The 3 Killer Mistakes Marketers Make With Agile

Marketers understandably prize agility as their worlds spin faster. But they have to be very careful what they wish for in embracing agile as a methodology. The potential payoff is transformational, but three all-too-common mistakes can derail the marketing organization altogether.

The first killer is thinking that marketers should embrace “tech agile,” as Jane Hiscock recommends in “Is Agile Too Agile for Marketing: F500 CMOs Weigh In.” That’s like telling someone to wear a hockey uniform (and skates) to play basketball — good tools, wrong application. Tech agile, defined in The Manifesto for Agile Software Development (2001), is a specific set of techniques tuned to a software development environment. In the right conditions, software teams productivity can produce gains beyond 100%. But those conditions, and therefore results, are almost impossible to replicate in other industries. 



Why? Because the second killer is thinking you can use agile effectively in the hierarchical, managerial organizations that predominate the F500 and their marketing agencies. Agile software development only works well in a flat, knowledge-worker style of organization. The managerial style could be best characterized as un-managing. But flat organizations and the talent to un-manage are rare in almost every industry, including IT, software’s close cousin.

A few years back, I asked an audience of 600+ information technology and project management professionals if they used agile. Every hand went up. Then I asked who had achieved performance gains of 25% or more from using agile. Only six hands went up. That’s right, less than one percent. If that’s the best that a bunch of IT folks can do with software agile and an unchanged managerial model, then most marketers don’t stand a chance.  

That leads to the third killer — thinking agile is a project management method. It’s not; it’s workflow method designed for teams to self-manage work with minimal — and this is the key point — management intervention. In fact, software agile was created as a rejection of project management, which as a field has almost as dismal a track record at predicting delivery dates and budgets as economists have at predicting recessions and GDP. The first rule of agile for managers is “stay the **** away from the team!” This means everyone, especially project managers. 

That’s the fallacy of how agile is marketed these days, which consists mostly of software and training for project managers. Neither succeeds at shifting the organizational paradigm. Agile only works when managers learn a new, empowering style of management. Only this shift can inspire teams to lead themselves, gaining high performance through autonomy. It’s managing by letting go, and it runs antithetical to the organizational DNA of F500 companies and the cases their executives studied in B School. 

Becoming agile isn’t like putting on different colored socks. It’s a way of working one has to abandon oneself to. It can work for marketers if they’re willing to acknowledge and change behavior that inadvertently disempowers teams — from telling people what to do to dropping in on them unannounced. So before diving blindly into the promise of faster, better marketing, marketers need to ask themselves, “Are we really ready to let go of our management styles?” Agile potential lies on the other side of the hardest change of all.

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