In every single communications plan I create, there is always a section dedicated to Agile methodologies. Agile is a critical piece of Sohuis, and I first learned about the concept while reading Eric Reis’s book, The Lean Startup. Like The Business Model Canvas and Lean Startup, Agile has a seat at the cool kid’s club. In this post, I’m going to take you through a brief history lesson of how Agile came to be, cover some of the basics, and then dive into what that means for your marketing and communication strategies.
What is Agile marketing, really?
But first, a history lesson.
Well, its roots are in software development. The Agile craze has been transforming marketing teams for many years. However, Agile has a much longer history that started long before it became the cool, new marketing methodology. Agile approaches to managing knowledge originated in software development in the mid-to-late 1990’s, completely revolutionizing the way that developers, programmers, and engineers did their jobs.
Developers were in dire need of a change because the traditional ways of managing development projects, known as the waterfall approach, were cumbersome and required an immense amount of time and resources. The waterfall approach called for project managers to gather information about what the software was expected to do – the end result of the technology – then, they would collect all of the programming requirements needed to bring the end result to fruition in massive requirements documents. After all of the requirements had been collected, the project managers would deliver them to the developers – who would then create the software to fit those exact specifications. Inevitably, as with all development projects, completing the requirements would take far longer than the programmers realized because there are always hidden barriers when creating new technologies. It is nearly impossible to scope out an entire development project from start to finish before a developer actually touches any code.
Here’s a great visual representation of the difference in Agile software development vs. the traditional waterfall method.
A 1995 report found that only 16.2% of software projects were being completed on time and on budget. In large enterprise companies, the numbers were even worse, with only 9% of projects hitting time and budget estimates. It was also alarmingly common for the final technology to fall short of customer expectations. This is because the developers who implemented the code were so far removed from the actual customer that they were delivering software that wasn’t intuitive to their needs, nor was it truly useful.
In short: developers received specs from managers, who received their requirements from stakeholders (not customers), who would base those requirements on analysis or statistics, which might have been collected from actual users.
In another 1995 study, $37 billion worth of US Defense Department projects concluded that 46% of the systems “so egregiously did not meet the real needs (although they met the specifications) that they were never successfully used, and another 20% required extensive rework” to be usable.
In this environment, early Agile pioneers like Jeff Sutherland, David Anderson, Alistair Cockburn, Mike Cohn, and many others, started searching for a better way to develop and deploy new technologies. In February of 2001, seventeen software practitioners collaborated and wrote the original Agile Manifesto for Software Development.
From there, methodologies like Scrum and Kanban began to emerge as new ways to apply Agile principles to software creation. Consequently, the results of applying these new systems were phenomenal.
Agile software development teams could now provide:
- Transparency and visibility into their work throughout the development process
- Early and predictable delivery of small increments of work instead of one huge project that might take years to complete
- Predictable costs and schedule rather than ever-expanding scopes and timelines
- Adaptation to changes in the market and business goals
- A focus on user needs and business value
- Higher quality products with fewer bugs and defects
Over time, it became incredibly obvious that other aspects of modern businesses, like communications, could benefit from pulling inspiration from their work – this is how Agile began to spread from software development into other functions.
Agile marketing is one of the newer applications, with the Agile Marketing Manifesto having been written in 2012, and every Agile marketing implementation will look a little different. However, they do share very common characteristics. Agile differs from traditional marketing in several important ways, including a focus on frequent releases, deliberate experimentation, and a relentless commitment to audience satisfaction.
Here are some core principals:
- 1. Mindset shift: Marketers on an Agile team think about their work differently. They exhibit “respect, collaboration, improvement and learning cycles, pride in ownership, focus on delivering value, and the ability to adapt to change. This mindset is necessary to cultivate high-performing teams, who in turn deliver amazing value for their customers.” (source)
- 2. Experimentation, iteration, and small releases: Rigid, long-term plans do not work within an Agile framework, as you saw above. Instead, marketers deploy a lot of small experiments frequently, and then the team applies the results of those experiments to their next round of experiments.
- 3. Teamwork and collaboration: Individuals on an Agile team also behave in distinct ways, as they are always looking for ways to join forces to create unique work in a more efficient way.
- 4. Data-driven decision making: All modern marketing teams use data to guide their efforts, but Agile teams are really and truly driven by their data. They make sure all of their work can be measured, and they rely on empirical evidence to drive strategic decisions.
The Agile Marketing Manifesto
Yes, this is a real thing, and according to the manifesto, Agile marketers value:
- Validated learning over opinions and conventions
- Customer-focused collaboration over silos and hierarchy
- Adaptive and iterative campaigns over Big Bang campaigns
- The process of customer discovery over static prediction
- Flexible vs. rigid planning
- Responding to change over following a plan
- Many small experiments over a few large bets
Here are the candidates for guiding work on an Agile marketing team:
- The highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of marketing that actually solves their problems, instead of trying to sell them something they don’t want or need
- Agile teams welcome and plan for change, believing that their ability to quickly respond to change in the marketplace is a source of competitive advantage
- Deliver marketing programs frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference for the shorter timescale
- Great marketing strategies require close alignment with people, sales, and customer development
- Learning, through the build-measure-learn feedback loop (a Lean Startup methodology), is the primary measure of progress
- Sustainable marketing requires you to keep a constant pace and pipeline
- Continuous attention to marketing fundamentals and good design enhances agility
- Simplicity is essential
Am I pulling on your heartstrings? Great! This is why I love Agile principals and incorporate them into all of my projects.
If you’re interested in introducing Agile principals into your company, it does oftentimes require a significant shift in mindset, and even sometimes, a change in company culture. Agile requires continuous refinement and improvement, meaning that there’s always something that could be a little bit better. This is one of many reasons why agile retrospectives, as illustrated below, are so important to the development and iterations of communications strategies — they systematize the practice of regularly reviewing your process and identifying opportunities for improvement.
There are endless amounts of layers to utilizing Agile methodologies, and I’ve tried to do a decent job of giving you a bird’s eye view of the general concepts. I’ve simply just skimmed the surface! What I love so much about Agile principals is that they can be applied to so many unique business implications. In addition to marketing communications, I apply Agile principals to product development, value proposition design, creative projects, team dynamics, and so many other areas. I pulled a lot of inspiration, stats, and data for this post from the link below, and if you’d like to take a deeper dive into Agile development, this author does a great job of peeling back the layers.
Happy reading, and I hope you’ll consider introducing Agile principals into your teams and communication strategies!