Agile Marketing Lessons From Star Wars

As I sat in a darkened theater watching yet another Death Star-like space station explode, I was struck by a revelatory thought: the Death Star is the ultimate example of how dangerous it can be to blindly follow a plan.

The Empire pours untold quantities of money and time into these massive projects. They pin all their hopes on their success. People literally die while making them a reality.

And then they explode.

Of course, it’s not just that they explode; they get blown up by some plucky kid flying a tiny starfighter that can be responsive and…wait for it…agile.

That’s right: Star Wars is one of the best use cases for agile methodologies out there. Here’s why.

The Cost of Violating Agile Marketing Values

While the Death Stars’ enormous explosions are obvious symptoms of the Empire’s ignorance of agile values, there are other key indicators of what happens when you’re too late to the agile party.

We’re going to take a look at the core values of agile marketing and how the Rebellion’s closer adherence to them leads to their eventual victory.

Hang onto your light sabers, folks. It’s about to get really nerdy.

Darth Vader Demonstrates His Relative Agility

Agile Value: Validated Learning Over Opinions and Conventions

Early on in Episode IV the middle managers of the Death Star are talking about how great their newest project is. One of them declares, “this battle station is now the ultimate power in the universe!”

That is an unvalidated opinion if I’ve ever heard one.

This officer is relying on the conventions of the Empire — namely that they are capable of harnessing limitless power to destroy their enemies — to form his opinion. He hasn’t even tried to test or explore this hypothesis.

Unfortunately for him his VP of Destroying Stuff, Darth Vader, steps in with an instant contradiction. The Force, he reminds Middle Manager, is far more powerful than any battle station.

Middle Manager is unimpressed and scoffs at Darth Vader’s, “sorcerer’s ways.”

Unfortunately for that guy Darth has a lot of validated learning on his side, and he demonstrates it by choking the Middle Manager using The Force.

What we’ll find out later on in the series, however, is that Darth hasn’t completely validated his understanding about how The Force works. He may realize that its power trumps that of the Death Star, but he hasn’t delved deeply enough to get at the real heart of what it means.

Spoiler alert: This will ultimately lead to his defeat at the hands of the much more agile Rebellion.

A Dangerously Siloed Empire

Agile Value: Customer-focused collaboration over silos & hierarchy

There aren’t many organizations who are more siloed or more steeped in hierarchy than The Empire.

The Stormtroopers who are implementing its nefarious strategy have no understanding of what’s going on above their heads, which makes them very ineffective at their jobs.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the scene where Obi-Wan Kenobi is secretly taking down a tractor beam just a few feet away from a couple of Stormtrooper grunts.

obi wan agile marketing
Obi-Wan is super agile. The stormtroopers, not so much. Image source: Petrified Fountains


As the best laid plans of their bosses come crashing down, one Stormtrooper wonders, “What do you think is going on?”

His equally clueless colleague replies, “Maybe it’s another drill.”

The danger of silos in action.

The Rebels Demonstrate the Power of Collaboration

Agile Value: Customer-focused collaboration over silos & hierarchy

The Rebel Alliance, on the other hand, has to clearly communicate their skills and goals throughout their organization. Granted this is partially because their individual chances of survival are tiny, but it’s a useful practice nonetheless.

As a result when one rebel goes down others are ready to take his/her place without losing time getting up to speed on strategy or tactics. It’s hard to imagine dialogue like that of the Stormtroopers happening between two rebels.

Instead, they’d be alert to potential dangers and able to react in real time.

(To be fair, this isn’t really “customer”-focused collaboration as much as it is “enemy”-focused, but the lessons are clear nonetheless.)

When Big Bang Campaigns Fail: The Death Star Fable

Agile values: Adaptive and iterative campaigns over big bang campaigns
Many small experiments over a few large bets

The Empire made an understandable mistake: they figured that if a whole bunch of little weapons are good, one completely enormous weapon must be awesome.

But the flaw in this plan is just like the flaw in every big bang campaign. If it fails, it fails big.

In the case of the Death Star, the size of its failure was in direct proportion to its actual size.

For marketing teams, our the failure risk also increases with our project size. When we pour a quarter’s worth of resources into a campaign it had better work, and work well. If it’s a year’s worth of resources the pressure for a payoff is even higher.

Just think about if you were involved in making the Death Star, and then it blew up when it was barely functional.

You definitely don’t want to be in that annual review meeting.

Adaptive and Iterative Campaigns Win the Race

Agile value: Adaptive and iterative campaigns over big bang campaigns

In fairness to The Empire, their campaign didn’t fail entirely based on flaws in its design or execution. The more agile competition, the Rebel Alliance, took it down using an adaptive and iterative strategy.

Each individual fighter learned from the efforts (and failures) of the planes that came before him until Luke was finally able to see the lesson that all that data was revealing: conventional methods could not succeed.

Instead, following Obi-Wan’s guidance, Luke had to use The Force to understand when to fire his missile.

But without being able to iterate on the previous “failures” of his fellow rebels he might never have been able to make this connection.

The Sometimes Unpleasant Process of Discovery With Yoda

Agile value: Process of customer discovery over static prediction.

Remember Episode V when Luke Skywalker is training with Yoda? It’s the part where Yoda delivers many of his outstanding one-liners like, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

This oft-quoted line comes during the sequence when he raises Luke’s X-Wing out of the swamp using just the power of The Force. An astonished Luke says that he doesn’t believe it, to which Yoda replies, “That is why you fail.”

Luke is involved in the discovery process in an accelerated (and sometimes painful) way that many of us on agile teams can sympathize with. He can no longer use his past experience to create unchanging predictions about the future; he has to throw himself into an ongoing process of learning.

The payoff for this commitment is well worth the pain it brings to Luke: bringing balance to The Force is no small achievement.

When we contrast this with The Empires fixation on static predictions (the Death Star will be unstoppable; we can rule the entire universe through brute force; OK this new Death Star will definitely be unstoppable), it’s pretty easy to see why things turned out the way they did for these guys.

Han Solo: The Poster Boy for Flexible Planning

Agile values: Responding to change over following a plan AND Flexible planning over rigid planning

Han Solo doesn’t exactly have a backlog of tasks that he’s trying to get done in a set amount of time, but he does have a broad plan for his life: make money and stay alive to enjoy it.

He has some pretty definite ideas about how to achieve this, but when new data appears he’s able to pivot rapidly to take advantage of emerging opportunities. Some examples:

  • In Episode IV Han’s whole life plan gets radically disrupted when he gets involved with Luke and meets Leia, but he sees an opportunity (and an attractive woman) and changes his goals to meet a shifting situation.
  • During Han, Luke, and Leia’s escape attempt nothing is going as planned, and there is a lot of agile action. They have to abandon their current plan several times, finally jumping down a garbage shoot to evade their pursuers. Not exactly how anybody saw their day turning out, but in the end it saved their lives.
  • In Episode IV the Millennium Falcon is being pulled into the Death Star, and Han is preparing to fight to the death. Obi-Wan Kenobi reminds him that he’s got other options, and Han agrees to hide in the smuggler’s hold of the ship. He lives to fight another day.

Actual spoiler alert from Episode VII! Stop reading if you haven’t seen the latest film!

When Han finally does meet his end it’s arguably because he’s finally refused to pivot and doggedly sticks to his plan despite evidence that it’s going to fail.

He’s decided that he must confront his son, and sticks to that path even though his son shows all the signs of being a homicidal nutcase. Han ignores the signs, and he pays with his life.

More Star Wars Examples of Agility in Action?

I’m sure I’ve missed at least a few examples of how agile methodologies helped the Rebels defeat The Dark Side.

Share your favorites in the comments!

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