The Kula Ring

Episode 201 Weighing the Benefits of Using Agile Project Management for Marketing

The Kula Ring podcast is essential listening for manufacturing marketers who want to grow their digital presence and compete online.

Sponsored by Kula Partners—an agency committed to helping leading B2B manufacturers craft digital experiences that transform how they engage buyers, serve customers, and outpace their competition—The Kula Ring podcast features conversations about marketing, sales, and technology with top manufacturing executives from across North America.

The Kula Ring podcast is co-hosted by Kula Partners principals, Carman Pirie and Jeff W. White, both of whom are frequently sought after for their digitally-focused B2B expertise. They regularly share their insights with audiences including conferences like B2B Online and HubSpot’s INBOUND, the Gardner Manufacturing Marketer blog, and other podcasts focused on B2B marketing and technology.

Agile Project Management is not something that typically comes to mind when discussing marketing. But, when clients discover that is how we manage marketing work at Kula Partners, Jeff and Carman often find themselves answering curious questions about it. In this episode of The Kula Ring, we discuss what Agile is and share how our experience can help manufacturing marketers weigh the benefits and barriers of implementing the project management style.

Weighing the Benefits of Using Agile Project Management for Marketing Transcript:

Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White. 

Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring, a podcast for manufacturing marketers brought to you by Kula Partners. My name is Jeff White and joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, how you doing, sir?

Carman Pirie: I’m doing well and I’m excited to be on another episode of The Kula Ring with you. 

Jeff White: Yeah. Me as well. I think this is gonna be an interesting topic. We’ve had a lot of people ask us about this over the years and it’s not necessarily a thing that marketers have at the top of their minds, but-

Carman Pirie: Yeah. It’s funny. It’s a weird kind of non-marketing thing that we get asked about probably the most. Like if somebody said what’s the thing that we get asked about the most that’s non-marketing but in a business context, I would say this is probably it over the years. 

Jeff White: Yeah. And you know, we could continue the suspense forever and just talk about it kind of in the third-

Carman Pirie: Yeah. It’s like, no, but we get asked about your mountain biking hobby a lot or whatever, but yeah. 

Jeff White: Oh yeah. No, and see, that’s a prequalification to work with us at all. Be able to talk about what bicycles you have. 

Carman Pirie: But what we’re talking about is Agile Project Management. Basically, the execution of marketing work via an Agile means, in a formally Agile way, I would suggest. That’s what we’re talking about. 

Jeff White: Yeah. Absolutely. And this is something that we have quite a bit of experience with, I would say. We’ve been organized in this manner for almost a decade now and ran it other ways before. Found this to be a measurable improvement. 

Carman Pirie: Absolutely. Absolutely. And you know, I don’t think… I think it’s fair to say that there, at that time, nine, 10 years ago, there certainly were not a lot of marketing agencies making a shift to organize in an Agile way. Now, certainly you do see that a bit more. They do tend to be a bit more development-centric organizations, but not always. 

Jeff White: Which we’re gonna talk about in a second, why that doesn’t matter. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Yeah. And we’re seeing that almost reinvigorated interest now from client-side marketing teams. 

Jeff White: We’ve actually helped a few start to organize themselves in this fashion. And I would say when we were getting this underway nearly a decade ago, there was interest, but I think there’s a lot of reticence to changing the way you manage projects, especially within agencies, and I would imagine that this is the case within larger internal marketing teams, too. Like they either feel they don’t know what they’re doing, or they have a way of managing those things already that they think is fine but doesn’t necessarily give them the visibility into the future they might want. 

Carman Pirie: Changing how work is managed, which is basically what we’re talking about, so for an internal marketing organization, frankly, fundamentally no different than for us here at Kula Partners, or many other organizations. When you make the change to how work is managed, it can be very easy to conclude that the juice isn’t gonna be worth the squeeze as you begin to examine the possibility of doing that. Inevitably, there’s a lot of personnel components to it, change management components, and you can quickly talk yourself out of it, I think. 

Jeff White: Yeah. It sparks some opinions. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. But I think one thing that’s happening, manufacturing marketing organizations are not going to be exempt from the somewhat permanent pivot to remote or at least hybrid work environments. I think if you’re a betting person, it’s probably best not to bet that everybody’s going to be 100% back in the head office. So, I think that’s making these kind of… Because Agile, of course, is typically an online managed environment. It’s making these kinds of tools I guess have a little bit more interest in them, because it’s kind of a tool whose time has come, potentially, for many organizations. 

Jeff White: For sure. Yeah. Although I would say that just because, even if you are a 100% in-office organization, that is not to suggest that you can’t do things better and with greater precision by organizing yourself in an Agile way. We ran Agile fully in the office for five or six years before the pandemic hit and then, or five, six, seven years before the pandemic hit, and then what was really interesting about that is the day that that switched in March of 2020, we went 100% remote, and nothing changed from a project management perspective. Everything continued to flow. There was no relearning. There was no adaptation. It was 100% productivity just like it had been the Friday before. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. And there’s no question that you don’t need to be a remote organization or hybrid organization to take advantage of this. All I was suggesting there is that maybe that’s what’s driving a bit of the renewed interest in exploring this and maybe being open to the change impacts that come from it because there’s these other pressures. 

I do think, too, it’s interesting to think about how talent challenges for manufacturers within their marketing departments is pushing them to collaborate more versus doing it all themselves. And of course, that’s not new for many organizations. Many of them maintain a wide number of agency and consultancy partners, et cetera. But I do think that one of the advantages there, too, is that it does enable a bit more of seamless collaboration, particularly with another provider who is running Agile in a somewhat similar way, and typically that’s on more digitally-centric initiatives, which frankly, an awful lot of marketing is now, right?

Jeff White: Yeah. Exactly. And I think before we get too much further, I think we should spend a little bit of time just kind of talking about what we mean when we talk about Agile for marketing teams, because I think it is still not necessarily clear. People are aware of the buzzwords, and sprints, and user stories, and story points, and all of those things, but I think what the move to Agile fundamentally means is that you try to break up the things that you’re doing into completable chunks within a time-boxed sprint. Whether that’s a week, or 10 days, or 2 weeks, or a month, whatever you decide that kind of time boxed chunk of working time is to be, and those things can be finished, and presented, and shown, and committed, and given to others to work on the next stage at the end of that sprint. And the things within that sprint that you work on are called stories. And that’s kind of it. 

So, it’s really just about chunking up your work in ways that you can say, “Okay, this chunk, this user story, I’m going to complete this today and then finish it, and then it goes into review, and then it goes to the next phase down the line.” Building a landing page, whatever. Each component of that can be crafted as something to be done and completed, and that’s really kind of it. At the end of the day, it doesn’t have to be more complex than that. You could manage this in a spreadsheet if you wanted to.

Carman Pirie: Right, right. Interesting, because I kind of heard myself from 10 years ago when we were kind of first exploring this, I remember just thinking, “There ain’t no way you could manage marketing stuff this way.” I mean, sure, if you’re coding a website, but… 

Jeff White: But the fact of the matter is you can. You know, every component of every type of digital tactic, or even it doesn’t have to be digital at all. You could be talking about the creation of a trade show booth and the brochures to pass out, and the people who are gonna be there. That can all be organized in an Agile way because each one of those things is a complete task, whether it’s designing the brochures and creating the copy for them, and doing the layout, and sending them to print. Well, each one of those things can be a user story. And as you do one, then it moves along and gets picked up by the next person. This is one of the great things for it for cross-functional teams, which we certainly know a lot of internal organizations have. They might have a designer, they might have a developer, they definitely have some marketers, and strategists, and maybe a copywriter here or there, and each one of those people contributes something to a whole. Very few of them kind of do everything from start to finish. 

So, when you have those kinds of groups, everybody can be working on the same epic, which is kind of the holder of all the different user stories. 

Carman Pirie: A collection of sprints in some way, in some sorts. 

Jeff White: Yeah. A collection of sprints, which is a collection of stories, and then each one of those things can be broken down into something that can easily be completed and checked off and committed. So, as you look to the kinds of work that you have to do in the future, you can have all of these stories mapped out, the amount of effort associated with them, and then you can see across the number of people that you have how much work you have to do, and how you’re going to get it done, and how you can plan it, and what is happening after that in that backlog of other things that you want to get to at some point. Prioritized, preferably. 

So, that’s kind of it. It’s not more complex than that. And it sounds like it isn’t that different from traditional project management, but the way you go about it is, and the way you kind of organize around it, and sort of the extra duties that are part of it in terms of having a scrum master and a product owner kind of changes how you think about these things a little bit, wouldn’t you say? 

Carman Pirie: It does. And I think maybe the biggest, because of course, any kind of project management system or what have you, or framework that you might seek to implement is always gonna have kind of new components, or different things, or things named different things or what have you, so in that way it’s different but the same. But I guess the one thing that sticks out to me is that the one big difference with Agile is it’s a learning system. It’s like it’s a system that learns and gets better over time. Peer reviewed estimates get more accurate over time. Capacity planning and throughput becomes more predictable over time. Over time, you build up references. You can look at new work that is being incorporated into the team and you have a greater kind of library of references of work that’s been executed in the past, something that might be somewhat similar. 

So, in that way, I think that’s the biggest mental shift. It’s like yes, implementing a new system is always gonna take some change, but to me the thing I don’t think I got at the start, that I didn’t really kind of  fully understand, is that we were gonna be implementing a system that was built for iterative improvement. And it’s a system that enables iterative improvement in the work that is managed in that manner, if that makes sense. 

Jeff White: You can’t really do this like a waterfall Gantt chart type management of a larger project and then reuse that, because all the pieces are required for the whole in that case, whereas in the case of an Agile-managed project, all the pieces are almost independent. You know, so every component of everything that you’re producing can be broken out into ever smaller chunks that can be completed within that time-boxed sprint. And those are the things like you’re saying that go into the library, so you know, if that’s how you stand up paid search could break down into five different stories around audience, and bid, and ad writing, and each one of those things is its own thing. You know, so it’s each one of those things can be learned from, reused, and repurposed as time goes on, and like you said, they get better over time. It’s like cheese.

Carman Pirie: I wasn’t seeing that reference coming, I must say. 

Jeff White: Yeah. No, it gets better over time. 

Carman Pirie: And I think it’s important that the second part of that is that it enables work that’s built to get better over time. I can just recall Monique Elliott talking to us about how most of marketing today ought to be thought of through the lens of managing products, not projects, that most components of marketing today are basically ever-evolving marketing products. Be that an eCom site, or your trade show presence, or your lead gen program, or whatever. And in that way, managing those initiatives by Agile in some ways positions them for iterative improvement, because it’s the kind of thing that is built for just that, establishing a prioritized backlog, cleaning the backlog on a regular basis to understand is that still something we want to focus on? Yes or no? And then implementing and executing accordingly. 

And if all of this I guess sounds like it’s a lot of product and project management overhead, and a lot of administration, I guess what would you say to that? Is it? Or is it the work that people should be doing anyway? 

Jeff White: It’s getting it stood up is definitely a fair amount of overhead. There’s no question. If you’re going to transition into this kind of methodology now, and you have an eight, ten person team, this is not something you’re just going to turn on Jira or some other project management software and immediately start doing. You’re going to need to transition into this and build it up over time. Start with new engagements only, whatever that happens to be, in order to kind of build into it. 

But once you’re in it and you’ve been doing it for a little while, it’s like everything else. Whether it’s content for organic SEO or whatever, having that bank of invested user stories built up will enable you to more quickly manage projects going forward and see where the problems are and the gaps. Because there are also many little check-ins as part of this. In fact, one of the things a lot of people adopt out of Agile without adopting Agile is the idea of a stand-up. 

Carman Pirie: Right. That’s right. 

Jeff White: You know, so a five or ten minute meeting every morning with the project team where you talk about what you accomplished the day before and what might be blocking you now, and then if there’s anybody in that group that can help unblock that, they can do so, and you have a sense of what’s going on. So, there’s an innate built-in communication style that makes this more productive and I would say if you’re going to adopt nothing else, then that might be something to consider. But it makes a lot more sense when it’s done as part of Agile, where you have a scrum master who is saying, “Okay, these five people on my team each have these stories to work on in this sprint and I can see how they’re progressing on those different things based on what I heard in the stand-up this morning.” That allows you to kind of quickly manage and move things in and out based on we didn’t get this proof back from the printer, so we can’t move any further ahead with sending it off to the trade show, so that’s blocked. Whatever that happens to be. 

You can more readily see kind of how things are going, but I think it actually takes less time and less management otherwise, because each person on the team knows what they are responsible for. There’s a person who’s seeing the overall… call them swim lanes, where basically you see all of the stories kind of moving through and what stage they’re at, whether or not they’ve been reviewed or completed or what have you as the sprint time clock counts down. You know, that part kind of takes care of itself somewhat and then it’s a matter of just kind of grooming it and staying on top of what’s being done. 

So, I think there’s a better visibility into what’s going on, but it’s gonna take you a little bit of time to reap that benefit and you should plan for that if you’re gonna make this transition. 

Carman Pirie: So, other than of course I appreciate that there’s a bit of a price to pay, if you will, for getting it stood up and getting going, there’s a change management process that needs to be implemented, et cetera. But that all seems pretty easy to navigate or doesn’t seem too terrible. And then all the rest of it seems like there’s an upside, so I guess my question to you is what is the other… What’s the downside? Other than just the implementation, are there any kind of negative consequences that you see of managing work in this manner? 

Jeff White: There are problems with implementation of Agile when you don’t have full buy-in from all team members. That’s not exactly an answer to your question, but like that idea of kind of forcing Agile on team members, if people don’t fully participate in it then it’s not going to work. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah, no. Agile is like being pregnant. You can’t be half-Agile, I don’t think. 

Jeff White: Yeah. Exactly. 

Carman Pirie: Like really, we say that, but you can… Frankly, there are a couple of core things you could do. Like you say, you could just implement stand-up and you’re not implementing Agile, but you’re part… And so, I guess maybe I’ll take that back, but I agree with you. If you are gonna implement it fully, you need everybody bought in. 

Jeff White: And that’s a bit of a downside for larger teams, because it is harder to make people make this transition. 

Carman Pirie: I was wondering if sometimes… I was trying to ask myself that question, I guess, as I asked it to you, and I wonder. I think sometimes it can feel, especially to certain personality types, that Agile forces you to focus on the minutiae, almost like as you’re trying to chunk up work in a manner that fits the sprints, et cetera. I’m not saying that’s a valid criticism. I just think it’s a criticism that implementers may hear as folks who are used to just carrying the work in their head are tasked with kind of breaking it up into bite-sized chunks, if you will. 

Maybe that’s a possible downside. I don’t know. Maybe. 

Jeff White: Yeah. I do think, though, depending on the size of your team, there are… It’s most likely that the person who’s doing one part of that work, which is one story, and the other part, which is another, which may seem kind of diminutive in their own right, but if they’re seeing those things together and kind of working on them, then they’re going… You know, you can only abstract so much at the end of the day, so not everything can be broken down into absolutely tiny chunks. But one of the potential failures is when you choose not to do that and then it’s just not clear what needs to be done because it’s too big. 

Carman Pirie: Right. Right. Exactly. It’s still too complex. You haven’t broken it down to… Basically, it’s just complicated, right? 

Jeff White: Yeah. No, exactly. So, you know, that could be something as create a campaign for the oil and gas vertical on our new automation platform. Well, that’s much too vague. Now that needs to be planned, and pieces need to be pulled in from reference stories, and anything new needs to be created. That’s kind of part of the learning thing with it where it picks up new ideas as you do new things. But yeah, I think it will fail on that kind of level, but that’s sort of where a lot of waterfall projects kind of fail, as well, because they’re just too broad and there isn’t enough detail to know what is the true definition of done and correct, which should be part of every-

Carman Pirie: Or done for now. Yeah. I kind of feel like it’s the type of topic that you kind of keep peeling back and peeling back, you know?

Jeff White: Creating evermore granular user stories? 

Carman Pirie: Kind of in some way, but there are a lot of nuances to it. Can we think of any kind of things that people ought to maybe watch out for as they’re implementing Agile? Appreciating the people management challenge of it, or the change management challenge of it, is there anything maybe to be mindful of beyond that that we need to highlight? One thing I think is that you gotta be open to not just that the system learns and gets smarter over time, but the system itself changes. How you define a story point, for example, may be adjusted over time. I guess the important part here is that this I guess maybe does lead me to the core point, is that nobody implements it perfectly in the purest academic sense. Yeah. 

Jeff White: It’s always adapted in some way, shape, or form. I do think your mentioning of the story point is interesting, because I think this is the concept that almost everybody struggles with the most. Because it’s an abstraction of effort and complexity. It’s not an abstraction of time. So, certainly in agencies, people are used to tracking time on projects and we’re well known for saying that we don’t want to do work in that way because we don’t want our customers or our clients to receive a call that we’re halfway done the work but all out of the hours, so we’re abstracting that work as a deliverable into story points and things like that. But I think a lot of people really struggle to understand what the point is of a story point and how to define it for themselves. What would you say, or what advice might you give to somebody trying to understand the idea of a story point? Initially, when we made this transition, we talked about them being almost like poker chips, so they’re a reference to money but not actually money. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah, which is wrong. I would say the bit of advice I would give people is work with somebody that’s done this. If you’re implementing it, work with somebody that’s done it before, because it’s gonna take a while. I would say story points—they’re an estimate of complexity, fundamentally, is my understanding of it. When complexity, when you’re thinking about executing a marketing-related task these days, is kind of a combination of time and certainty. 

Jeff White: Or time and skill and knowledge. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. But-

Jeff White: Which is related to certainty, I think. 

Carman Pirie: Right. Well, more like you’re going into any given initiative with a level of pre-information. And we all know, like there’s some tasks that you start to do where as you start to do them, you have 100% of what you need. And then there’s other things that you do that are prone to maybe some shifts along the way. And so, there’s a level of certainty that… The way I kind of look at it is I think if it was the notion of story points as a combination of effort and certainty that that effort’s going to get me to that definition of done. And that’s the system that gets smarter over time. 

Jeff White: Yeah. As you execute on a specific story, each time you do it you learn something, you fine tune it, you massage it, polish it. 

Carman Pirie: And you also know, hmm, when I’ve had this level of uncertainty in the past, I’ve had to make these adjustments as a result. This has been the impact of having that level of uncertainty at the outset. And you may even develop the instinct where you say, “Oh, I’m at a level of uncertainty that I can’t even move forward with this story. I have to actually do an investigative one first in order to get to a level of certainty that even allows me and my peers to estimate this task.” 

Jeff White: Yeah. 

Carman Pirie: One thing more, I guess a little less tactical on it, maybe, but one thing that comes to mind to me is one of the real powers of Agile teams is that they hold themselves accountable. The teams are executing on work collaboratively and they all know their part in that. Every individual in the team knows their part in that. But they also are more regularly grounded into the progress of the whole with that daily stand-up, et cetera. 

Jeff White: Yep. 

Carman Pirie: So, it leads to a level of peer and team-based performance management that is very different than top-down managerial performance management. And I think managers just need to be aware that there’s a change that’s gonna happen there and they’re gonna have to… There may be, especially if you were a micromanager before, Agile’s gonna give you a lot more information and data, et cetera, so you’re going to have a lot more insight into actual work and output, but how you action that or what you do with it cannot be maybe the same micromanagey tendencies that you had in the past. And there’s certainly components to getting the work done that you need to in some ways have trust that the peer team-based components can help influence. 

Jeff White: Yeah. That is a really interesting point I think to leave it on. Because it does, when executed well, Agile teams perform in my experience at a higher level and more cohesively than non-Agile teams. And that is a truly beautiful thing to see. 

Carman Pirie: It is. I mean, we’re not talking about a statistically significant audience of thousands here that we can draw from, but that certainly is our personal experience and what we’ve seen with clients, as well. But like anything, it’s anytime that you’re actively as managers talking about change management and a change requirement, you always do well to pull up a mirror and say, “What am I going to have to change, too?” Because inevitably there’s something, even if you don’t see it today. It’s not just about bringing everybody over to how you think. 

Jeff White: No. 

Carman Pirie: No, there’s a few other things there. 

Jeff White: If it were that simple, everybody’d be doing it. 

Carman Pirie: Exactly. Well, Jeff, this has been a pleasure. Good chatting with you. 

Jeff White: Yeah. It’s been a lot of fun. Thanks a lot. 

Carman Pirie: Cheers. 

Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Kula Ring, with Carman Pirie and Jeff White. Don’t miss a single manufacturing marketing insight. Subscribe now at kulapartners.com/thekularing. That’s K-U-L-Apartners.com/thekularing.

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