By Bryan Nielson, originally posted in Business 2 Community.

A Beginner’s Guide to Agile for Marketing Creative Teams image shutterstock 186484241 300x206

If you’ve been halfway tapped into the marketing zeitgeist lately, you’ve seen this phrase: Agile marketing.

Everybody’s talking about it as the “next thing in marketing.” It even has its own manifesto. Despite all this hooplah, however, you shouldn’t feel too bad if you can’t quite put your finger on what Agile marketing is.

Take a look at the Agile marketing groups on sites like LinkedIn, and it becomes clear that more than a few people are a tad confused about it. Is it simply restructuring your marketing and in-house creative teams and their processes to be more nimble? Sort of. Does it just mean streamlining your process and jettisoning any baggage that slows your team down? Kind of.

To give you a nice, clean 20,000-foot explanation of it, Agile is a work management methodology that has been dominating IT work management for the last several years. It has been known to increase teams’ flexibility and ability to react to demand while improving productivity. Now that it’s proven itself effective, the marketing folks have taken notice.

Agile-driven creative teams have reported that, freed from the endless development cycles that can happen in traditional marketing work management, their creativity has experienced a major boost. Creative teams have seen their productivity explode by 400% and with less fuss. Marketing teams can test and iterate on campaigns faster.

If that last paragraph caught your attention, read on for a crash course on Agile and how you can use it to make your marketing and creative teams as creative and effective as they deserve to be:

What is Agile Marketing?

Where most creative teams produce projects sequentially from step A to step Z, Agile marketing seeks to put your team’s resources into creating a minimum viable product as quickly as possible. It’s also built not to plod along on a single project for weeks, but to accommodate all of your most important tasks—from multiple projects and even ad hoc requests that can be completed in a short timeline.

To accomplish this, Agile requires that all work be broken down into “stories,” which can be chunks of larger projects or small ad hoc requests. Each story tells your team, in a nutshell, what needs to be created. With that information, your team assigns to the story the number of hours they think it will take them to complete the story. Your team divides their time up into periods of time called sprints, which are a week or two weeks. Naturally, every sprint has a set number of hours which will be filled by stories and is intended to be a period of focused creativity that allows ample time for creative team members to explore a number of approaches to a story before moving forward. Again, the stories are chosen for a sprint based on their priority, and the creative team goes to work. Stories are placed on a public burndown chart, where team members and stakeholders alike can see them move from ‘incomplete’ to ‘approval’ to ‘complete’.

As you can see, Agile is quite different from the traditional workflow most creative teams are used to, but the benefits are undeniable. Agile eliminates the bottlenecks and wasted time in found in conventional methodologies and empowers creative teams to collaborate more, and make on-the-fly decisions about a project’s direction, task order, or priority. Hence the name Agile.

This increased productivity and quality, of course, have a direct impact on the companies that use Agile. In fact, studies show that Agile firms grow revenues up to 37% faster and increase profits as much as 30% more than their non-Agile counterparts.

With this big picture in mind, here are the steps Agile creative teams use to successfully organize their stories and sprints.

Anatomy of Agile Marketing

There are four essential steps every creative team will need to follow to successfully run manage their work in Agile:

  1. Have a process to accommodate all kinds of requests.

    Agile is designed to handle all kinds of work, but that means your request management process should, too. Teams need to have a central place where requests can be submitted, including project-based assignments, formal one-off requests, and informal one-off requests.

    Regardless of what kind request is entering your process, it needs to include a creative brief to allow your team to assign a required number of hours to it as a story.

    It’s worth noting here that, if your team shares work with teams that don’t practice Agile marketing, a work solution that can handle mixed methodologies is highly recommended. Otherwise, you could find yourself duplicating requests and communication between your tools and their tools, which can suck up a lot of your team’s time.

  2. Maintain your backlog.

    As requests enter your domain, they officially become stories within your backlog, a running collection of all your outstanding stories. Under the advisement of your team, you will assign a number of hours to each story, so that you can easily choose the most important and doable stories when it comes time to organize your sprint. In the event that a story will take up more than six hours, you might want to consider breaking the story into two more bite-sized stories.

    Your backlog can be managed in any number of media: whiteboards, bulletin boards, index cards, or work management software. No matter which medium you choose, your backlog should sorted by priority, whether by deadline, ROI, or by client.

  3. Hold your sprint planning meeting.

    With your team’s backlog all sorted, you’re ready to kick off your sprint—and that means it’s time for your sprint planning meeting! During this meeting (which doesn’t have to be lengthy) your team will gather to look at your backlog and decide which stories to work on during the upcoming sprint. As stories are moved to the burndown chart, these stories are assigned to individual team members, who also commit to complete their stories within the sprint.

  4. Keep an eye on your burndown chart.

    As your team works on their stories, they should also move their stories from ‘incomplete’ to ‘in progress’ to ‘approval’ to ‘complete’ on the burndown chart, so everyone can see their progress in close to real-time. A good burndown chart will also include a graph showing how much has been completed versus what was planned to be completed.

    When done right, this very public, very intuitive chart keeps stakeholders updated and provides a little extra motivation for your team members.

  5. Wrap up with a sprint retrospective.

    One of the key principles of Agile Marketing is its focus on continuous improvement and collaboration. Holding a sprint retrospective at the end of your sprint is crucial to your continued success. What worked? What didn’t? Which parts of the process need to be changed for the next project?

    More than just a round of high-fives, this meeting should generate at least one improvement for the next sprint. Then, armed with this new learning, you begin the process all over again…

Searching for a Solution

Agile is quickly gaining momentum and popularity in marketing circles. This kind of flexibility speeds up the production and approvals processes, reduces the amount of time spent in meetings, and maximizes the amount of time the creative staff spends on actual creative work. Strangely enough, few marketing work management solutions have caught onto this trend and fewer still can handle both Agile and non-Agile methodologies simultaneously.

If creative teams can find a solution that will help them manage their Agile work process, they will be among the first to reap the benefits of this new and exciting trend.