An Archetype for the Agile Marketing Organization

We can’t become Agile marketers until we understand what organizational systems define agility.

We need a way to define the Agile Marketing organization, so that a tangible framework can emerge. Retrofitting Scrum to marketing processes simply isn’t the answer. We need to step back and understand the fundamental systems that create an Agile organization. We need an abstraction of Agility. We must embrace the Agile pioneers’ teachings, from domains like software development and manufacturing, without simply borrowing from their ideas. Otherwise we are simply doing Agile things for the sake of doing them.

I’d like to propose an archetype for the Agile Marketing organization: a model that describe the essence of Agility. I believe this archetype expresses principles that marketers must relearn; that it describes Agility at a higher level than yet another process prescription. We cannot be universally successful at rethinking how to be a marketer, embracing the principles of Agility, until we fully understand how those principles are structured. I propose that this model describes that structure.

The archetype is made up of three facets: Agile technology, Agile processes, and Agile culture. These are the tangible elements of the Agile Marketing organization. They are the things you can define—that, in certain ways, you can see and touch. They are also the things that most people write/talk/argue about, when trying to do Agile.

Though important, I propose that the facets of the Agile Marketing Archetype are not the engines of change; they are the outputs of it. In other words, implementing a certain culture, process, or technology won’t transform the organization, without the interaction with the rest of the framework. Therefore, the circular relationships between the three facets are most important; where we should be looking for ways to do Agile Marketing. The verbs are more important than the nouns. These reinforcing feedback loops amongst the facets are the true engine of the Agile Marketing organization.

An archetype for the Agile Marketing organization.

Agile Culture

The foundation of the Agile Marketing organization is a fundamental cultural belief in the principles of Lean/Agility. Often, culture is the missing piece of the puzzle—why many Agile transformations fail. No amount of process or technology change will reorient an organization around Agile, without a core belief in its principles. If the organization does not embody the essential spirit of Agility, from inside-out, it will not be able to fundamentally change.

Agile culture starts at the top-down and the bottom up. A complete cultural transformation comes when executive leadership’s goals are aligned with grassroots forces from the front line. When culture is pushed one way or the other, it can be difficult for that culture to diffuse through the organization. When the culture becomes a bidirectional shared belief, it can transform the organization’s DNA. Agile culture is the result of everyone in the organization embracing Agile principles, from the CEO to the night shift janitor, and back up again.

Agile Process

Agile process is the stuff of textbooks. It’s the way people describe how to do Agile. It’s Scrum, Kanban, and Unified Process. It’s where the majority of the Agile conversation ends up. Process is important, because it structures everyone’s responsibility in tangible ways. Cultural beliefs are too abstract to drive day-to-day business. Process is the “physical” embodiment of those cultural beliefs.

There is more than one way to skin the “process” cat. That’s why you see a multitude of approaches to doing Agile. Process is where you see the organization’s cultural Agility merge with its other cultural attributes. Every organization will do things differently—their own flavor of Agile Marketing. Process is where you’ll see that very clearly.

It’s easy to get hung up on process: the “right” and “wrong” ways to do things. It’s important to view process as one facet—not the only one.

Agile Technology

Technically speaking, you can be Agile without any technology. But, technology has increased the velocity of everything, in business. Therefore, in a modern marketing organization, it’s absolutely critical that you consider technology. If you want to be an Agile Marketing organization, then you better implement technology that that enables and encourages Agility.

Agile Technology is the digital platform that empowers Agility. I don’t really mean that you use an Agile process management tool like Rally or Jira. I’m talking about the technology platform that powers your marketing organization: your websites, your marketing automation, your mobile apps, etc. In the Agile Marketing organization, the marketing technology platform must be fundamentally architected to accept (even encourage) rapid, frequent change. Brittle, inflexible architecture, though sufficient for many years, is no longer an acceptable solution.

The notion of Agile-embodiment within technology can be kind of like porn: you can’t really describe it, but you know it when you see it (kudos to Justice Stewart). To me, the term encompasses any architectural concept that empowers agility, welcomes change, and is inherently flexible. For example:

  • The OSGi specification enables modularized, hot-deployable Java code, enabling programmers to make rapid changes
  • Service oriented architecture exposes digitized business services as a marketplace of consumable endpoints
  • Tag management systems decouple marketing technologies, by integrating via configuration instead of coding
  • Content management systems empower marketers to build websites, without having to write code
  • Ad management platforms allow you to quickly reallocate digital advertising budget to optimize revenue

These are just a few examples of the many that are possible—ones that directly relate to marketing technology. You could write a book about technology concepts that promote Agility. The point is that the technology architecture is a significant part of the complete Agile Marketing organization. The technology must embrace and embody the principles of Agility, just like the process and culture does.

Feedback Loops

The relationships between the three facets of the Agile Marketing organization define bidirectional flows of value. Or, looked at another way, it creates two reinforcing feedback loops—an artifact of systems theory. In this case, I think they define the systemic structure of the Agile Marketing organization—given the archetype I’ve proposed. They describe the symbiotic relationship among the three facets.

Bottom line: no single facet (technology, process, or culture) is more important than the other. It’s the integrated existence of all three that builds Agility. Let’s flip the archetype on its side, so not to insinuate that one facet is more important than the other. See below.

The Culture-Process Loop

In the culture-process loop we see the human element of the Agile Marketing organization form. The principles brought forth by an Agile culture inspire the organization to change. When you’ve got principles that aren’t fulfilled you want to change! Culture in and of itself isn’t doing anything. It’s believing in something. It’s the why. So, that culture inspires doing. It inspires process. It inspires what you do.

This is how process-oriented frameworks like Scrum came to be. Early Agilists defined principles about software development (like the Agile Manifesto). They defined beliefs about how it should work. Then, the community—a few members, specifically—created a way to fulfill those principles and called it Scrum. Others defined different ways to fulfill those values: Lean Software Development, Unified Process, eXtreme Programming, and every hybrid of the bunch.

Armed with tangible frameworks for applying Agile principles, we are able to actually create change. We can investigate a legacy process, comprehend an alternative, and see it through. As this structured change occurs, we learn. When we learn, we create success. And, when we create success, we reinforce the cultural forces that shaped the process evolution in the first place. The success that our processes create validates our principles, strengthening the culture and therefore, inspiring more change. Alas, we are back at the beginning of the loop, velocity trending upward.

Meanwhile, the relationship between humans and technology does something similar…

The Process-Technology Loop

In the process-technology loop, we see the relationship with humans and technology. It’s the link between what we do and how we use technology to do it. Technology is almost always invented to take some process and make it faster, easier, cheaper, whatever. But, it’s the pre-existence of some process that drove the need for that technology. In this same light, Agile processes demand the need for Agile technology. When our human processes (our actions) embody Agility, we seek ways to use technology to streamline them. For example:

  • How much easier is continuous deployment when you don’t have to restart 12 different systems and when you’re supported by a suite of automated tests?
  • How much easier is it to change your application, when you deploy it continuously?
  • How much easier is it to manage a Kanban board across a distributed team, using a digital tool instead of cards on a wall?
  • How much faster is it to create new business value and integrate business processes when your systems are de-coupled via APIs and service oriented architecture?

It’s our need to make our technology embody the principles of Agility that created these technologies. It’s that same need that demands we use Agile technology in the Agile Marketing organization.

Just as learning-infused Agile process reinforces Agile culture, technology supports the Agile processes we institute. Technology reduces friction, increases speed, and automates tasks that don’t create as much value. When technology is appropriately used to support Agile principles it supports the processes that demanded it. In business-speak, we can tangibly see the justification for implementing a technology. We needed a way to improve process A. The technology improved process A. Maybe that means we can look at doing that with process B. The cycle continues.

Learning’s Role in the Archetype

Learning plays a critical role in the Agile Marketing archetype, as the accelerant for both the culture-process loop and the process-technology loop. In a modern marketing organization that embraces Agility, learning is a fundamental unit of success. What you learn about your customer, your brand, and your business drives positive change. Therefore, learning must be a key goal for the Agile Marketing organization.

A systems theory view of Marketing Agility and the role of learning.

It can be very difficult to quantify learning, so it may be intimidating to use it as a success metric. In software development it’s quite easy to calculate “story points delivered.” In traditional business models it’s pretty easy to calculate gross revenue, net profit, costs, etc. Though considerations, these are mathematical metrics that only tell parts of the story. In some cases, they are used as vanity metrics (to borrow Eric Ries’s term). Learning is a more abstract unit of success, but it transcends the entire organization.

I can feel the skepticism already! Don’t we start businesses to make money? Isn’t that the true measure of success?

I believe that a truly Agile organization exists first and foremost to create value for all stakeholders involved. That includes customers, employees, investors, and other stakeholders. I believe that this archetype supports that ideal.

When value creation is the focus, and value actually created, profit will come. Value creates happy customers, happy employees, and happy stakeholders, in turn, creating a sustainable platform for profit. In the Agile Marketing organization, learning is the key to identifying where to create that value and how to create it. Learning fuels the feedback loops that result in more value and more learning.

And, the flywheel accelerates.

Finding a Framework

I called this an “archetype” for a reason. While conceptually understandable (I hope), this isn’t a framework for applied Agile Marketing. You could spend hours in meetings debating how exactly to put this into action, and still probably never get there. It isn’t actionable, nor was it meant to be.

I intended this to be a vehicle for conversation—to start understanding what exactly an Agile Marketing organization would look like. Again, I don’t mean a marketing team that tries to run Scrum. I’m talking about an organization that truly embodies Agile principles, expressed through their marketing efforts, which (nowadays) have roots running through the entire organization. I believe that atop this archetype—this systems theory perspective on Agility—we can build tangible, applicable frameworks for doing Agile Marketing.

This framework will be found in the connections between the facets; in the feedback loops (the verbs, not the nouns). This is where the archetype demonstrates value generation. This, according to systems theory, is where the opportunity for innovation exists. Potential frameworks for Agile Marketing should seek structured ways to accelerate these learning-infused feedback loops, which are the essence of Agile Marketing. That will take this admittedly abstract archetype and transform it into a tangible approach to Agile Marketing.

We have a long way to go. I hope that ideas like this archetype will serve as a catalyst for conversation. We won’t figure out the best way to institute marketing Agility, unless we continue to talk about it. I encourage you to provide feedback, good or bad, on my idea.

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