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So we had decided to commit to an Agile methodology for our marketing team based on the reasons I’ve written about already (quick overview; ability to prioritise work, to be more flexible in responding to campaign success or failure, to get more out of our small team and to better understand our actual productivity levels). However just because we had decided we wanted to go Agile doesn’t mean that the process happened over night. In fact even before we got started, I sat down and made a list of all of the challenges that would affect us in moving to this new methodology.

Some of these issues we were able to address before starting with Agile, some we needed to work through in the first few months of using Agile and some are still not satisfactorily resolved. There were, in fact, so many challenges to write about that I’ve broken this up into two blog posts.

Here are some of the challenges I expected we would face in using Agile for marketing:

Challenge: Individuals were already responsible for clearly delineated types of tasks within the team

We only have three full time members of the marketing team and although the size isn’t necessarily a deterrent to using Agile, the way we had organised the team was. Each of us were general responsible for diverse tasks – one of us for content and social, one for lead research, qualification and management and one for inbound lead campaigns. Although there was some overlap, we had siloed ourselves.

Tasks within Agile sprints, called stories, are generally meant to be relevant to anyone on the team – because stories are prioritised by importance and everything needs to be completed within a sprint, if a member of the team finishes their story, they should pick up the next story in the sprint, not just the next one relevant to their expertise. If we had a sprint with a dozen stories related to content, but only one or two related to inbound lead generation, what would that mean for our division of labour? Would we have to plan sprints based on equally allocated stories (thus letting our individual skills drive our sprint plans more than actual marketing department needs)? If we did try to create sprints with stories for each member of the team, how would that be different that just creating our own individual task lists?

Where We Are Now:

As it turned out, we did end up planning our sprints based on individuals within the team bringing their own tasks to the weekly sprint plan. However this had an unanticipated benefit. It meant that many of our projects were truly iterative – the person responsible for the story one week had a clear picture of how they wanted to bring that story to the next level, or add value to the ongoing project through work they had already accomplished, and were therefore better able to define a related story for an upcoming sprint. Had different individuals been responsible for different parts of a marketing campaign, a lead research project or a white paper, for example, then the overall vision of the project, despite being well articulated to the rest of the team, might have lost some of its clarity and focus.

Additionally, we have started to reach a point where certain stories are completed by someone who didn’t initially expect to do them. Usually this will happen towards the end of the week when we’re reaching the end of the sprint plan and there are just a few stories to go but it’s been a good experience and hopefully will lead to even more flexibility within the team in taking on, and successfully completing, stories outside their immediate comfort zone.

Challenge: Numerous ongoing or daily tasks without a clear end date

Within the marketing team, unlike what I’ve seen of the development team, we have numerous ongoing and daily tasks that I thought would prove difficult to fit into a sprint plan. In terms of daily tasks, our team generates a daily pipeline report for the sales reps, deduplicates the leads in the system, and produces daily stats reports. Ongoing tasks include the management of the company Twitter and Facebook accounts and qualifying leads for the sales reps.

How would these tasks fit into our sprint plan? How could we define a story within a sprint when the story never ends?

Where We Are Now:

When it came to daily tasks, we decided that we would not include these in any of our sprint plans. One of the benefits of Agile is the ability to quantitatively measure the productivity of the team – and this can be used to plan realistic sprints in the future. By taking out daily tasks, we knew that there would be an element of our work that we didn’t track but that this would be consistent – the same projects take the same amount of time every day so it wouldn’t affect our ability to plan sprints in the future. As a side point, the majority of these daily tasks are admin busy-work that will hopefully at some point be replaced by software services so it’s even less desirable to track them as part of our sprint plan.

In terms of ongoing tasks, however, we had a greater challenge. There was much less consistency in the amount devoted to these projects each week so it was important that we could measure how much time was spent and, more significantly, what we actually produced. With that in mind, we made it a goal to break down ongoing projects into individual tasks, sometimes even at the expense of the ongoing project as a whole. Take for example an ongoing project to manage our Twitter account. This might become one or two stories within a particular sprint, with one to schedule daily Twitter content at the beginning of the week and the other to follow everyone on a relevant Twitter list. While this may not deliver exactly the same value as sitting in front of Tweetdeck responding to all relevant comments, it’s a clear measureable that raises improves our Twitter presence and doesn’t do so at the expense of resources or other sprint stories.

I’ll leave it at that temporarily as there are numerous other challenges we’ve faced but with the aim of keeping this readable, I’ve split this into two posts. Part II will be available shortly.

For the last ten weeks, our marketing team has been attempting to organise ourselves, our project plans, and our internal reviews through an Agile methodology. I’d like to write about this process so far, some of the challenges we’ve faced and some of the successes we’ve experienced. I first want to give a background to Agile and why we decided to use a project management method designed for product teams in our marketing department.

Agile, a methodology initially created for use in product development teams, is a project management methodology that is based on very short project cycles, sometimes called sprints, that build iteratively upon each other. These short project cycles not only allow the team to release smaller updates more frequently, continually adding value to the overall product or company, but also mean that the team has the flexibility to respond to changes within the company, economy or competitive environment quickly. The iterative nature of the process means that projects are not stand-alone tasks, but clearly defined pieces of a larger end goal. A product release that might take a large team four months under a typical project plan, with one single release at the end and no room for flexibility throughout the project can, with Agile, turn into eight small sprints, with a value-added release every two weeks and a shift in product design in week eight to incorporate a critical customer request.

Although I had been aware of the basics of the Agile methodology from working at IMVU and reading related books and blog posts on the subject, I didn’t really get a chance to see and understand Agile in practice until it was adopted by our development team. The changes were immediately apparent, even before the Agile method was fully adopted by the team (the whole transition process ended up taking a number of weeks).

The first thing I noticed was the change in how the development team reacted to feature requests and bug fixes. Their response changed from “ok, we’ll see what we can do,” to “we can prioritise that for the sprint after next.” While for someone from the service team with a bug to report, or someone from sales with a feature request, this felt like an exceptionally long wait, what we actually noticed was that instead of being overwhelmed by incoming requests that didn’t get prioritised and therefore would sometimes get missed, every important fix was addressed within a reasonable timeframe while not distracting the engineer from the truly value-add developments that would drive the product forward. They changed from a reactive department to one that was able to clearly plan their work and reach those pre-planned goals week on week.

I wanted that for our marketing team.

We were the very definition of a reactive department – setting campaigns aside to deal with “I need it NOW” lead or content requests from the sales team, or to jump in and help the service team produce marketing materials and reports for our clients. What I saw in our development team, even before truly understanding Agile, was a way to change the marketing team’s reactive behaviour and go on the offensive in terms of planning, reaching department goals and moving the overall bar without either getting completely distracted by internal office requests for marketing’s time or neglecting the needs of other departments.

As I learned more about Agile I saw other ways that the methodology could support our marketing goals. The iterative process would help us make decisions about what campaigns were working, or not, before continuing to produce content for those campaigns. The short sprints would force us to define deliverable projects that we could actually accomplish with our small team. Finally, the planning and review process within Agile would give us a much clearer picture of the work we were accomplishing week on week and give us tools to measure that output in order to define realistic plans for the following weeks.

So, going into our first week of Agile, our goals were to:

– Prioritise our work, and incoming requests from other departments, more effectively so that we are not just a reactive team but moving forward with our own projects and goals.

– Break larger campaigns and projects into smaller ones so that we’re delivering value weekly but have the flexibility to change or switch campaigns if necessary.

– Get the most out of our small team by defining tasks and projects that deliver value but can be realistically accomplished with our given resources.

– Have a better understanding of what we are producing and achieving, have a way to measure that productivity, and use that measurement to better define our tasks and goals for the future.

Next I’ll be writing about the challenges we faced going into an Agile methodology as a marketing team, even before we started working Agile.