Is Agile Too Agile for Marketing: F500 CMOs Weigh In

Applying agile methodologies to software development has enabled companies to quickly troubleshoot issues and continuously improve the user experience. It stands to reason that those same principles can be applied across the organization, especially in marketing. Yet what works in theory and how it’s applied in the real world doesn’t always measure up as more than a few marketers will attest. While agile is still top of mind for CMOs, the challenges are significant.

The primary holdups being successful campaigns, which begs the question of whether change is needed. Also, while developers are fully versed in agile methodologies, marketers aren’t always sure where to start. Third is organizational culture and structure in terms of inspiring employees to think and act in new ways. This is what we learned at a recent closed-door meeting of Fortune 500 CMOs who are in various stages of evaluating and adopting agile. Here are some of their perspectives.



As the CMO of one large multinational mass media and information firm said, "I’m doing a lot of work around defining the marketing organization of the future," adding that agile is definitely part of that dialogue. "We are thinking about it at a macro level right now, but agile is one of the obvious solutions that comes from marrying data and analytics and having the speed to respond."

If it's not broke…

For many companies, the most significant challenge in adopting agile is often behavioral as employees and organizations resist change when there is some element of success in keeping things the same. 

A survey published in early 2016 by the project management company Wrike found that 17.6% of respondents were reluctant to try agile methods because "our current approaches are working well enough for us." Even if they were looking to be more agile, many don’t know where to start. That same survey reported that the 23.5%, the highest number of respondents, said they lacked training or knowledge in agile approaches.

"When I look at what we have set up with sales and marketing, as we push to become more digital, the lines between sales and marketing begin to blur and we are really pushing the boundaries on that," said the CMO of a large global telecommunications provider. "This circles back to agile and acquiring the skills necessary to work in an agile mode. It is a big area of focus for us."

Getting beyond the pilot

One of the challenges that marketers have faced is moving beyond a single project application to developing an organizational model that can support agile at scale as a way of working. Some CMOs mentioned their fear that applying agile to some aspects of marketing — like brand — could create risk.

The few that have taken the plunge, like the CMO of a large travel company that is moving agile aggressively into their marketing organization, had this to say. "We are very interested in extending agile beyond IT and digital to see how it applies to marketing. We follow the notion of the minimum viable product (MVP) model, and we apply that in everything we do. The thought is to get started with marketing and learn as we go rather than wait for perfection."

A lot of companies are finding comfort in the Shuhari framework, which sort of grounds the agile process in a more rules-centric process that sounds more familiar. Shuhari is a three-step martial arts methodology borrowed from Aikido, where "Shu" is where you follow the rules, "ha" is where you adapt the rules, and "ri" is where you break the rules. At each phase, you are building on your foundational strengths, but giving yourself enough freedom to master and discover new things along the way.

The other trend we see Fortune 500s facing is learning how to balance the freedom and whimsy to let teams wildly iterate within a design sprint with the desire of management to have some transparency into the process. A tricky balance, indeed.

When this group meets next time, I expect to hear less about curiosities and tentative steps and more about how those first projects went and what they learned.

The secret to becoming as large and as foundational as a Fortune 500 company requires constant reinvention and a willingness to try and fail and then iterate on any failure on a regular basis. They are already well-versed in agile, they just need to bring that concept more fully into their marketing departments in 2017.

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