Graham Ruddick
Graham Ruddick 25 May 2016

Agile And Agility: Why All Marketers Should Care

Whenever senior marketing and digital folk get together, it seems they start to talk about Agile and agility and their role in transforming marketing and commercial practice. The terms are different, often misused, but both represent profoundly useful concepts.

The Agile Manifesto was launched in 2001 by a group of independent thinkers about software development. It was a response to a number of factors, including the rapid evolution of the Internet and a changing view of technology from major platforms that supported company operations, to being a core part of the product and the front line mechanism for its delivery.

Against this background, a key part of the Agile process was to replace intermittent large deployments of technology with a much more incremental, iterative, and staged approach. It aimed to bring the gap between improvements down from months and years to weeks.

The Agile Manifesto

The Agile Manifesto was created to start to define a new approach to building software. The aim of the original signatories was to create an environment where software developers reconnected both with the customers their software ultimately serviced, but also with the businesses that used the methodology. The Manifesto itself was the height of simplicity:

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Working software over comprehensive documentation

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

It’s interesting to note how many of these concepts felt brave and new at the time the Manifesto was launched and how many of them now seem to be entirely in keeping with a 21st century zeitgeist.

An Agile approach is not right for all organisations in all circumstances. It aims to deliver many smaller increments of value, and has a core belief that these increments should not be planned too far in advance. Both within the individual projects and within the greater programme of development, change is welcomed and seen as a vital part of providing software that matches customer needs.

The perceived lack of a masterplan and the potentially changing output of a fully Agile process can sit awkwardly with corporate finance and projection processes. It also requires the client to be involved in an intimate and continuous way that does not suit all teams.

Agility As A Mind-Set

Judging from my discussions with marketing and digital thought leaders, agility as a corporate mind-set is vital to successful transformation, creating excellent customer experiences and managing the introduction of technology within the business.

The principles behind the Agile Manifesto show many of the areas of overlap between the concepts in Agile and being agile. This is particularly true where the latter is used to help shape a corporate mind-set. Looking at the more relevant of those principles shows how they can--or should--be used to create, justify and maintain agility as a corporate mind-set and a key component of change.

Principle 1: Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.Although the Agile principles specify the delivery of useful software, this customer-centric view is an essential component of an agile business. Learning from and reacting to lessons from customers in a timescale that allows those customers to recognise the link between their input and the business’s output is crucial to improving customers’ experience and giving them recognisable value.

Principle 2: Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage. The willingness to accept change--and indeed to desire it--is one of the key differentiating features between Agile and its more structured predecessors. It is also one of the defining attributes of an agile organisation. Plans, products and ambitions that do not suit a changing customer environment cannot be sacrosanct--whatever investment in time and resources may have gone into them.

Many organisations are guilty of demanding an annual strategy planning meeting and then sticking rigidly to its output. Life changes, and what Agile should teach businesses is that change can be managed and should be welcomed.

Principle 3: Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale. The second great revolution of the Agile Manifesto was breaking programmes into much smaller deliverable elements. This encouraged a focus on producing rapid results for the business. There is no doubt that this principle is crucial in delivering agility to business. It also demands rigorous and frequent attention to the needs both of the business and the customers beyond.

In marketing terms it creates activities and not campaigns (and is probably somewhat heretical for that). This, combined with the willingness to accept change, ensures that a business becomes customer-focused and able to react rapidly to change. But what it also does in marketing terms is to allow marketers to react to what is actually working, and to keep on re-enforcing effort behind success.

Principle 4: Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project. Agile insists on mixed skill teams to ensure that all points of view and opinions are heard throughout the development of software. It also insists that there is a ‘customer champion’ involved throughout the process. Both of these elements help to ensure that there are fewer revisions required to software once launched and that it is more likely to be fit for purpose and useful from day one.

This transfers to general agility in an important way. The suggestion is that different departments work together in fundamentally more intimate ways than they are used to doing. No marketing is created without commercial input. No product development is done without the input of customer service.

Discussions about transformation revealed that mixed-skill teams were vital to delivering successful outcomes. Again and again I’ve heard that putting a mixed-skill team in the same location was essential. (In fact there is also a key element of the Agile Manifesto that suggests that this cannot be done without face-to-face communications.)

Principle 5: At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly. It should go without saying that a regular self-examination is required in both an Agile project and a business driving agility. Asking ‘What can we do better?’ helps drive the change that is so core to both ideas.

Agility For Marketers And Beyond

It is fairly clear that agility as a mind-set helps drives beneficial and ongoing change and that the Agile Manifesto offers a great deal of insight into how that might be achieved. But it’s worth noting that there are a few differences between the relatively firm strictures of the Agile Manifesto and a broader description of agility in an organisation. Agility encompasses a range of wider concepts that those described in Agile to create software, although many of these also have echoes with the practical application of Agile. Agility requires:

Visionary Leadership There is no doubt that Agile or agility will only work with a strong vision. But agility demands an increase in flexibility and reduction of reaction time from organisations that are perhaps more used to longer planning and consideration cycles. To hold this together takes leadership that supports the teams involved, encourages them to find innovative directions and is consistent in rejecting conformity for its own sake.

No fear of failure An agile organisation will inevitably fail at some of the things it tries. It is essential that failure is genuinely seen as a learning process rather than a point of criticism. The ethos of agility is that things are tried, measured and evaluated in very short cycles. Failure is recognised quickly, analysed and used as an input into the next cycle.

Flexible planning, budgeting and strategy creation “We are a flexible, agile organisation, but we require strategy and budgets for the next 12 months to be written and signed-off prior to the beginning of the financial year.” True agility requires that the management systems and processes reflect the demands imposed by accepting frequent change and setting extremely short term objectives.

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