This piece was created in close collaboration with Scaled Agile. We greatly appreciate their partnership as we work together to help marketers improve their agility.
If you’ve spent much time in the Agile community, you’ve no doubt encountered SAFe®, aka the Scaled Agile Framework™. SAFe has made its way into many huge enterprise organizations looking to achieve lasting business agility and improve business outcomes.
Most orgs begin a SAFe transformation in their IT departments, understanding that, as the most familiar with “regular” Agile, they have the best chance of succeeding with the scaled version.
Departments on the business side, including marketing, struggle to translate the recommendations in the SAFe model to find ways they can contribute to the scaled Lean and Agile ways of working across the organization.
Growing interest in SAFe from enterprise marketers has driven us to address the various ways individual marketers and marketing teams can plug into their organizations’ SAFe implementations and reap the benefits of greater alignment across the enterprise.
Why Organizations Scale Agile
In the recent past, enterprises prided themselves on having Agile pockets within their ranks.
But as more and more functions cry out for agility, these same large organizations are looking for ways to amplify the impact of Agile practices across an increasing number of software product lines and the departments that support them.
There are two main reasons why organizations go searching for ways to expand their Agile implementation beyond just a few teams or pockets in the organization: a burning platform or proactive leadership.
If you have a burning platform, you’ll likely know it. The company will be failing to compete and the existing way of working will be inadequate to achieve a solution in time. Of course, you’ll need to be high enough in the organizational hierarchy to really get a bird’s eye view of the organizational failures as well as the decision-making power to do something about it. In this case, scaling Agile ways of working across your organization becomes a survival mechanism.
In the absence of a burning platform, leadership creates a sense of urgency to better proactively drive change by taking a stand for a better future state.
If we had to choose between a burning platform and proactive leadership as a reason to apply agility at scale in our organizations, we’d take the latter anytime. It’s a more low-risk approach to scaling, which allows teams to take their time and ease into new ways of working at all levels of the organization.
Whether you’re on a burning platform or being guided by proactive leaders, there are a number of proven ways for scaling Agile across the enterprise. One of the most widely recognized is implementing SAFe.
The Origins of SAFe®
In January 2021, the Agile community celebrated 20 years since the publication of its original manifesto. Since they were first documented, the values and principles of the Agile manifesto for software development have served as a North Star to guide teams of all shapes and sizes towards a more Agile work process.
Riding this wave of interest, in 2011 Scaled Agile, Inc. developed a new reference model to guide enterprises in scaling the practices described in the Agile Manifesto and Lean methodology. Known as the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), this approach has rapidly become familiar across the world of enterprise agility.
“SAFe for Lean Enterprises is a knowledge base of proven, integrated principles, practices, and competencies for achieving Business Agility by implementing Lean, Agile, and DevOps at scale.” That. Is. A. Mouthful.
More simply put, in the software services world, SAFe ties strategy to execution by combining elements of Lean and Agile methodology as well as practices from Kanban and Scrum.
Although SAFe has become recognized as the most common approach to scaling Agile across an entire org, it has also received criticism for being too hierarchical and rigid.
A recent trend in SAFe application is the desire for business units, such as marketing, to take on greater involvement by participating in Agile release trains to surface more opportunities for collaboration and alignment across teams and departments.
Mastering the Lean-Agile Mindset
Marketing teams or departments looking to plug into a wider implementation of Agile at scale are encouraged to nurture the Agile mindset inside their teams first, before connecting to other Agile groups within their organizations.
Like Lean and Agile practices on the team level, applications of SAFe are also based on their own set of values and principles. The 4 core values of SAFe closely resemble the foundational values of Lean and Agile methodologies.
Both the Scaled Agile Framework as well as Agile on the team level are driven by a mindset that revolves around communication and collaboration.
In SAFe, these values are articulated as alignment, transparency, built-in quality and program execution by continuously delivering value to the customer.
These four pillars also drive Agile transformations on the team level, the mindset of which is governed by the four core Agile values:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
- Working software over comprehensive documentation.
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
- Responding to change over following a plan.
Successful implementations of Agile on the marketing team level as well as Agile at scale both equally hinge on a strong foundation based on the Agile mindset.
Joining a Value Stream
Marketers that exemplify the Lean-Agile mindset are in a good position to begin contributing to one of the organization’s value streams in a more targeted way where they are most needed.
For marketers to join, value streams need to already have defined the road from zero to value from the customer’s perspective.
Without value streams, the lack of context for the customer journey and its stages will not support the creation of the execution team of teams (also known as Agile Release Trains) model upon which the SAFe implementation relies. More on that in a moment!
That’s why organizations hoping to move to Agile ways of working more widely spend time upfront mapping two types of value streams inside their businesses: operational and development.
Operational value streams show how end customers receive value, while the development value streams demonstrate how to build the systems and business solutions that enable the operational value streams.
The direct focus of our execution teams is the latter, but to understand the latter, we need to first understand the former.
The operational value stream tracks everything needed for a potential customer to become a paying customer, as far as the business is concerned.
In the example of a home loan application below, the green path that begins with the customer needs (e.g. loan needed) and ends with the business gain (e.g. repayment plus interest) represents the operational value stream.
In the marketing context, the operational value stream can be loosely linked to the buyer’s journey and the various ways marketers engage the customer at each stage.
Marketers can participate in both operational and development value streams. In the mortgage example above, a marketing team who designs the email campaign to “award a loan” belongs in the operational value stream. A marketer who works with development teams to set up and design a marketing automation system that deploys the email would work in the development value stream.
The development value stream defines the systems that need to be built out in order to realize the operational value stream as well as who is involved in the system development.
Based on the development value stream’s components, individual marketers or marketing teams might be assigned to its various deliverables. The rest of this article explores how marketing can join development value streams.
Marketing on the Agile Release Train
By joining a development value stream, marketers also become part of an Agile Release Train. Agile Release Trains (ARTs) represent the “Team of Teams” that’s tasked with continuously delivering value towards a common mission, realizing and improving a required system described in the development value stream.
ARTs usually consist of 5-12 teams (50-125+ individual contributors) that are synchronized on a common cadence, meaning they deliver value on the same schedule as a single, united group.
The level of marketing’s involvement depends on the goals of the ART and what marketing activities are required to support the development of the system.
For example, if the goals of the ART are to update an existing system, just a couple of marketers might be required to ensure the design is on brand and communications about the system are updated based on the new functionality.
However, if the ART is focused on a new product launch, an entire team of marketers with diverse skill sets might be required to join the ART.
If an entire marketing team is part of a team of teams, they’ll end up adhering to both their own team’s Lean and Agile practices as well as the ART’s scaled practices for best results.
On the scale of the ART, the marketing team pulls work from the ART’s prioritized Program Backlog, that contains upcoming features for development, but might also include marketing campaigns that will contribute to the development of those features.
SAFe suggests several distinct ways for marketing teams to integrate into an Agile Release Train depending on the scope of marketing activities required for the success of the ART:
- Marketing may join the ART as a part-time shared service that members of the Agile Release Train might leverage if they need to in order to achieve their goals
- Key representatives from marketing join SAFe events (like PI Planning) to act as a bridge between the development teams on the ART and the rest of the marketing department outside of the ART to provide greater visibility
- Individual marketers can embed into Agile teams within the ART to serve as a dedicated resource and a full-time representative connecting development with the marketing organization
- In complex, multi-train solution environment, marketing can form its own ART for better communication and alignment across a wide range of marketing initiatives
No matter whether a single marketer or an entire marketing team joins the ART from the marketing organization, marketing would most likely be expected to participate in the standard schedule of ART events in order to stay up-to-date.
One of the most important events for the ART, during which marketing would most likely be involved is the Program Increment Planning that occurs on a regular cadence.
Without the PI Planning, hoping for the best at ART launch will not prevent your new team of teams structure from plunging into chaos.
PI Planning kicks off the increment. It‘s usually a 2-day event with five main goals:
- To help the ART figure out which business objectives will make it into their next increment of active work
- To determine what dependencies exist between the teams in the ART as far as these objectives are concerned
- To develop a program board, where the flow of the features from the program backlog can be tracked visually by all the members of the ART
- For the Agile Teams to define their sequence of user story execution
Apart from PI Planning, there are a number of key moments of communication during the PI that keep the ART on track over the course of the increment.
On the Agile team level, we’ve already covered the Agile meetings that keep teams on track at length on the blog. These continue to occur as the individual teams on the ART run their iteration cycles during the increment.
Agile marketing teams or contributors on the ART will be expected to participate in these team meetings on a consistent basis.
In addition to team meetings, recurring program events serve similar functions on the team of teams level during the program increment.
Of course, the PI Planning kicks it all off, beginning the cycle of events. Marketers can attend to identify dependencies, achieve better alignment and allocate capacity based on resources.
During the increment, the Scrum of Scrums and PO Sync bring Scrum Masters from each team in the ART and Product Owners from each team on the ART together for regular catch-ups, running a couple anywhere from weekly to a couple of times a week. These strategic, cross-team events create alignment among the teams, as SMs sync on process and dependencies and POs sync on any changes in priorities that affect more than just one team on the ART. These ceremonies enable marketers to better understand what is happening across teams inside the ART.
Every two weeks, the System Demo will bring all the teams in the ART together to show-and-tell completed features. This event provides an integrated view of all work delivered by the teams during the PI or any progress that has been made on business objectives. Marketing teams or individual marketing contributors can use this meeting to share metrics collected from their experiments, receive feedback and demo marketing deliverables.
Like the stakeholder review on the team level, the system demo encourages the different teams to align their deliverables and present them as the outputs of the ART to a wider array of stakeholders as well as ART leaders.
As an individual Agile marketing team might host a retrospective meeting, the ART will reflect on how they might become more effective through a problem solving workshop run during the Inspect & Adapt event at the end of every program increment.
ART stakeholders as well as Agile teams participate in this event, surveying qualitative and quantitative data to identify backlog items related to the improvement of the ART’s process going forward.
If there’s agreement among the members of the ART, these action items will make it into the program backlog for the next program increment.
With Marketing on the ART, Additional Value is Released
If you are a marketer or marketing team inside an organization that is scaling Agile practices, there are significant benefits to being a more active contributor to realizing your organization’s development value streams.
With a strong foundation in the Agile mindset, marketers can encourage cross-functional collaboration, solve cross-team dependencies and achieve alignment by participating in ART events and contributing to the business objectives of the ART.
These benefits are true for marketers in SAFe organizations, as well marketers in organizations using our own scaling framework known as Rimarketing. Whether you’re joining ARTs or strategy groups, the key outcomes should remain the same.
We scale Agile ways of working to create the vital links required to encourage a network of teams to work towards a common goal. Done right, this is a powerful asset to the enterprise that sets it up to innovate, adapt, and weather storms of uncertainty.
Scaling Agile inside and outside of marketing is undeniably complex, but the payoff is well worth the headaches.
SAFe and Scaled Agile Framework are registered trademarks of Scaled Agile, Inc.