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A Rugby Match at a Poker Table: Learning to Be an Agile Marketer

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I remember my first rugby match at Twickenham Stadium. It was the London Irish vs. Newcastle. I was all in (two ciders worth, anyway). As we gathered at the pregame pub, my friends prepped me on the rules of this so-called “hooligans sport played by gentlemen.” In the name of hands-on education, they decided to simulate a line out right there in the pub. Their job was to hike me up high enough so that I could affix a playing card on the pub ceiling with a stick of chewing gum. Without time to bow out, the ruddy-face crew counted down, and to my horror, up, up, up I went.

Poker HandA Rugby Match at a Poker Table

Scrums and cards. I have this flashback while I’m sitting, same fish-out-of-water experience, observing a backlog grooming session in a room full of Skyword developers who are “pointing” at projected backlog, a list of all the up-and-coming user stories. A user story is a developer’s Mad Lib, essentially a fill-in-the-blanks exercise that ties the who, what, and why together, imbuing what is an otherwise lifeless feature set with personal meaning and direction. The scrum master flicks between user stories and commands her audience to point. Playing cards bolt into the air—some more assertively while other people wait for their colleagues to reveal their hand. I soak in these non-verbal cues as if this were an ancient ritual. It is no coincidence that the agile process is rooted in “ceremonies,” purpose-driven meetings from daily scrums to retrospectives.

A mock-up of a backlog

My first observation is that there are many rules in this agile process. For developers, this may come more naturally. For marketers, on the other hand, being told to put our rampant creativity on a leash, to estimate how long a project will take versus how high and wide and deep we can go with our ideas, makes even the most process-oriented of us squirm. But I was quick to judge. In fact, agile was less about stringent rules, and more about flexibility.

The manifesto for agile development states:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

On second thought, this sounds a lot like something us marketers can get behind—especially product marketers, who are closely aligned—if not attached at the hip—to the development cycle. We need to build a bridge from development to go-to-market, and to do that successfully, it means thinking more iteratively about the entire process. I also know that a business transformation as profound as this is not something that could happen overnight.

KanbanRespect the Process

You ever think you’ve come up with a novel idea, and then Google it to find out that there are about 40,200,000 related fragments floating around? Turns out a lot has been written about agile marketing. Podcasts have been recorded, infographics storyboarded, and meetup groups formed. I even came across an article clearly written to attract the attention of marketers with the preconceived notion that agile is boring (Sex and the Agile Marketer—just in case you’ve fallen asleep at this point).

Read or listen to enough of these marketers waxing poetic about agile, and you’ll learn that implementation within an organization is no easy feat. Marketers are about as cross-functional as they come, which means that shifting from traditional to more iterative practices has the potential to fracture dependencies that other teams have upon them. If the sales or leadership teams don’t operate in this iterative manner, you could fall short of delivering on deadline. Lucky for me, my colleagues are on board with this way of thinking. What you also learn is that sometimes, you’ve gotta start small. Implementation doesn’t have to mean scrumming all the way to the C-suite and back down to the mailroom. It can start with a campaign. And often, that’s the best way of testing out its value.

This iterative philosophy, although over two-decades old, is novel to me. Agile has no shortage of get-your-sh*t-together methodology. It’s all about moving things from one state to another, whether you decide on a Kanban (whether it’s pronounced with long or hard ‘a’ is widely contested) or Scrum or Scrum-ban, just to confuse things. Sometimes it involves sticky notes and a whiteboard, sometimes it’s digitized to a platform.

It may sound like a foreign language, but if you’ve done any sort of project management either at work or at home, chances are you’ve implemented some agile methodology. In fact, we do it in some shape or form every day. We’re fairly adept at evaluating the level of effort required to do a task. We constantly reshuffle and resort priorities whether it’s grocery lists, chores, bills, the gym, family, or friends. It is the act of rearranging these priorities to get the greatest return or make the most impact that is a challenge.

Point and Shoot

Back to the meeting. Pointing is an exercise in estimating the complexity of the work ahead. As much as I try to make sense of these numbers (is it number of days? hours? men?), I am later told that it’s purely effort-based, which could be relative to the other tasks at hand, the number of components involved in said task, and other ways of ranking that my marketing brain is not yet privy to comprehending. The team comes to a consensus, and then it’s off to the races with the next user story. This work is compartmentalized in “sprints”—in this case—bi-weekly intervals. The burn-down chart is a glorified to-do list—and as more boxes are ticked, the line dives south.

Sprint planning can be tedious—up to two plus hours in length—and a few microbrews deep. There is a restlessness as the crew is driven from their task-mastering, and forced to collectively plan the weeks ahead. It is during these well-spent hours, however, that a change begins to take place. It becomes an exercise in recognizing an individual’s impact on his or her team, and further, that team’s impact on a product release, and ultimately, that product’s influence on the end-user’s own life.

Life in Beta

“You can talk and think about stuff for ages and ages before doing something or other. Why not just do something straight away and learn from that?”

-Tim Malbon, Co-Founder of Made by Many

The agile process is much more than trying to adopt project management software. It’s not about plucking to-dos from one state of progress to the next. Nor is it about tapping your colleague on the shoulder and asking him about his blockers every five minutes. It’s about changing the way you organize your thoughts, and ultimately, reflecting on the deliverable that will be in closer alignment with your customer.

Marketers have become especially adept at multitasking. We want to check off all the boxes at once instead of dedicating focus to one thing at a time. We want to plan out our yearly agendas, delve into month-long campaigns that have no end in sight. We are guilty of biting off more than we can chew and trying to please everyone around us. We are also guilty of being perfectionists. Agile does not allow for this. It prizes timely delivery of the minimum viable product (f you’re the type that gets queasy at the thought of sharing the first chapter of your novel with readers before the whole thing has been edited and bound, then you’re in trouble). As a recovering perfectionist, I can tell you, it takes some time to get used to constantly living in beta.

But as I reflected on 2015 and how many times I got derailed from projects, pulled into other initiatives, and lost sight of my core objectives, I knew it was time for a change. I’d like to think that I am good at managing my time, but when I look at the diligence that developers give to sprint planning, grooming a backlog, and retrospectives, I feel like Travis Bickle (“One of these days I’m gonna get organizized”). I truly admire the respect and discipline required for the agile process.

Taxi Driver

Over the next few posts, I’ll be chronicling my journey with agile. The good, the bad, and the ugly: my adventures trying to tame JIRA and encourage adoption, my cries for help to other marketers who are going through their own implementation of this methodology, a marketing gal’s determination to start to think more like a developer, the underlying desire to check more boxes in 2016, and understanding when to give those boxes a heave-ho.

If you take anything from agile, it’s not about achieving perfection, but rather embracing a stop thinking, start doing mentality. It’s about jumping right into it, professionally or personally. Even if that means falling flat onto the floor of a dirty pub in Richmond.

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