Six months after my 2016 resolution to adopt the agile manifesto into my professional life and personal life, I woke up with a pounding headache and a crowded desktop: Trello boards littered with aged cards, a Pomello productivity widget in the corner of my screen, one Dropbox Paper beta account, a half-eaten Asana checklist, and 74 emails from sales representatives asking me why I’d abandoned a tool that has helped marketers just like me boost their brain power by 400 percent. I had even coerced coworkers into signing up for collaboration software, just so that I could get a free t-shirt. I added shameful to my list of flaws.
I was a freemium failure.
How did I get here? I thought I knew of all the hideous prospecting tactics known to marketers, but here I was seduced by tools that promised to solve my productivity woes—a miracle in the form of an app. It was true, I was passionate about implementing agile marketing at Skyword. Yet all of the tenets of agile methodology went out the door while seeking the holy grail of tools to make it work. Turns out my software shopping spree was just a crutch, and these applications, mere band-aids for GSD.
Let me rewind. The notion of agile marketing had taken hold of me more than a year ago when I witnessed the tech team completely transform their structure to accommodate a sprint framework that allowed them to be more flexible in the way that they addressed the development of new releases. As a result of this new way of working, we had seen an uptick in the number of releases that were put out as well as customer feedback and adoption of new features on the other side. Our tech team used JIRA Core to manage its workflow.
Our go-to-market team, a cross-functional group who owned the roll-out of each release to customers and the market, was having trouble keeping up with the rapid deployment. We realized that we had to adopt a more agile approach if we were going to give our new product releases the worth they deserved, as they were rolled out. We knew that we had to start speaking the same language as the tech team, and that the handover from development to go-to-market had to be seamless and consistent. Our first step was to set up a system for managing all of the teams and moving parts.
We adapted JIRA Core and Confluence for our needs. We set up a Scrumban to sync our releases and identify stakeholders for tasks, and a Confluence space that would house our agendas, core assets including messaging, talk tracks, and KPIs. I had found more use for the free-form ways of Confluence in my go-to-market meetings, as it enabled me to capture notes and implement a central depository that wasn’t an overly crowded and disorganized Google Drive. Yet, I was still iFraming Google Documents because they continued to be one of the most adopted apps within the company. I felt a little like I was forcing a round peg into a square hole—trying to overlay a solution that worked well for our tech team over our marketing, sales, and services teams.
That’s when I started to wonder if this tool, that was originally formatted for software teams, could be adapted for marketers. It wasn’t intuitive to the way I thought or processed things daily. Yet, I didn’t immediately see another solution. The other half of my team was using Basecamp for project management, and I was constantly digging myself out of the infinite scroll of discussion threads. I was a little like Goldilocks, looking for “just right” but coming up empty handed. Which is I why I started to research…
…the collaboration tool ecosystem
Turns out, it’s a pretty crowded market. I was curious about how applications addressed the pain point of keeping agile marketing teams on track in spite of the multiple channels and projects they had to navigate daily. I was interested in finding the optimal user experience for individuals like me.
Crunchbase lists over 1400 collaboration tools, which is probably conservative given their overlap with productivity, workflow, and project- and time-management software. A report compiled by Dimensional Research told me that I was not alone in my increased dependence on “technology to perform collaborative tasks such as sharing documents with co-workers and external business partners.” In fact, 82 percent of employees claim that they “would be impacted by the loss of collaboration capabilities. Furthermore, 10 percent reported that they “could not get their work done if they lost collaborative capabilities.”
There was not only an appetite for these collaborative solutions, but businesses had become dependent on them. Not surprisingly, collaboration can mean a lot of things to different teams. For any viewers of the HBO TV series, Silicon Valley, Monica talks about passing on a 20 percent stake of Slack because she didn’t “get it” (“Is it email? Is it a chat room?”).
For Skyword, it means moving content through customized editorial workflows—taking something that starts in an ideation phase and advancing it to a published state, which can involve several different stakeholders throughout the process. For Asana, it is about assigning ownership to tasks and providing group transparency to individuals’ workloads. For JIRA, collaboration is fulfilled through HipChat messages or assigned tasks, with “watchers” CC’d to ride the swim lanes as tasks progress. There is a beginning and an end and collaboration for all of those states in between. It’s about input not just for input sake, but with the intention of moving an item forward.
Every once in a while I would come across a pretty cool platform and invite my ScrumMaster to join. After about three or four invitations to collaborate, she reminded me that:
“Agile is not about the tools. It’s a mindset.”
There came a point about six weeks into the JIRA suite that I realized that I was project managing my project management tools. However meta, it takes time to manage time. Just because I had set up a Scrumban for my team didn’t mean that I was any closer to getting us to act like an agile team. It wasn’t about forcing my team to try on the next new shiny kanban with complex workflows, but it was about stepping back to review the guiding principles of agile. And one of the key tenets is placing the customer at the center of it all. As a marketer, that meant shifting the way we were product messaging to center around the persona for which we were solving problems, rather than around the solutions we were providing. It’s forced us to build deeper personas that explore a character beyond their pure business wants and goals and identify how these characters are able to reconcile personal with professional struggles.
So I took our ScrumMaster’s advice and went back to the drawing board…
While doing a bit of research on agile life hacks, I came across an old blog series by J.D. Meier, called 30 Days of Getting Results. His advice resonated with me since I have a tendency to complicate things: “The power of Agile Results [his time management system] is the simplicity.” Here I was, investing all of this time searching for the perfect tool when really it was just about “chunking things down.” It started with the simple “Rule of Three.” This is the notion of starting every day by writing down three wins that you want to accomplish by day’s end. That meant breaking projects into bite-sized tasks; it meant scoping out the actual size of a project, which was not without some growing pains. For example, I learned that it was not doable for me to write “Content Standard Story” down as a daily win, when that meant researching, outlining, writing, editing, and revising. Learning how to manage my time around these multi-pronged processes was just half of the battle.
Once I understood how to break down tasks, I was able to better come up with a process that made sense for go-to-market. I went back to my team with a renewed enthusiasm. I started assigning tasks away to members of the go-to-market process taking care to update appropriate fields with rich detail, and I even tried my hand at estimating story points—only to find out that even though I was 110 percent on board, I needed my colleagues to get involved as well. And they hadn’t logged into the Scrumban.
As Lauren Horowitz notes in an article for Tech Target, “Workers aren’t keen on having a 10th application to open or several hoops to jump through just to complete a task or communicate with a coworker.” And I don’t blame them. But there is a need for application uniformity within the workplace. According to CMS Wire, only “22 percent of employees use the same collaboration software within their companies.” So how are people effectively collaborating if they have to jump between platforms?
It becomes a bigger issue when stakeholders and employees are using different platforms to manage workload. A report by Alfresco notes, “While challenges with enterprise collaboration tools are broad ranging, the most common issues communicated by knowledge workers are not all employees use the same tools and stakeholders are excluded (21 percent).”
Sometimes, majority rules. Figure out what tools your colleagues are on, and meet them half way. Talk about JIRA. And if there is a tool that is superior and it deserves the fight, then by all means put your fists up, and start that uphill battle. But if you’re looking for a collaboration tool, especially among marketers, you need something that is user-friendly from front to back. Drag and drop, bouncing unicorns, hipmojis, and confetti downpours when you complete tasks? Yes, please.
Go-to-market revolved around the two-week sprints that our tech team operated on, but that seemed like an arbitrary marker for the rest of us, a cross-functional group comprising marketing, sales, services, and product teams. Even though I’d like to pretend I was Ms. Flexibility, the thought of actually reshifting priorities and leaving my siloed role to dive into an area I didn’t feel equipped to address scared me. Attaching story points to subtasks wasn’t innate. There was no doubt that I found a lot of truth in the agile manifesto, but philosophically, I had a hard time believing that in order to be agile, I had to adopt all ceremonies. This seemed inflexible for a methodology that is grounded in adaptability.
So was it possible to slowly integrate agile into my life? To pull the pieces that resonated, and leave those that didn’t behind?
The marketer’s mind is a very complex thing, constantly trying to be ever-more efficient while juggling multiple projects simultaneously. But most marketers experience the struggle to maintain order, while also staying creative. And when order gets in the way of creativity, and the business starts to outweigh the imagination, watch out—marketers need that right side of the brain activated just as much as the left.
Bottom Line: These tools should help, not hinder. And if you’re spending more time trying to get your team on the collaboration platform than collaborating, then it’s not worth it. Go back to the root of the methodology, find out how to sync objectives, and then pick a software application process that best aligns with your clearly defined needs instead of trying to redefine your process for the sake of fitting a platform. Whatever you do, make sure that you keep creativity intact.