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Incubating Demand With Agile Teams

September 01, 2015

Agile is a project management approach that originated with product developers, but can be adapted and applied to support demand creation

For decades, organizations have experimented with empowering small teams, freed of bureaucratic restraints and inflexible processes, to accelerate strategic initiatives and innovations. For example, the concept of an independent “skunkworks” team (whose name was inspired by the dilapidated Skonk Works factory located on the edge of Dogpatch in the Li’l Abner comic strip) was invented at Lockheed Aircraft Corp. during World War II to accelerate the development of a jet fighter plane.

More recently, agile project management has become prominent as a method for harnessing the energy and innovation of small teams. Although agile approaches began as an alternative to traditional methods of software development, they can be applied to other business processes, including marketing. In this issue of SiriusPerspectives, we introduce agile principles for marketers, describe the mechanics of agile teams, and outline four approaches for deploying these teams to incubate and accelerate demand creation efforts.


Agile Principles

Agile practices reflect a set of principles to define and prioritize work, empower teams, foster greater communication and collaboration, and ultimately accelerate productivity and innovation.

  • Time is fixed, work is variable. Although the work performed during a work period (called a “sprint”) may change from one period to the next, the duration (which typically ranges between two and four weeks) does not change. Projects may last longer than one sprint, but because they are broken into smaller, fixed-time projects, a deliverable is produced at the end of each sprint.
  • Leadership sets the vision and priorities, but the teams determine how the work is done. The team estimates how much work it can complete during a sprint, self-organizes to determine how the work will be performed and commits to delivering the work by the end of the sprint, aligning the team’s efforts with the vision and goals established by leadership.
  • Dynamic iterations. Agile marketers embrace adaptive planning, comprising rapid iterations based on small experiments instead of static plans with time horizons extending far into the future. Agile methods assume that change is inevitable, and that team collaboration, transparent communication and adaptability are more important to a successful outcome than following a predefined, inflexible plan. Large projects are simplified into smaller fixed-time projects with deliverables that can be executed within each sprint.

The Mechanics of Agile Teams

Agile methodologies use distinctive concepts and terminology for project processes and roles. Here are a few of the key concepts that are applied by agile teams to accomplish their work:

  • Scrum. This is a small team (often a cross-functional team), typically consisting of four to eight people who perform the work.
  • Product owner. This individual sets the strategic vision and goals for the scrum team and is available to advise when needed, but does not interfere with how the team performs the work. Applied to marketing scenarios, the product owner role is filled by the marketing leader who is accountable to senior management for the output of the scrum team.
  • Scrum master. The scrum master ensures that the scrum follows agile principles, keeps the team on track, and removes obstacles that could hinder the team’s progress during a sprint. These obstacles could be as simple as tracking down a creative brief that the team needs to perform its work, or as complex as negotiating with stakeholders who want to add scope to the sprint.
  • Standup. The scrum master is also responsible for managing the standup meeting, where scrum team members report what they’ve accomplished, what they are currently working on and what obstacles they face. Standups are frequent, brief affairs (generally a 15-minute meeting, at least two or three times per week) intended to keep the teams on track relative to the goals for the sprint.
  • Retrospective. Upon completion of a sprint, the scrum team diagnoses what worked well during the sprint and what needs improvement. This openness and accountability ensures that work team processes improve from sprint to sprint, increasing productivity and yield from their efforts.
  • Sprint. The sprint is a fixed period of time, usually measured in weeks, during which work is performed. The work for each sprint is variable, based on estimates by the scrum team of what it can achieve during the fixed period of the sprint, but the term of each sprint remains constant.
  • User story. User stories define what work is being done during the sprint, for whom and why. The user story is a narrative of what the scrum team is trying to accomplish, including a clear definition of what constitutes completion of the work.

Forming Agile Teams for Demand Creation

Applying agile practices to demand creation starts with setting clear goals for what the team has been formed to do. Here are four possibilities to consider:

  • Waterfall performance optimization. Most organizations aspire to be data-driven in their decisionmaking, including demand creators who use the SiriusDecisions Demand Waterfall® to align sales and marketing activities based on a shared understanding of the lead management process and metrics. Forming a cross-functional scrum team dedicated to continuous improvement of waterfall-based processes is an effective approach to test hypotheses on how to improve lead conversion, velocity and efficiency. Typical members of this team would include representatives from marketing operations, the demand center, global programs, portfolio marketing and teleservices.
  • Dedicated resource allocation for specific initiatives. Another approach to fostering productivity improvements is to allocate a modest percentage of marketing resources to special projects that are not defined in advance by formal campaign plans. Scrum teams can be aligned to initiatives like strategic events, product launches or campaigns. Alternatively, the teams can focus on initiatives to maintain and optimize long-running programs – tasks that are often overlooked or deprioritized when attention shifts to new initiatives. The product owner in this approach could be a senior marketing operations or demand center leader, with the primary team objective defined as ongoing experimentation to drive innovation and optimization of programs, tactics and related processes.
  • Content production. When companies develop products in agile sprints, marketers may not know what features are included in a given release until it’s actually released. Ironically, the most effective answer to the uncertainty that can result from an agile development process is an agile approach to content development, where cross-functional teams work toward interim and final content deliverables in sprints of two to four weeks. Even for companies that have not adopted agile product development, agile content development deconstructs this complex process into modular components, making it inherently agile and providing a useful roadmap for practitioners to define content-related user stories as part of their sprint planning.
  • Agile service bureau for rapid response initiatives. One of the pillars of demand creation strategy is the development of rapid response capabilities to effectively react to unanticipated market opportunities or ad hoc requests from sales or partner channels (e.g. sales-requested teleprospecting programs, local field marketing events, pipeline acceleration). Assigning a product owner to evaluate and prioritize these requests as user stories and forming cross-functional scrum teams to estimate the work effort and perform the defined tasks is an appropriate method for ensuring a rapid response.
  • The Sirius Decision

    Compared to developers, marketers are at a disadvantage applying agile to their work. Marketing teams are more distributed, their work more varied, and not all marketing activities can be easily constrained to the near-term time-box of a sprint. These disadvantages, however, do not diminish the potential for greater productivity and innovation when leadership sets clear goals and objectives, and scrum teams have the time, space and discretion for iterative experimentation. Deliverables from one sprint will often spawn new projects and user stories for subsequent sprints. Start small, using one or more of the approaches outlined above, to pilot an agile marketing approach. Invest in training for scrum teams, and select team members with the appropriate skills and expertise, as well as a mindset that places the needs of the team ahead of personal interests. When initial scrum teams are successful, extend the agile approach more broadly across marketing functions, not just demand creation.