What a Marketing VP Learned from a Failed Agile Transformation

I recently had the chance to chat with Kyle Hamer, who learned a lot during his tenure as a VP of Marketing. He lived through an agile transformation that not only went sideways—it actually brought marketing production to a screeching halt! In this case study, learn what went wrong at Hamer’s company and how the company could have saved themselves a lot of time and money with a different approach to agile marketing

The Company’s Misguided Reason for Implementing Agile

Kyle was working as a VP of Marketing at a software company that practiced agile, but his company was acquired by a large holding company that merged eight companies into one big brand in just three years. With this acquisition brought several different ways that people were working causing process chaos! Marketers were burning the candle at both ends working 60 hour weeks and the team was extremely frustrated with the new company culture. As a response, the company began looking for ways to optimize budgets to improve financial performance.  This led to a slow reduction in the marketing team size and market budget in favor of agile transformation of the business. It sounds fantastic so far (the optimization of budgets, not the head chopping), but wait – here’s where it goes sideways. The goal of the agile transformation was to increase the team’s output. While this doesn’t sound like a bad idea in theory, it’s never a good idea to have the main reason for an agile transformation be outputting more work on already burnt out marketers.

A few better reasons for an agile transformation are:

  • Improve the quality of work.
  • Get valuable work to customers more quickly.
  • Become more customer-centric in what is delivered.
  • Improve teamwork and morale.

Adding Agile Marketing as Frosting on an Already Layered Cake

The company took a ‘business as usual’ approach to agile marketing and didn’t change how the team was structured or how it worked—they just piled agile on top of their already full plate. The executives had read a few articles online about agile marketing, and without consulting an expert, they thought they knew exactly what to do. The team wasn’t really a team at all, it was just a department of 18 people that was tasked with ‘doing agile’. And of these 18 people, only 11 of them were actually doing the work—the rest of them were in some type of management role. If I had to advise them here, I would say that they needed a lot more workers and fewer managers. They also should have broken down into five or so small teams aligned to a product or business goal that could complete work autonomously from start to finish. That would mean a cross-functional set of team members that can do nuts-to-bolts marketing.

The Company Was Drowning with Too Many Projects

The team of 11 marketers responsible for marketing output had 87 different projects happening at once, so asking them to output more was not only unrealistic, it was destroying the team’s morale and quality of work. “I didn’t know anything about agile marketing, but I recognized that our real challenge was our inability to say no,” said Hamer. The misconception that agile marketing means taking on more projects is false. With agile marketing, you want to do fewer projects, but do them well and in smaller chunks that get real-time customer feedback and can be improved upon or stopped.

Command and Control Leadership Plagued Agile

Even with a large agile transformation budget, leadership failed to empower the team and continued to require executive sign off every step of the way. With this slowed down process, teams would get work done, but then it would sit on the executives’ desk for weeks, never getting into the hands of customers or prospects. Meanwhile, team members would move on to other projects. Before they knew it, they had a ton of work in progress, but nothing finished and deliverable, which is the main goal with agile marketing. “Bad agile marketing leads to no marketing, and in this case, we brought it to a screeching halt,” Hamer said. The micro-management culture causes a big conflict with agile. There is a misconception that agile marketing is just for the worker-bees, but it’s really about trust and empowering good, talented people to experiment, innovate and get great marketing into the hands of the real decision-makers—customers. It’s the leadership team’s job to create that culture. Before turning your company upside down and inside out to go agile, make sure that the culture is ready. Start by educating leaders on trusting the team and look at where you can eliminate sign-offs that cause delay.

Experiment, But Don’t Fall Down Completely

Hamer says if he could do it again, he’d call in an agile coach who had done this before and could guide the company through it rather than having the agile transformation cause a lot more damage than good. “I think the top leadership understood in theory what agile marketing was, but they didn’t understand how to create the political space of saying no, or this project’s not going to get done for it to actually have a chance to survive,” he said. This team should not have started an agile pilot in addition to their normal workload. To truly test the pilot concept, the people on the team need to be dedicated to the work of the team. A good way to get started with agile marketing is to consult with an expert who can suggest ways to organize your team and launch a pilot team where you can learn and experiment with what works and what doesn’t in your organization.

Kyle Hamer is currently the owner of Hamer Marketing Group, a Digital Agency providing Marketing Automation, Lead Generation, and Consulting Services for Houston. He is also a passionate believer in good marketing.