Scaling Agile Marketing With SAFe — Overview
More and more Marketing organizations are realizing today that they need to be faster, more flexible/responsive and more collaborative, in order to have a real impact on the business they’re supporting. More and more CMOs are looking at Agile Marketing as the way to modernize their organization.
Inspired by Agile Development, Agile Marketing describes a mindset of continuous learning and validation, customer-focused collaboration across functional silos, adaptive and iterative campaigns and more responsive/continuous planning. Similar to development organizations, Agile Marketing teams use techniques such as Scrum to work in an iterative cadence, and such as Kanban to visualize and improve the flow of work.
While Agile values, principles, and practices map pretty well to the world of Marketers, some modifications to the language and choice of practices are needed.
Agile Marketing has been growing in popularity in recent years, attracting larger and larger organizations to apply its principles and to look for a scalable approach to their marketing processes.
This guidance article aims to help marketing leaders and change agents in these medium/large marketing groups by exploring what it means to use SAFe — the Scaled Agile Framework, for implementing Agile Marketing at scale.
We will identify the right context for using SAFe for Agile Marketing, how to go about implementing it, look at key challenges and some emerging solutions, and close with a wider perspective of how Agile Marketing fits into real enterprise agility at scale.
Defining Agile Marketing
Agile Marketing is a philosophy/mindset/approach that is based on the same thinking and mindset behind Agile Development and therefore benefits from applying at least some of the practices/frameworks used in Agile Development — sometimes as is and sometimes with important modifications.
Agile Marketing is helping Marketers deal with some key challenges they’re facing:
- The need to be more flexible and responsive with a much faster time to market.
- Moving beyond conventions and opinions towards more data-driven decisions
- How to streamline marketing activities that span organizational boundaries within/beyond the Marketing department.
- Effectively choosing, deploying and integrating more and more marketing technology — Many CMOs technology budget exceeds that of their CIO believe it or not. And marketing technology stacks have become complex IT systems.
- Working at the pace of the Technology organization that moved to Agile and more frequent releases or even continuous deployment.
If you look at these challenges closely you will see that many of them arise from a significant growth in uncertainty that these organizations face. around both WHAT marketing would work as well as HOW to build it in an effective way.
Agile Marketing — Anticipating Complexity/Uncertainty and Dealing with it using Iteration/Adaptation
Agile Marketing is about anticipating this complexity/uncertainty and dealing with it in a disciplined pragmatic sustainable manner. We plan to work in an iterative manner. We plan based on some hypothesis. We build in small increments, validating both the technology/implementation as well as the experience as often as possible by demonstrating it and testing it both internally as well as in the real world.
We also realize that when faced with this level of uncertainty and complexity it is hard to carve out marketing work into small self-contained pieces that can be planned and built in isolation. It is much better to create customer-focused teams where everyone working to optimize a certain marketing aspect is on the same team and can collaborate effectively.
Validated Learning, Customer Discovery With Many Small Experiments, Leading to Adaptive and Iterative Campaigns
The Agile Marketing Manifesto introduces concepts such as validated learning (which is brought over from the Lean Startup approach).
Instead of decisions made based on opinions and conventions, agile marketers look at each marketing play, identify risks/assumptions, run a Build-Measure-Learn experimentation cycle for the riskiest assumptions.
This is well aligned with SAFe 4.5’s Continuous Exploration approach. One can consider Marketing’s search for marketing-market-fit a complementary step to finding product-market-fit. Once a product/service achieves “must have” status it is time to figure out how to grow its market faster and faster. This often requires experimentation and iteration, sometimes across a set of teams. For example, a growth team might be at the forefront of identifying options to explore and designing experiments. Ideally, they should be able to run those experiments and learn from them within their autonomous agile team. But in real life in many cases this team would depend on other teams in and beyond the marketing group — For example the product team, the website team, the mobile app team.
In this case, try creating an Agile Marketing Train where these teams align and collaborate — e.g. in events such as PI Planning and using artifacts such as the Program Kanban Board and the Program Dependency Board.
Customer Focused Collaboration
Agile Marketing brings together marketers and other players to collaborate on improving customer experiences. If you were ever a sole marketer for a company or part of a marketing team for a small startup/company you know how this looks like.
You can move much faster when everybody you need to deliver the overall marketing impact is on your team (or in your head). Most marketing organizations lose this advantage when they grow beyond the single team and specialize.
So, like in Product Development — try to create Feature teams rather than Component teams if possible. And if you have a larger group of marketers working in the same value stream consider them an “Agile Team of Teams” and use an Agile Marketing Train with SAFe’s program level constructs to help coordinate/synchronize across teams.
Customer-focus teams can take many shapes
Those customer-focused teams own aspects such as:
- the whole customer journey for a certain brand/product/market (e.g. SMB)
- Content Creation, Publication, Measurement
- A key marketing challenge/opportunity such as a stuck Middle of the Funnel (MOFU), ineffective Sales Enablement.
- Account Based Everything (ABX)
- Planning and delivering the company’s Customer event or presence at a key industry event
- Exploration of a new marketing approach such as “Social Selling”, “Video”
- A key marketing KPI that is not performing well or is identified as a key objective for growth.
While we call it Agile Marketing, in many cases these teams include and involve participants from other adjacent functions such as Inside Sales (SDRs), Product Management, Field Sales, Customer Success.
From tasks to Customer-focused stories and marketing backlogs
Once the marketing organization work structure is oriented towards a customer-focus — Agile Marketers start managing their work in a customer-focused way as well.
They use work items that reflect marketing value such as “User Stories” or “Job Stories” rather than “to do lists” or “tasks”. Thinking of work in this way and including the goal/impact expected of each work item as part of the “Story” helps marketers maintain a laser-focus on the customer impact they’re aiming for day in and day out.
This also makes it easier to communicate with business stakeholders about what marketing is focusing on and get their early feedback and guidance — which helps avoid the common situation where marketers talk in language that business/sales don’t care about and after delivering something there are still major gaps between what the business/sales expected and the marketing that was delivered.
Agile Marketers also use more disciplined and more customer-focused prioritization mechanisms that take into account considerations such as Cost of Delay, Time Criticality, Opportunities as well as Risks addressed to consider what to focus on next and whether to interrupt ongoing work for an emerging opportunity.
SAFe’s WSJF-based economic prioritization works well in this context. The Program Backlog’s “Features” don’t translate too well to a marketing context. Terms like “Marketing Play” seems to resonate better. Describing it with Benefits, success criteria/metrics and acceptance criteria still works well.
While some marketers understand agile marketing to mean “no planning” this is not the intent. The Agile Marketing Manifesto talks about “Responding To Change” over “Following The Plan”. Another way to look at it as “Flexible” or “Continuous” Planning vs “Rigid Static Planning”.
Planning in Agile Marketing happens at two levels.
One is planning what to work on and what we can commit to delivering for a certain timebox — be it a day, week, quarter or year. Let’s call this cadence-driven planning.
The other is focused on a certain marketing campaign/play — planning the strategy, vision, tactics, rollout plan for that campaign/play. Let’s call this content-focused planning.
Sometimes most content-focused planning happens during cadence-driven planning but that’s not a must. It might make more sense to do the content-focused planning just in time as we start a campaign/play rather than at the beginning of the quarter.
Most marketing teams seem to prefer a more Scrum+Kanban team-level approach. (See Kanban Guide for Scrum Teams)
Scrum’s cadence is used for:
- Sprint Planning — light-weight look-ahead planning with a focus on the short-term Goal and initial Sprint Backlog
- Daily Scrum to inspect and adapt on a tactical continuous basis
- Sprint/Iteration Review/Demo where the Scrum team reviews their Done Increment, collects feedback from stakeholders, considers the next options in their Marketing Backlog and then the “Marketing Owner” can adjust the Marketing Backlog to reflect the new learnings/ decisions
- Retrospective — Inspecting and adapting the process
Kanban’s flow is used to:
- Visualize the flow of marketing value throughout the marketing development value stream
- Limit the flow to help focus on top priorities, minimize multi-tasking, and surface bottlenecks/constraints so that they can be addressed.
- Pro-actively manage the flow of work — e.g. by highlighting and dealing with items that are aging and are at risk of exceeding the team’s typical service level expectations.
Below, in an example from an Agile Marketing Train in CA Technologies, you can see how the various layers of events and artifacts work together.
Agile Marketing requires Lean/Agile Leadership
Agile Marketing tries to bring back this effectiveness, speed, fun and focus of the small startup regardless of your organization size. We create autonomous agile marketing teams that are empowered to make local decisions aligned with achieving their goals while doing what’s right for the overall brand. This only works if we:
- build the right competence by hiring the right people and encouraging them to master their domain and giving them the space to learn and improve
- create high clarity by sharing the business context, our vision, constraints.
This autonomy and new structure don’t mean there’s no need for marketing managers/directors of course. It does mean changes in their focus e.g. on things like hiring and nurturing great marketers and providing clear and meaningful mission/purpose.
Do you really need to SCALE Agile Marketing?
If you believe you have good reasons to transform your Marketing organization towards Agile, AND you believe you have a trigger event that can enable a real transformation, your next step is to figure out whether you need some Scaled Agile Marketing approach.
Scaling isn’t automatically a function of the number of people in the marketing organization. It’s more about how many marketers need to work together as part of one customer journey/experience.
Let’s look at an example. In the diagram below you can see a typical marketing organization that would possibly require a scaling approach. They have Agile teams that cross-cut the different marketing functions — focusing on delivering marketing value/impact for a specific product/customer journey, rather than focusing on a specific marketing function/task.
Map it to your organization. If your teams are truly autonomous and work on separate backlogs and activities, with minimal dependencies, then you might not need a full-fledged scaling approach.
If, on the other hand, they ARE working on one bigger customer journey, have dependencies across teams and some floating specialists that need to be involved in multiple teams, or are considering synergies and adjacency campaigns (e.g., if you’re using an Agile ALM tool you can probably benefit from Continuous Integration or Portfolio-level tools), a scaling approach would benefit you.
In this context, SAFe’s Agile Marketing Train (Agile Release Train’s adjusted name for the Marketing context), with its Program Increment Planning, single Program Backlog, System Demos and more, provide useful guidance.
Working with Agencies
In many cases, marketing organizations work with external marketing/advertising agencies to deliver campaigns or materials for campaigns. In most cases, the way these relationships work don’t map well to “everybody working on one Agile team” and a scaling solution is required.
A rising trend is the “Internal Agency” model (see https://hbr.org/2015/07/6-reasons-marketing-is-moving-in-house) in which an internal agency is created as a shared service that supports the various lines of business in the organization. While getting rid of the dependency on an external vendor, this “shared service” presents its own scaling challenges. Creating real “Agile Teams” that can deliver marketing impact without relying on teams/people in an “Internal Agency” is a better more scalable approach. This isn’t always possible — a common problem is having too few people to assign them to agile teams so preferring to run them as one consolidated team and load balance the demand.
If you cannot bring all the teams you need into your Agile Marketing Train — whether they are internal teams that cannot board the train or external teams that either cannot or don’t want to board it.
SAFe provides a couple of options for how to deal with internal/external “suppliers” — for example, they can become a separate “Supplier” Agile Marketing Train on a bigger Solution Train, or a “Supplier” team that is a “component”/”specialized” team inside an Agile Marketing Train. In any case, SAFe provides guidance for how to involve them in a planning and execution cadence and how to create realistic plans considering their capabilities and availability without forcing them to be members of Agile teams (although that is certainly an option and will be recommended in some cases).
Longer-term activities such as events and strategic campaigns
Most Agile Marketing organizations run a mix of high-tempo testing that is a great fit for Agile iterations/flow with frequent planning, but also some longer-horizon activities such as conferences, webinars, big product launches, that require more predictability and visibility beyond the “next 2 weeks” that team-level Agile provides.
SAFe’s combination of high-tempo team-level agility with the Program level (with its Program Increment Planning, Roadmap, and visibility to Features), helps deal with this mix of demands from the marketing organization.
What does Scaled Agile Marketing mean?
So, assuming you’re thinking Agile Marketing can help you with some of your marketing challenges, and that there’s a good opportunity to do something about it right now, and that there are some reasons you think you need to consider some scaling aspects, let’s try to see what Scaled Agile Marketing looks like.
The first thing about Scaled Agile Marketing is that it isn’t just about Agile. It’s also about Lean.
Lean is focused on value, which is similar to “Customer Focus” in the Agile Marketing Manifesto. It adds pillars like “Respect People and Culture”, “Flow”, “Innovation” and “Relentless Improvement” that are somewhat missing from the Agile Marketing Manifesto, although you can find some hints for them in the principles behind the manifesto.
The most important addition is “Leadership”. Achieving a transformative move to Agile requires more than just practices at the team level. It requires both application of scaled practices, and even more importantly, a different style of leadership that focuses on creating clarity around purpose, decentralizing control, enabling and developing people and creating a safe-to-learn environment.
If you “Respect (and understand) People and Culture”, you understand that culture is hard to change. It’s actually the last thing to change in a transformation as changing leadership culture is a huge challenge.
In order to tackle it, we put a lot of focus on training and coaching, throughout a real Agile Marketing transformation, on leaders and help them think and act differently in ways that support/enable Agile Marketing behavior rather than detract from it.
Strong understanding of Lean/Agile Scaling Principles
Beyond a high-level Lean/Agile mindset, there are some additional principles we need to take to heart in order to succeed at scaling Agile Marketing.
Why do we need principles? Why not jump to practices? Because we’re dealing with snowflakes. What does snow have to do with anything? Each snowflake is different. Each organization is different. So despite the fact that we have some good practices that may be able to help us scale, we want to understand the principles underlying them so we can know what to do to inspect and adjust our Agile Marketing approach, to find the best fit for our purpose and context.
Start by reviewing Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe™)’s Lean/Agile Principles Some of my personal favorites are principles like “Decentralize Decision Making”, “Reduce Batch Sizes”, “Systems Thinking — Or Optimize the Whole”, “Apply Cadence, Synchronize with cross-domain planning”, “Assume variability, preserve options”.
The Role Of Agile Scaling Frameworks
Some of you would be able to solve most of your scaling challenges by combining team-level Agile Marketing practices and a good understanding and application of these principles.
Most of you though will be looking for some example/guidance for how to apply these principles. This is where scaling frameworks such as SAFe come in. SAFe provides a “Full Kit” to support an organization trying to achieve Agile at scale — providing guidance, training, certification, and a supporting ecosystem of experts as well as “social proof” in the form of testimonials and case studies.
This is less important to innovators and early adopters, but crucial for the majority of organizations that follow.
Nothing beats an Agile Marketing team — but what if a team isn’t enough?
The Scrum Guide provides the most popular guidance on how to structure Agile teams. “Small enough to remain nimble and large enough to complete significant work <…>. Fewer than three Development Team members decrease interaction and results in smaller productivity gains …. Having more than nine members requires too much coordination … too much complexity”.
So, what if in order to encompass a large customer experience/journey, one such team of up to 5–9 people, isn’t enough? This can certainly happen if we’re talking about large businesses or products with dozens of marketers that focus just on one line of business or experience. Especially when we’re a very specialized marketing organization where in order to deliver the full experience we need more than a handful of people.
Do we grow the team so that everybody that needs to work on the experience is on it? There’s a limit to the size of a team before communication and collaboration get unwieldy, and before team members start to lose themselves inside the team and don’t have the same sense of accountability, ownership, and purpose anymore.
Do we require more full-stack/t-shaped marketers that can each cover several specialties and therefore be able to deliver the entire breadth of the experience with fewer people on the team? ideally yes, but that is typically very hard to achieve, both from a mindset perspective as well as the skills/experience aspects. Most organizations cannot assume this when starting their Agile Marketing journey.
The Agile Marketing team of teams
When it is impossible to actually deliver the whole value with one team, the pattern most often used is to create an Agile “Team of Teams” — in SAFe this is the Agile Release Train — That could be more appropriately called an Agile Marketing Train.
An Agile Marketing Train applies intra-team Agile principles and practices to the inter-team challenge. In this context, each team acts somewhat like an individual team member within the team.
For example, if team-level Agile has a Daily Scrum practice, in the Agile team-of-teams there’s a “Scrum of Scrum” where each team is represented and together the teams’ representatives figure out how best to work towards their common goal that cuts across the “Team of Teams”.
If there’s a team-level “Sprint Planning” event, there’s a somewhat comparable “Team of Teams” planning event which we call “Program Increment Planning” in SAFe where teams work together to figure out what they should focus on in the next timebox, what are the key integration points, risks, etc. This is an example of applying the same “cadence with cross-domain synchronization” principle at both the team and team-of-teams level.
Scaling Marketing Ownership
“Classic Agile” talks about the Product Owner who is accountable for optimizing the Product Backlog to maximize business value delivered by the product and overall profit from it.
In a marketing context, we talk about the Marketing Owner who tries to figure out the ideal Marketing Backlog to maximize the business value that is achieved by impacting the customer buying/owning journey.
What happens when there’s a team-of-teams? can one Marketing Owner still guide the whole team-of-teams? In SAFe we separate responsibilities between a more strategic “Marketing Management” role (to compare with Product Management in a development context) and a more tactical “Marketing Owner” that works more closely with 1–2 teams in a certain area.
What if planning sprint-to-sprint isn’t enough? What if you need more predictability?
Scaled environments frequently come with a need for more predictability. It’s the “nature of the beast” and how bigger organizations plan and coordinate internally and with their network of partners.
Yes, you could argue for a more “agile” internal/external contracting model and that would work in some contexts. When we look again at the market majority — you’ll find you need to work within constraints that might not be as flexible as you would want them to be, especially if you haven’t proven yet you have a better alternative before dismantling them.
SAFe includes “Agile Roadmapping” which isn’t necessarily an oxymoron. An Agile Roadmap provides some predictability where it’s key, and leaves enough flexibility to take advantage of emerging opportunities and deal with variability in general.
Learn at the System level
Agile teams run retrospectives. Agile team-of-teams run retrospectives or inspect and adapt workshops (or Kaizen events) that span the whole team-of-teams.
In the SAFe Inspect and Adapt workshop, the whole Agile Marketing Train gets together to inspect where the train is from a process effectiveness perspective and decide on some experiments to try and adapt the process to help the train run more smoothly and effectively.
Lean/Agile leaders should consider the removal of such impediments a key focus area that is not limited to merely participating in improvement meetings but becomes a daily routine. They need to relentlessly seek ways to improve the ecosystem the teams need to work within.
Manage the whole flow
One of the Lean principles, that is crucial to scaling, is visualizing and managing the end-to-end flow. This is best achieved by applying Kanban to manage the flow at the higher levels of the organization — the flow of campaigns/programs and maybe even higher-level initiatives in the marketing strategic portfolio.
Managing the flow at this level is a great way to apply “Whole System Thinking”, teach marketing leaders about the importance of focus, the courage needed to say “not now” and to actually prioritize so you can “Stop Starting Start Finishing”.
This is a prime example of a practice that is a great lever point to affect organizational behavior starting with leaders. A small change in behavior at this level can be harder than making multiple changes at the team level, but can set up Agile Marketing teams for the win.
Scaling is a complex problem — There are good practices but not necessarily best practices
We started this section with the importance of Lean/Agile leadership to succeeding with Agile Marketing at scale. Let’s finish it here with this example of how to concretely work with marketing leaders to create a healthier, more sustainable AND value-oriented flow, throughout their marketing organization.
As I mentioned, these are just some of the key practices applied when scaling Agile Marketing but they should give you some idea about the scope of the principles and practices beyond just a team-level Scrum/Kanban Agile Marketing context.
Even more important, as you grow in size, it becomes harder and harder to figure out what’s the right process (again, due to rising complexity).
In the current level of experience available in the industry, that typically means you should get somebody with experience to help you figure out the right scaling approach.
MarOps and Releasability
Essential SAFe talks about “DevOps and Releasability”. This requires slight tweaking for a Marketing context: SAFe Agile Marketing organizations aim to break down silos between marketers and marketing technology (MarTech) and operations.
Each Agile Marketing Train should be able to continuously run marketing experiments or deliver new marketing plays/campaigns to the live customer/buyer journey.
Over time, the separation between marketing and marketing tech/ops is significantly reduced and marketing trains operate with an automated continuous delivery pipeline that includes easy instrumentation and measurement to enable continuous experimentation and validation of hypothesis.
Getting Frequent Feedback Via The System Demo
When we defined Agile Marketing we talked about some of the key things we value — “Validated Learning”, “Customer Discovery”, “Adaptive Campaigns” among others.
One value that isn’t explicitly mentioned in the Agile Marketing manifesto but is implicitly required to achieve these is “Working Marketing” meaning objective observation of working marketing deliverables rather than lengthy comprehensive documentation/designs/plans.
Side note: I used to tell agile development teams that unless they’re the Microsoft PowerPoint development team their demos shouldn’t be running PowerPoint. In a marketing context, I cannot say that anymore because sometimes a PowerPoint deck IS the marketing deliverable but you get my drift.
We should frequently look at real marketing deliverables so we can discover whether they really drive the customer journey experience we are looking for as well as get a real feeling as to progress towards our goal.
In a scaled context where we have multiple marketing teams working on a larger customer journey or marketing campaign, it’s crucial to frequently integrate the whole marketing story using real deliverables, get some feedback on it, and adjust course if necessary.
This is the intent of the System Demo in SAFe. Every two weeks, the full system — the integrated work of all teams on the marketing train for that iteration — is demoed to the train’s stakeholders. Stakeholders provide the feedback the train needs to stay on course and take corrective action. In a marketing context, we probably need a better name for this. Any suggestions?
Innovation and Planning Iteration
Marketing teams suffer from unsustainable pace and crazy sprinting even more than product development teams. Creating some “break” via an Innovation and Planning iteration — 2 weeks out of every 8–12 weeks typically — provides them with an opportunity to take a breath, step back and look at the bigger picture, think creatively about things they cannot afford to day to day.
In product development, Architectural Runway refers to enabling work that needs to happen to support in order to support the fast and clean implementation of high priority near-term features.
In a marketing context it refers to:
- marketing technology/infrastructure that needs to be in place to support upcoming high priority marketing plays/campaigns/activities — Think for example a lead nurturing solution in case we plan to do lead nurturing in the next PI
- Exploration/research into possible marketing technologies or channels or approaches
- Key architectural components like a page template or a slide deck template or brand guidelines that reduce the amount of effort when getting to work on actual marketing plays.
We call these items that comprise the Architectural Runway Enablers because they enable business-facing marketing work that follows them.
It is crucial to assign proper capacity to the Architectural Runway in every Program Increment the Agile Marketing Train plans and executes. That capacity will need to be high when undergoing a marketing technology/approach transformation or lower but still there when it is “Business As Usual”.
Scaled Agile Marketing Flow with Kanban
In SAFe, We use Kanban systems/boards at all levels with the purpose of improving flow.
What is effective flow?
A metaphor I use often when I talk about flow is swamps versus rivers. Think of sailing a paper boat. If you put it in a swamp it won’t get too far too fast because the water isn’t really flowing.
Sailing — by Aidan Morgan https://www.flickr.com/photos/aidanmorgan/6475618723,
Rapid River by Caroline Johnston https://www.flickr.com/photos/145574498
Put the same paper boat in a rapid river and it will move much faster obviously.
What we are trying to create is a river-like flow. We are trying to drain the swamp.
Marketing Development Value Stream Flow vs Customer Journey Flow
The flow of what? We’re mainly talking about the flow of marketing creation/development/operational work, not of actual leads. Actual leads/customers flow in your customer/buyer journey/pipeline.
Effective flow in your customer journey IS important to work on and actually many agile marketing teams take on work aimed at improving this flow. Using flow diagrams and maybe even Kanbans to manage your customer journey is not a bad idea, but not our focus here…
In SAFe terms, we’re now focusing on the Marketing Development Value Stream. The customer/buyer’s journey is the Operational Value Stream. We want to understand our customer/buyer’s journeys so that we can find the right marketing development value streams and create the right agile marketing teams/trains.
Flow at various levels
Work needs to flow at various levels in the organization. Starting with the team-level where each marketing team has their kanban board where they focus on all the marketing creation/development/support work they’re doing.
Marketing Team Kanban
Marketing Program Kanban
At the program / agile marketing train level kanban is used to visualize and manage the flow of bigger plays/campaigns and making sure that those flow as well rather than get stuck in the swamp. Each agile marketing train/group has one such program-level kanban board that also ties together integrative marketing work across the agile teams in the marketing train and helps them work one integrative marketing system/experience. Economic cost-of-delay based prioritization is used to choose the right items to focus on. Kanban flow is used to help these items flow to market fast.
And even at a higher level than that the marketing organization should visualize and manage their portfolio of initiatives.
Economic cost-of-delay based prioritization is used to make sure the right initiatives are being considered and approved. Lean Startup thinking is used to look at initiatives and decide whether to consider them absolute “done deal” requirements or hypothesis/experiments/MVPs where a focus on data-driven exploration will first be used to validate the marketing approach before scaling it.
Kanban is then used to help the marketing organization switch its mindset from “starting” to “finishing”, from saying yes to every promising marketing idea to acknowledging the physical limits of their marketing organization and the fact that by limiting initiatives in flight they will actually get more of that high-priority marketing work done.
Flow-based marketing prioritization using Cost of Delay and Weighted Shortest Job First
Fast flow and low work in process levels are only possible if you prioritize. If you stop starting everything as you’re used to and start focusing on finishing instead. Saying “I’m not starting this now” despite the fact that it is considered important is hard. Figuring out what to actually prioritize is not easier…
In a flow-oriented mode of execution prioritization isn’t something you do in your annual marketing planning. It is something you do continuously. Yes, the frequency of prioritization at the team/stories level is much higher than at the portfolio/initiatives level. But at all those levels we strive not to build a whole list of priorities to plan out a long horizon but rather figure out what are the top things to start now and defer the decision about what will come after that to the point that we will actually have the capacity to start the next thing.
Each time we start something we want it to be the marketing deliverable that will have the highest impact/cost on our operation if we don’t start it. This is called “Cost of Delay” (CoD).
What we try to do is to weigh the Cost of Delay vs the size of investment needed to come up with the best choice. This is sometimes called Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF). SAFe as a very specific approach for comparing different initiatives/campaigns and deciding which ones to go for.
Other practitioners like Joshua Arnold consider this too watered down and suggest alternative approaches. I won’t go into the pros and cons of each. The basic point here is that whenever you consider starting something new you should consider whether it’s the right thing to start and whether it should really replace any of the things you’re currently working on. Getting to the higher maturity of really farming out the biggest opportunities out of your options is a nice extra bonus.
Here in the picture, you can see a group of VPs and directors trying to figure out what to focus on at their program-level kanban system using a SAFe-style WSJF exercise.
Implementing SAFe in Marketing using the Implementation Roadmap
How do we go about implementing agile at scale in a marketing context? SAFe’s Implementation Roadmap provides a useful map of the territory. The SAFe Invitations-based implementations guidance article complements it with some ideas for how to apply lean/agile concepts to the implementation/change process itself.
Challenges of using SAFe in a Marketing Context
As you can see so far applying SAFe elements to a marketing context isn’t too hard. There are some modifications but at this high level the mapping works.
This doesn’t mean that Agile Development is Agile Marketing. What it does mean though is that once you have a good team-level agile marketing process/structure, there’s good applicable guidance for how to scale it.
There are some challenges though.
The main one we encountered so far is that SAFe was designed for a product development context.
If you’ll look at the SAFe Implementation Roadmap you’ll see that a significant part of the roadmap is based on SAFe training classes such as Leading/Implementing SAFe, SAFe Product Owners/Product Managers, SAFe Scrum Masters, SAFe for Teams.
Since SAFe was designed for a product development context the curriculum and materials for those classes aren’t a great fit for marketers which means using SAFe’s curriculums to train Agile Marketing teams doesn’t work too well at the moment. There are too many development-specific terms and examples. Until we create either a more neutral version of SAFe or a marketing-focused variant, the best we can do is leverage the practices without relying on the great workshop materials.
It was also apparent that marketers prefer lighter-weight methodologies/frameworks and mainly didn’t have the patience to learn about SAFe in depth. The essential elements were all that could fit their attention span. SAFe 4.5’s new essential SAFe configuration is a step in the right direction in this context.
This combination of incompatibility of the materials and the distaste for formal lengthy training and a large set of practices also meant that when it came to SAFe expertise it was crucial to have people around that don’t just recite SAFe gospel but also have a deep understanding of the principles and are able to adapt SAFe to other contexts without killing its spirit.
This is guidance that is useful in other contexts as well. When applying SAFe outside of its comfort zone you’ll be working in exploration mode trying to identify the right language, process, structure. Make sure your SAFe experts/change agents have a deep understanding of the principles and can rely on experience with a variety of contexts both because it will help them provide useful guidance as well as because it will increase the chance your people will listen to them and follow their guidance.
Extending your SAFe Value Stream beyond Product Development towards Marketing
When looking at what’s the tipping point that gets an Agile Marketing transformation started there are two categories of triggers.
One category is triggers originating in the marketing organization.
The other category relates to a wider “Organizational Agility” transformation or a “Digital Transformation” initiated by IT or by some other organizational function. In many cases, such a transformation happens after Technology/IT is already knee-deep in an agile transformation within the development organization
Many such organizations already use a framework such as SAFe to manage their Agile Release Trains in Development Value Streams. They’re now eager to “extend their value stream” to cover a wider breadth of the customer journey/experience.
Extending the value stream means looking at development/technology AND marketing AND maybe some other functions as one whole system focused on delivering value together by creating a great customer journey/experience.
Think of the organization undergoing a digital transformation that is trying to compete based on a great experience all the way from the awareness stage through consideration, selection, purchase, all the way to using/consuming the service. Great experiences require identifying the right marketing tactics and the right product and more and more these days the lines are blurring between the two. More and more marketers see themselves as stewards of the whole customer experience (CX) not just the buyer’s journey.
For example, in the case of SAFe, Even after adjusting SAFe to a marketing vernacular, it is still based on SAFe and marketers will be able to understand developers and vice versa.
Using the same framework provides the ability to share expertise, knowledge, training. While Agile Marketing isn’t exactly Agile Development, a good Agile coach or SAFe Program Consultant (SPC) can learn the marketing nuances over time.
Using the same framework means you’re better prepared for the day you will actually bring Product Development and Marketing into the same customer experience value stream. While the typical starting point is for Marketing to create “Agile Marketing Trains” focused on the marketing/customer journey value stream, many organizations are executing a “Digital Transformation” which means emphasis on the digital experience that combines both marketing/sales and usage touchpoints (see Oracle’s Customer Experience Lifecycle for an example).
With this one bigger customer lifecycle in mind, more and more organizations have a vision of creating “Agile Customer Experience (CX) Trains” combining Development, Marketing, Sales, and others. These trains are needed in order to iterate and learn at the speed needed to effectively compete in the digital age. Starting from the same or similar framework will ease the transition to these sort of trains — reducing the babel tower effect that might happen otherwise.
Your turn now. Go market Agile Marketing!
In this guidance article, we provided an overview of Agile Marketing, some criteria for figuring out whether it makes sense to try it in your organization and then whether it makes sense to use the Scaled Agile Framework to provide you some guidance. We then explored how to map SAFe to the marketing context — what works well, what are some risks/sticky points to pay attention to. We closed with a perspective on how such a move towards agile marketing fits into the wider business agility journey.
Now it is your turn. Whether you’re a SAFe practitioner or a marketing leader — start working on tipping the marketing organization towards moving to Agile and maybe SAFe — Start by figuring out what’s the business case and pitching it to a friendly collaborator. If you feel you have a convincing story — start sharing it and work towards a session where the right people get together to review agile marketing and when/how to try it and creating an implementation/experimentation plan.