Variety Is the Spice of Agility

The original Agile Manifesto for Software Development celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. For two decades the manifesto stood as a guiding light for developers who were tired of working for months to create software updates that nobody cared about.

But our world is, to put it mildly, different from the one that spawned the manifesto.

Even setting aside the whole global pandemic thing, things have changed dramatically. As one single example, far more professions have gone digital. Professions like marketing that once focused exclusively on glossy magazine ads, enormous billboards and flashy TV commercials have become focused on intangible deliverables like sales qualified leads, brand awareness and share of wallet. 

And marketing is really just the tip of the iceberg. Finance, human resources, sales and more are increasingly digital.

The potential scope of application for Agile ways of working is likewise expanding. But, just as the world has changed since the original manifesto, Agile itself must lean into the greater variety of its new homes.

Our recent State of Agile Marketing Report uncovered some very interesting ways that marketing in particular is spicing up agility with its own kinds of variety. We discovered important variations in:

  • Functions that report being Agile, both inside and outside of marketing.
  • Frameworks and practices being used by marketers to make Agile work for them.
  • Challenges that marketers face when trying to fully implement Agile.

By exploring this variety, agility as a movement can continue its growth and development for the next two decades as well.

Variety of Functions Going Agile

While marketers aren’t necessarily the tip of the Agile spear, it’s interesting to see where they fit in the larger universe of Agile functions. Over half (53%) of them say product development or product management is already agile, and another 44% say IT is.

Once we get outside of the traditional bastions of agility, however, the next most common response is that sales is using Agile. Given the close alliance between marketing and sales this isn’t terribly surprising, but Agile’s emphasis on collaboration and team-centric planning can make it a tough shift for some sales departments.

Tied for second place in functional adoption are finance and human resources. Given that each of these support a wide variety of other functions, we can expect to see them lag quite a bit behind the transformation of those functions. Until its lack of agility becomes problematic for other groups (more on this later), the pain of change will likely remain greater than the pain of the status quo for these teams.

Marketing Functions Using Agile

Variety also prevails within the marketing function itself. For the first time this year we asked marketers which parts of their marketing organization were using Agile ways of working, and the most common answer was creative services, content creation and operations at 77%.

I’ve heard many creative teams push back on Agile ways of working because they find some of its practices, specifically sprints, to run counter to their preferred way of doing things. In other words, they see process and creativity as opposites.

I always recommend that teams like this think outside the sprint and embrace kanban rather than reject Agile altogether, so it’s encouraging to see them in this top group.

Following close behind we find demand generation and ABM (76%), with the website team coming in third at 72%. Web being third on this list shows just how much the variety of implementation for Agile marketing has improved over the years. In its early days, the web team was always the first to try Agile, because they tended to be exposed to the practices through their interactions with web developers.

Agile Shows Up in a Variety of Ways

In addition to cropping in a wide variety of spots, the State of Agile Marketing Report shows that implementation is varied as well.

We’ve long known that hybrid frameworks, rather than “out of the box” versions of Scrum or Kanban, are marketers’ preference, and this year maintained that trend. Fifty-three percent of Agile marketers say they’re using multiple methodologies to implement Agile, while only 19% report using Scrum.

Agile Frameworks Marketers Use

Compared to software development, where 55%-60% of developers say they’re on Scrum teams, marketing is quite different. This preference alone helps to push Agile frameworks to grow, evolve and shift to accommodate new users.

Within these hybrid frameworks we also see a variety of practices being used.

Despite not using pure Scrum, 58% of marketers say they use planning on a sprint or iteration basis. Another 45% are using the sprint or iteration review to show their completed work. The 10 most popular practices for marketers are:

  1. Sprint/iteration planning: 58%
  2. Daily standup: 57%
  3. Sprint/iteration review: 45%
  4. Digital kanban board: 44%
  5. User stories and/or epics: 42%
  6. Retrospectives: 41%
  7. Short iterations: 37%
  8. Frequent releases: 31%
  9. Work in progress (WIP) limits: 26%
  10. Physical kanban board: 13%
  11. Planning poker/estimation: 13%

Variety of Marketing Challenges

It’s a very good thing that marketers are comfortable with hybrid frameworks and a wide variety of practices, because they have a correspondingly wide range of challenges to tackle as they strive to become more Agile.

Unsurprisingly, given our position as the connective tissues between the customer and the business, marketing gets a lot of incoming requests. These take the form of unplanned work, which is the number one challenge cited by 44% of Agile marketers.

Top 5 Agile Marketing Challenges

The other top four challenges are all within 20 percentage points of this top vote-getter, meaning none of them are minor.

At the bottom of the top five challenges is a difficulty estimating team capacity and velocity. This issue continues to plague developers 20 years on, but maybe marketers will be able to bring new insights to the problem.

Rounding out the group are people’s tendencies to revert to their old ways of working, challenges interacting with non-Agile teams, and plans changing too often. As we see the interaction challenge grow, we can expect a corresponding expansion of Agile adoption by those very non-Agile groups. Eventually their colleagues will press in on all sides and make the pain of change finally worth it.

Embrace Variety or Slide Into Irrelevance

Many long-time Agile thinkers have been bemoaning its stagnation, or even ossification, as it ages.

Some have gone so far as to declare its death.

I don’t think Agile is dead. I see it in action with my clients and colleagues and I know it’s still got power left to share. But entropy is real. If we don’t push our understanding of how Agile works and help it embrace the new variety of users, it does risk sliding into irrelevance.

Some Agile purists will look at the data I’ve shared here and commence their hand wringing. They see uninitiated pseudo-agilists mucking up their pristine frameworks. They’re quick to declare that if Scrum isn’t working for you the way it was written, you must be doing it wrong.

But dogmatism goeth before a fall, or something like that.

Agile emerged because the existing ways of developing software were broken. The next incarnations of Agile will come from a much wider variety of sources. As long as we’re willing to embrace those origins, there’s no need to lay agility to rest for a long, long while.


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