How Marketers Can Use Lean and Agile Principles
Lean and agile principles, popular for decades in manufacturing, are now becoming popular in marketing. How can marketers use these principles to their advantage?
When Ellie Mirman led a marketing team at HubSpot, she’d watch in awe as the company’s engineering team worked on new projects in short-but-methodical bursts. The team would use these monthlong bursts, called sprints, to create and test potentially valuable projects. At the end of each sprint, the team examined what was successful and what wasn’t — if something was successful, it was adopted; if it wasn’t, it was ditched. “We were working really close with them,” says Mirman, who served as HubSpot’s director of marketing for the inbound funnel. “It rubbed off on us, and we decided to give it a shot.”
Each month, Mirman’s team focused on a few sprints — the most important projects were tested first — and eschewed other new ideas until future months. After many sprints, Mirman had a better view of which marketing projects were wasteful, which were worthwhile and which needed changes. “Let’s look at this month: What worked, what didn’t and what can we cut?” Mirman says she’d ask her team after each month of sprints. Like the engineering team, Mirman’s team adopted the programs that worked and ditched those that didn’t.
Sprints are a common tool in agile and lean processes, two complementary practices popular for decades in manufacturing. Now, these processes are becoming popular across marketing departments: AgileSherpas’ State of Agile Marketing 2018 reports that 77% of marketing departments using agile practices adopted them in the past five years. Additionally, 44% of agile marketers say that they use a hybrid methodology, such as the lean-agile combination that Mirman implemented at HubSpot. (She’s now CMO of Crayon.co, a market and competitive intelligence company, and continues to integrate lean-agile processes into marketing practice.)
Russ Lange, partner at marketing consultancy CMG Partners, defines lean as a methodology that continuously reduces waste and limits the amount of work in progress. Agile, on the other hand, improves effectiveness; Lange says that adopting agile processes means constantly looking for new tasks, experimenting with them and learning if they work. “Together, they can do wonderful things,” he says. His company, which assists larger organizations in adopting these processes, reports that 67% of companies using lean and agile marketing increase their profits and revenue.
How can marketers — whether in small business, the middle market or a Fortune 500 company — use lean and agile principles to their advantage? Lange and Mirman explain the paths to success.
Center on the Customer
Each time Lange begins consulting with a marketing department, he’ll ask the team’s leader about the process the team uses. Most will say that they use a customer-centric process, yet Lange often finds that marketing teams don’t consider the customer until the end of the process. Marketers who adopt lean and agile marketing must first ensure their process is customer-centric, he says, as customer value and response are essential to lean and agile success.
Lange recently worked with a company that, after years of using lean and agile processes in its manufacturing plants, wanted to extend the processes to its marketing team. When Lange examined the team, he found that its process was focused on potential business value and ease of business implementation; potential value to the customer was nowhere to be found. After adopting lean and agile principles, Lange says that the marketing team went from working on more than 20 projects based on business value to working on four initiatives based on value to the customer. Then, the company worked backward to figure out how the initiatives brought value to the company.
By making its marketing process customer-centric, the department also forged a shared language with other teams, including sales, customer support and product development. This allowed the marketing team and larger organization to quickly find new value for customers. “They brought multiple business functions together with a unified language that wasn’t dependent on any one function but rather on one customer,” Lange says.
Avoiding Marketing Overload
Soon after Mirman adopted the hybrid agile-lean model at HubSpot, she says that the overwhelming feeling of having too much to do — a feeling familiar to 80% of marketers, according to a study from Workfront — largely disappeared. “You can’t do everything, right?” Mirman says. “You have to figure out what’s most important.”
With a lean-agile process in place, Mirman could see everything her team was doing or planning to do. After each sprint, she saw what worked and didn’t work, what ideas her team had for the future and what the rest of the company was requesting of her team. With this overview of the department, Mirman could slot different projects into sprints throughout the year, more easily regulating her team’s workflow. One month, her team might launch one big project and two small ones; another month, they may have time for two big launches and one small launch. “It really helps you manage expectations and then get results,” she says.
Most marketers have ongoing projects that seem to collect more tasks until the projects balloon out of control. Few teams consider cutting back, but Mirman says that cutting out needless tasks is one of the benefits of lean and agile marketing. “Being able to say ‘no, not right now’ allows more projects to actually get done,” she says. “We’ve scaled back on projects that didn’t have that big of an impact. We’re looking for a higher hit rate on things that we do.”
By controlling what her team undertakes each month, Mirman says that she avoids the common marketing mistake of making “big wild bets that you don’t learn from until a year later.” Instead, the team learns from their small tasks and adopts the most successful of them, she says, always asking themselves how they can improve in future sprints. Mirman keeps a backlog of ideas ready to test, she says, weighing each idea by its importance before slotting the best ideas into sprints.
In a recent sprint at Crayon.co, an item on Mirman’s backlog proved successful. Her team noticed people browsing the company’s website were searching for competitive analysis templates, so Mirman wrote on her backlog to test these templates. The company had never created this kind of content before, but they scheduled it into a sprint. “And it did remarkably well,” she says. “It was a test we wanted to do for a long time, but we hadn’t found the time for it.”
Since this test, Mirman says that they’ve created similarly popular templates. But a year later, the original competitive analysis template is still the company’s most popular piece of content.
Failure and Honesty
If marketers adopt lean and agile processes, then they will need to become comfortable with failure and honesty. Lange says that this may be the most difficult part for marketers, especially those who work at larger companies without what he calls a “startup mindset.” Those who work in larger companies tend to be uncomfortable with failure, self-assessment and the potential of looking bad in front of peers or bosses because of a stilted environment. But in a lean-agile environment, marketers must figure out how to experiment, fail and learn.
“The mindset should be how to experiment in producing campaigns [to] reduce work and the amount of effort required to put something in the marketplace,” Lange says.
In some cases, experiments may show that long-running projects have little value and can be cut. Lange consulted with a marketing department that was sending 52 e-mails to its clients each year. The department wanted to see if it needed to keep sending this many, so it reduced the number to 12 e-mails sent per year as part of a lean experiment. When revenue held steady over the testing period, the department again cut the number of e-mails to four per year. Revenue continued to hold steady; within a single experiment, the department cut 48 e-mails from its year without losing money.
Marketers often don’t want to countenance that some of their processes aren’t necessary, but Lange says that facing the problems and experimenting with new solutions will mean quick — even if uncomfortable — improvement. “You’re a scientist looking to fail,” Lange says.
Although Lange says that lean and agile principles have great potential in marketing, adopting them can be a difficult mindset change across a company. These processes will change how people work; successful changes of this kind are never assured. To attempt this kind of change takes fortitude, Lange says, but to be successful takes hard work.
“Leadership has to be committed to taking advantage of the benefits and it has to be inspired by the top,” he says. “But the actual hard work is done by the people doing the work.”
About the Author | Hal Conick
Hal Conick is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @HalConick.