June 15, 2010

The Marketing Scrum

We’re a few weeks into a test of Agile Marketing. I’m managing and working in the production team of an in-house marketing agency. We do digital and traditional marketing execution, working with in-house “account reps” that have the business units as “clients.”

As the pace of digital campaigns, webinars and trade show activities picked up, we needed a better way to make sure things didn’t fall through the cracks. We wanted to formalize processes without losing agility and quick response times.

Luckily, software developers and project managers have spent a decade or two optimizing processes, methods and documentation for just such a scenario. We’ve been using Scrum like methods for about a month now to manage our workload.

I’ve pared down things from Agile software development. This is partly because some of it doesn’t translate from software development to marketing. And it’s partly because we’re still a small production group—just 4 people plus the occasional freelancer—not a team of 20 developers.

Basically, we’re using 2 week sprints where we lock down as much as we can. One difference with software development is that I have to leave a decent amount of capacity unspecified for “planned unplanned” work. There’s just a steady flow of print requests and other items that can’t be precisely defined two weeks out. Using a sprint for those types of requests would be like trying to pre-assign time to specific help desk issues for two weeks out.

Other than that difference, we use a sprint backlog (or here), estimate our time for each task and subtask and track it every day. I started by trying to have a scrum meeting every day.  But we’re such a small group that we are talking face-to-face most of the day anyway. And the backlog is being updated ‘organically’ as we do and discuss.

I've built a spreadsheet in Google Docs to track our sprints and chart our progress with a burn down chart.

Our analog to the Product Backlog (or here) is the Marketing Backlog. Here again, it's not as strict as in software or product management. We just use the order of items on the list to show priority—no point system. Every two weeks I meet with the account reps and make sure the priority is right. Then our group plans a sprint by pulling from the top until we’re at near capacity.  After that, we take what fits in the remaining time.

No, it’s not really that neat and tidy. And yes, things come up mid-sprint that change priorities. That would be a major violation to a lot of Scrum teams, I know. But unlike a software product, a lot of our campaign activities are independent—they don’t have to all work together to make a functioning release. And even if we swap a task out mid sprint, at least now we really know the impact. Before the Scrum methods, we usually failed to deliver something when an interrupt task came in—simply because we weren’t tracking it very closely.

Overall, I have a much better picture of what we’re working on. And the team likes it for the same reason. That and we have buy-in from the account team on priorities. They are learning to plan ahead!