What Do I Do When Things Go Wrong in Agile Marketing?

Posted 12/23/2015 8:52 AM by Jeff Julian

“Nothing ever goes wrong inside the Sprint for an Agile Marketing Team, you are just doing it wrong!” – Voices in Your Head

This is the internal monologue most Agile Teams have rolling in their heads when things just don’t fit together.  I have had to force myself to stop this criticism inside and take a new look at the process. 

So far, everything is so prescriptive and you get the feeling that if you just follow the rules and check all the boxes, that your problems will be solved and your team will be effective.  However, we are developing new ideas and creating brand new assets that we have not produced before.  Everyday holds a new ball of clay and a request to make it into something new.

Finding Answers in Ratatouille

My go to movie for sales and marketing is Tommy Boy.  So many breakthrough points that many who are new to the craft can relate to.  However, for this example, I will go to the Disney/Pixar movie, Ratatouille

The head waiter comes rushing in the kitchen shaking and says, “Someone has asked what is new?”  Questioning the word, a chef replies, “New?”  The waiter returns with, “Yes! What do I tell them?”  “Well what did you tell them?”, says the chef.  Panicked, the waiter responds, “I told them I would ask!”

This is how a lot of us feel in marketing when we are asked to get out of our comfort zone.  That comfort zone could be the type of work we are creating or it could be the amount of content we are producing.  Maybe the depth and quality of the content we make, or just a request that we feel we have to defer. 

Whatever causes us to question our ability, here lies many of the root problems when we feel our Sprint is off the rails and out of control. Do we say no, yes, or a combination of both?

The head chef burst into the room, looking for the reason for all the commotion, and repeats the dialogue with the waiter.  This time at the end the head waiter shouts, “I TOLD THEM I WOULD ASK!”  Relaxed, the head chef responds with pulling an old recipe and labeling it new.  However, the waiter reinforces that everyone knows the old stuff and adds, “They like Linguini’s soup.”

With modern marketing tactics changing because of the ineffectiveness to the old recipes of marketing, at some point we will be forced to try something new.  This “new” could be a response to innovation and the ability to do something that has never been done before, or we could just be playing catch up with the competition. 

Whatever is the cause for the “new”, we typically underestimate the impact it will have on our team and our output.  Right here is another area that trouble is knocking at our door.

So what are we going to do about these problems? Should we give up on productive planning and the execution of our plan?  I hope your answer at this point is a collective NO! 

To say no, you must look at the problems that you face and come up with solutions that allow you to continue to meet your goals of the Agile Process.  As a refresher, here is a list of characteristics a true Agile process has:

  • Strive for customer satisfaction
  • Embrace change
  • Simple processes
  • Adaptation to environment
  • and, Sustain a comfortable pace

Let’s take a look at a few problems that frequently occur during the execution of a Sprint and some possible solutions.

Oh Not Now! Can’t You See I Am Busy?

The most prominent problem when it comes to content planning I have heard over the past year of teaching Agile Marketing Courses is inter-departmental requests.  I need a brochure, I need a presentation, I need, I need, I need…

These requests come in like an order at a dinner. Give me the usual and make it snappy.

The major problem with prioritizing these requests are the people making these requests. They either have a higher seniority than we do or they feel we are there only to help their department.  This is the situation you get into when your department is viewed as the group who is cutting through the grass to make a pathway for the company.

We need a Content Owner that can go to bat for our group and a ScrumMaster to protect the team from these distractions and place them on the backlog for further review. 

Now that we have a reactive measure in place, let’s determine how we can be proactive.  Since we want to help our departments to drive amazing customer experiences as well, our Content Owner should sit down with each department quarterly and determine what is coming up and how the marketing team can play a role. 

You should also sit down with the heads of each department and show them the agile approach to marketing and how the factory works.  Imagine a bunch of kids playing Double Dutch.  If you leave the outside departments out of the loop, they will not know how to effectively jump in.  Once they have seen how it works and a had a few practice rounds, they will know when to jump in and how they can participate.

Finally, there are requests that come in with top priority.  We will handle them in the next section.

The Executive Order

Imagine an early 1980s movie.  A few guys are sitting in a bunker with radar screens all around, when all of a sudden a phone with no buttons on it rings.  A red light starts flashing and the crew looks at each other.  Everyone is thinking, “I hope someone else will answer that.”  Finally, from another room, the most senior officer in the bunker rushes in, grabs the phone and says “Mr. President.”

If you work in a medium-sized company or larger, you have individuals who work in your company that you can get kind of nervous about.  They may over use their authority and make demands that cause unplanned stress.  Maybe the title includes the words Chief and Officer and their car cost more than you make in a year.  Something about them causes your team and your Content Owner to stand a little straighter and take action right away.  However, with a running Sprint, we have a little work to do to make it right.

Here is a list of possible ways you can handle these types of request that have to happen immediately:

  • End the sprint – You can decide to end the Sprint depending on the amount of work being requested.  To do so, document all completed tasks and create new Content Items to represent the remaining work.  Then add the Content Items that represent the new work and reprioritize the backlog.  Plan a Sprint duration based on how long it will take you to complete the requested Content and keep the team effective.  If you know you will have blocking tasks that will cause the team to sit on their hands waiting, put some additional lower priority items on the backlog to cover those days.  The big thing to remember is the VIP items on the board have to ship as soon as possible, so don’t go overboard.  If the request was important enough to end a Sprint over, then someone should be willing to eat some time to make sure it gets done as soon as possible.  Consider multiple Standup Meetings if the tasks are smaller than one day in size.
  • Hit the pause button – Most of the modern Agile software tools will allow for multiple Sprints to be ran at the same time.  Plan a new Sprint with the item and assign the appropriate members of the team to the Sprint.  Calculate the additional time you will need to add to complete the original Sprint and add it to the end.  If you only need a few members to work on the pressing item, then leave the others to keep working on the original Sprint.  Once the additional Sprint has been demoed and published, the members of that team can roll back on to the original Sprint and complete it as originally planned. 
  • Hold back time in planning for outside use – Like the efficiency factor, you can create another factor of time that is held aside from each Sprint for the entire team or just a few members.  This time is pulled out of planning and will be used to handle incoming high priority requests.  Until you get that number dialed in, you might end most of your Sprints early.  There is a cost to the extra planning required to plan so make sure you adapt as needed.
  • Take one for the team – Finally, these requests can be so frequent that it makes sense to keep one or more team members out of the planning and “on call” for these requests.  Give them a separate board, but remove the time constraints that come along with Sprint.  Agile solutions like Kanban use buckets to manage workload rather than time boxes, so they work great for ad hoc environments.  Make sure you give them a cool name like firefighter or SWAT team and rotate other members into this role to ensure everyone gets as much time at a sustainable pace as possible.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

Employees leave, get promoted, or need to be allowed to excel elsewhere.  Whatever the case, make sure you have a plan.

If notice is given, make sure you don’t plan to use the resource during any new planned Sprints within the last two weeks of their time on your team.  Whatever the cause is, most employees are not nearly as effective during this time.  A sort of short-timer syndrome comes over even the most amazing team members. 

Also, depending on their skillset, you may require a large amount of their time to teach other members of the team how to handle the responsibilities they were covering.

Now, if no notice is given, or there was a layoff, I suggest ending any recently started Sprints or removing the time constraint on ones that are near the end.  No one on the team should be held with the bag for a disruption that none of them could control. 

In either one of these scenarios, you should plan on some additional time between the Sprints to have the team do a skill set audit and re-estimate any items on the Content Backlog that need to be updated. 

The Bottleneck

Sometimes you have to make a hard decision and remove a member from the team. No matter if they are let go, reassigned to another project, or moved to another department, it will cause some pain for some members and relief for others.

The typical cause for this is a lack of performance.  The performance of an individual, group, or the entire team.  Something has caused a kink in the line and you need to get the content flowing again.

If there is a performance issue with an individual, it can cause the whole team to suffer.  You can spot these performance delays in several places, but the most common are frequently missed estimates, low quality, or hidden debt in items moved to done that did not meet the Definition of Done. 

Before you do anything, make sure you address the problem square in the eyes of the person causing it.  These conversations should be held in private as enough public shame has occurred over time.  If this is unfamiliar territory for you, set a meeting with a person in HR or do some research about how your company handles corrective meetings.  Sometimes a verbal warning is offered, then written notice, then letting the person go.  If you jump the gun, you may find yourself in the hot seat.

One last bottleneck to an effective team that is harder to notice in the numbers are those certain members you would label as “a ______”, just fill in the blank with your favorite explicative.  With these folks around, you are not looking for their lack of performance, usually they can tolerate themselves just fine which is the root of the problem.  Instead you are looking for the performance of others to be hit.  These people might take the form of a bully, a gossip, a chatterbox, or a hot mess.  Take some time to appropriately address this feedback with the responsible party.  You can usually hear about these problems during the Retrospective Meeting when teams are allowed to freely speak.

What Should I Do When I Can’t Do What I Need to Do?

One of our goals in the Agile process is break the role of the assembly line worker assigned to a particular task.  We do this through cross-functional teams and what Jason Miller from LinkedIn calls the Hybrid Marketer.  A Hybrid Marketer is someone who is assigned the title of marketer rather than “pick your content type” marketer.  The reason they are given the title is because they can handle the writing, graphics, email, video, and analytics.  To follow Agile Teams, I call this role the Content Developer.

One of the main reasons we want Content Developers on our team is to remove the blocking events that happen during our work.  If I have several tools on my tool belt, if a task requires a hammer and I have one, I can work on it while I wait for those that call for a screwdriver.  We move around the blocking events by working on different tasks that require our new skills.

However, the content still has to be assembled in a particular order.  You have to hold the interview before you can write the copy about the interview.  You have to capture the B-roll before you can mix the final video or it will be harder to tell a story.  You need to write the blog before you can review and create the social posts.

One mind blowing occurrence frequently happens with teams that do not properly plan for these blocking events and the development of their cross-functional skillset can be found during the Stand Up Meeting. 

During this meeting, you will have one of your marketers walk up to the Scrum board, look around, and throw up their hands and say, “I can’t work on anything!”  In their voice, you can hear a not-so subtle confirmation that they broke the system, and see, Agile just doesn’t work for us.  From where you are, you just heard a team member say, “I can’t handle this task and I am not going to do anything about it!” 

This is when the eye twitch starts and the head tilt comes in.  Puzzled, you start to question yourself rather than the marketer with the problem. 

Did you make the wrong choice?  Is this just for software development and is this Jeff guy crazy?  Can the production of content be so complicated that to capture it in a process that allows for measurement would just break the laws of physics?

To go back to the tool belt analogy, a person on the job site said this requires a hammer and I only have a screwdriver, so I am going to stand here and wait until I can work on a task with a hammer.  That is probably the most shortsighted solution to the problem.  Does the person plan to stay in your crew?  Could they learn how to use a hammer relatively quickly with some offsite and on-the-job training?  Can you get a hammer pretty quickly for this crew member?  If the answer is yes, then you need to start executing a strategy to accomplish these tasks. 

While you are getting the hammer, have the team member watch others use the hammer.  Then give them the hammer and some tutorial or practice boards and nails to use it on.  Once they are done bending the majority of their nails, assign them some work that happens alongside someone else who is using the hammer to give them the deeper knowledge you find in practice.  After a short period of time, they can handle these tasks. 

Prioritize the work required to complete the Sprint with the work required to bring this member up to speed and plan accordingly when you task out your items. 

If it seems like I made light of the skillset required to hammer a nail versus write a compelling blog post, you might be right.  However, growing up with a father who worked on a lot of job sites as a mason, I have seen some of the most skilled workers with their tool belts full of items they have learned how to use over their careers.  I have not once seen a tradesman allowed to stand around waiting for someone to finish their work on a productive crew. 

There is always something you can do or learn to do that will help your team as a whole over time.  Make sure you are committed to the process, know where they pain points are, and have a plan to address them to give yourself the ability to succeed.

Everything Else…

For all the events that can happen, I haven’t mentioned a few options to consider:

  • Fail the Sprint - If you have to stop immediately or if it doesn’t make sense to continue, stop and take inventory.  Plan a new Sprint and make notes of any lessons you need to learn from.  If failing continues to happen over time, consider other options discussed in this chapter.
  • Finish well – Do what you originally planned to do by either having the team hold up their commitments with a little extra effort or say “not yet” to incoming requests.
  • Add time to the end – As a last resort, if the time to plan and take inventory is just too long or the team was not in control of the delay, just put some extra time on the end and plan to discuss how we can better prepare for the event next time.  You will not look back at your year and be haunted by the Sprint that got away from you.  Instead you will remember the amazing work you did and the delight of your customers and team.

Thank you!

Thanks for reading this article, I really hope you do well with your Agile Marketing efforts. Here are the rest of the articles in this series:

  1. Put On Your Game Face - The Basics of Sprint Planning
  2. Some Assembly Required - The Tools
  3. Content Developers, Cross-Functional Teams, and Commitment
  4. Breaking Down The Tasks
  5. Go Run! Starting a Sprint
  6. How do I End My Sprints Well?
  7. This Post - What Do I Do When Things Go Wrong?!