will map. 

What Happens When Plans Change

Annual goals also need to be stable to provide a trustworthy anchor for Agile teams and their leaders. Imagine the marketing strategists spend days creating lovely plans for all the Agile teams they support. 

Then the teams go off and diligently execute that work for three weeks, reveling in their consistent progress within the Agile system. 

Then, one day they hear that leadership has made a major pivot that renders all their work obsolete. 

How creative do you think the strategists will be when crafting their next plan? 

Do you think the Execution Teams will work as diligently or delight as fully in their work if they worry it will all be for nothing? 

This is why we need consistent guidance over the long term. 

Balancing Stability and Adaptation

stability-adaptation-balance

The obvious follow up question, of course, is what an Agile team should do when there’s a major market shift, a new competitor that emerges, or an entirely new channel that explodes onto the scene. 

As all Agile systems do, we want to create systems that welcome and plan for change. When there’s a competitive advantage to gain, Agile teams stand ready to pounce on change. 

We should exploit change rather than shy away from it. 

But the source of the change here is key. 

There’s a difference between a fundamental change in market conditions, and someone having a cool idea in the shower. 

One is an externally imposed, unavoidable change. The other is change for change’s sake. 

Volatility is unavoidable, and it’s one reason that Agile systems and learning organizations are thriving while others are imploding. But it’s precisely because we can’t avoid volatility that we shouldn’t be introducing it into a system willy-nilly. Proposed changes must come with strong business cases, or risk being dismissed as wasteful, unjustified pivots. 

Clarity and Communication Can Make or Break a Plan

One of the things that frustrates many of the teams I’ve coached is the feeling that they’re executing work in the dark. Executives and leaders are so behind (usually because they’re too busy micromanaging the execution of work) that it’s April before they have any annual objectives documented.

And even once an annual plan exists, the teams aren’t sure how long it’ll be around, or how their daily work should contribute. 

In the face of this uncertainty, the teams copy and paste. They continue doing the same type of work they’ve always done and playing the waiting game. 

As you can imagine, this isn’t the environment in which we can do innovative, needle-moving, industry-leading work. 

A strong Agile plan must therefore be not only stable and timely, but clearly communicated and well-socialized. 

The usual suspects may work well here, namely the annual plan slides that marketing departments everywhere use. Leaders should clearly document their goals and objectives, but they should also show up to answer questions about them. 

Some of my favorite quotes about Agile planning and documentation come from Jeff Patton, the creator of user stories. Here are a few: 

“Shared documents aren’t shared understanding...Shared understanding is when we both understand what the other person is imagining and why.” 

“There are a great number of people who believe that there’s some ideal way to document. That, when people read documents and come away with different understandings, it’s either the reader’s fault or some fault of the document writer. It’s neither. The answer is just to stop it. Stop trying to write the perfect document. Go ahead and write something, anything. Then use productive conversations with words and pictures to build shared understanding.” 

At the end of the day, we don’t need the world’s clearest, most beautiful planning slides. We need the opportunity for the leadership team who created those slides, and the teams who are responsible for doing that work, to talk about them. 

Only through discussion (and the act of documenting that discussion) will these two groups arrive at the shared understanding that will deliver productive work aligned with strategic priorities. 

With that in mind, we need to make a few adjustments to traditional annual planning to bring it into line with Agile principles:

3 Adjustments to Your Annual Planning to Make it More Agile

Adjustment #1 for More Agile Planning: Share in Advance

We want the people doing the work to have an opportunity to review and process it before the unveiling meeting with the leadership team. This way they can see what doesn’t make sense and bring intelligent questions, comments, and concerns to the meeting. 

When people are seeing the plan for the first time live while a marketing executive is also talking through it, they can barely process the information, much less formulate feedback on it. 

The goal of Agile planning is not a perfect set of slides. 

It’s establishing shared understanding between those deciding on the most important goals, and those getting it done. For that to happen, everyone needs to come prepared to discuss things together. 

Adjustment #2 for More Agile Planning: Create Conditions for Collaboration

No judgement implied here, but most marketing planning meetings feature a handful of people talking to a whole bunch of other people who are pretending to listen while actually instant messaging each other (“OMG like we’re really going to be able to pull that off *eye roll emoji*”) and/or answering email. We schedule this meeting because we’re supposed to have it, but few people get any value from it. 

In Agile marketing departments, we want to avoid the typical we talk/you listen dynamic. 

An Agile planning meeting should allow for communication, documentation, and adaptation. That means we need everyone to be heard and seen. 

If at all possible, get everyone in the same room. If you can’t manage that, get larger groups together in their own separate locations and video each location in. 

Whatever you do, do NOT have hundreds of anonymous people dialing into a conference line and listening to some VPs talk over slides. 

Whether you’re enjoying some face-to-face time or doing the remote video thing, planning sessions need to be well facilitated. You need a designated facilitator who will be designing the agenda and ensuring people stick to it. 

One person should be able to manage this if you’re face to face; if you have multiple locations you’ll need one facilitator per location. If everyone is virtual you can go back to one facilitator. But make sure they have experience in virtual facilitation and can manage the different needs of this kind of meeting. 

You should also have people documenting the discussion, ideally folks who aren’t going to be actively participating in it. Giving them only the job of reflecting the shared understandings of the group allows them to focus on this crucial task. If they’re also trying to be included in the conversation, they may lose the thread and create incomplete documentation.

Per Jeff Patton’s recommendation, the products of this meeting should act like vacation photos. In other words, we can all look back at them and remember what was going on when they were taken/created. This will be what we refer to throughout the year to ensure our daily/weekly/monthly work is aligned to this initial strategy discussion. 

Ideally there should be one final role in the Agile planning session, and that’s technical support. If you’re all in one place you can dispense with this role. But, if you have even one person dialing in it’s best to have a dedicated role to manage the tech. 

When large groups are connecting remotely, you absolutely need someone to handle troubleshooting, test all the software in advance, and otherwise make sure the meeting doesn’t get consumed with technical difficulties.

Adjustment #3 for More Agile Planning: Metrics and Measurement

A crucial component of clarity within a strong Agile plan is to identify the metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs). These will be used to evaluate whether the marketing organization is on track to achieve its stated goals. 

Explicit phrasing is useful here. Things like, “We’ll be successful if we increase X by Y before DATE” or “We aren’t achieving success if X is below Y on DATE.”

Looking at the plan through both lenses -- what constitutes success as well as what indicates failure -- isn’t something we typically do in marketing. But, it’s a big part of successful Agile planning. We need to know if the data we’re seeing shows us a clear win or a clear learning moment. This allows us to act accordingly. 

Depending on the work we do, we can decide if anything less than success is acceptable, i.e. if we fall below the criteria for success but are still above the failure line, how do we proceed? 

For some projects this might mean we should iterate on the tactics; for others we might determine that anything below true success means we won’t proceed with that work. Whatever the approach, this should all be clearly documented as part of the annual plan. 

Planning is Important, Plans Less So

As many a general has discovered, even the most robust battle plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy. We should prepare to have a similar experience with our marketing plans. 

Know the goal you’re trying to achieve, but prepare to adjust it based on incoming data. 

Whether it’s a formal annual marketing plan or something more short term, follow the guiding principles of Agile planning and your teams will be more effective and less freaked out.