Scrum For Marketing Teams

Scrum is a simple, lightweight, iterative process for project management initially used for software development that has since been adapted for all kinds of projects and disciplines, including marketing. Although many of the principles and practices remain consistent when applying Scrum for marketing teams, there are some nuances that we have to consider given the specific nature of marketing and context within which we operate.

Moving to Scrum as a way of organising marketing teams and managing their work offers a number of clear benefits:

  • Better quality deliverables
  • Faster speed-to-market
  • More control
  • Reduced risk
  • Improved customer understanding and alignment

To realise these though, we have to take a pragmatic approach and understand that marketing is different, and marketers are different.

Many Agile purists insist that Scrum must be applied rigidly for it to work. Yet, we've seen from numerous examples that in order to gain buy-in , traction and success with Scrum for marketing teams we have to be prepared to adapt the approach and tailor it to the marketing context. The following, therefore, provides an overview of the Scrum methodology as applied to the discipline and function of marketing. 

 Scrum in a nutshell:

  • Small, cross-functional, self-organising teams
  • Work is split into a list of small, concrete deliverables
  • This list is sorted by priority (and estimates made of the relative effort of each item)
  • Time is split into Sprint cycles of one to four weeks
  • Potentially releasable work (creative, content, etc.) is demonstrated at the end of each Sprint
  • The release plan and prioritisation is in collaboration with business stakeholders based on insights gained by inspecting the work from the Sprint
  • The process itself is optimised by having a ‘Retrospective’ meeting after each Sprint

Why Scrum for Marketing Teams?

Many marketers have never heard of Scrum, or view it as something that they do over in IT. Yet, companies such as ING, CA Technologies and IBM have applied it to great effect to maximise the efforts and outputs of their marketing teams.

The original goal of Scrum in the software development world was to accommodate uncertainty in the face of growing complexity and change. Jeff Sutherland, one of the creators of Scrum, stressed, "Scrum is based on a simple idea: whenever you start a project, why not regularly check in, see if what you're doing is heading in the right direction, and if it's what people actually want?"

We can see many parallels here with marketing. Just like in software development, we're faced with growing complexity and uncertainty across the customers who we're looking to engage with and sell-to, the markets in which we operate, the technology that we're using, and the wider socio-political factors that influence our environments.

Scrum moves us from large 'big bang' plans and campaigns to small next best actions where we can carefully measure and adjust our efforts. It gives us a framework to test, iterate, and hone our activities to increase productivity, flexibility, and adaptability to change. Through this, it also enables us to learn and in so doing, get much closer to our prospects and customers. By constantly putting things to market and gaining quick feedback, we build knowledge and insight into what our customers are ACTUALLY looking for and how best to serve their needs.

Although Scrum wasn't designed for marketing, it solves many challenges and holds many advantages to improving the way we work, enhancing the quality of our deliverables, enriching the experiences we're creating for customers, and increasing the business impact that we're generating.

Scrum in Practice

Scrum can be viewed as a set of practices broken into 3 aspects: team roles, events, and tools. These are represented collectively by the following diagram:

Scrum For Marketing Teams Diagram

1. Team Roles

The Scrum methodology prescribes teams that are:

  • cross-functional so they have all the competencies needed to accomplish the work without depending on others not part of the team, and
  • self-organising so they can choose how best to accomplish their work, rather than being directed by others outside the team.

Scrum therefore adopts a team model based on the following roles:

The Marketing Owner is the intermediary between the scrum team and the business. They keep the prioritisation of tasks current, communicate with stakeholders, and help the team make sure they’re doing the right work at the right time.

The Scrum Master is the facilitator of the Scrum process. He or she is accountable for removing any impediments to the ability of the team to deliver, acting as a buffer between the team and any distracting influences. They help to ensure that the team follows the agreed processes in the Scrum framework, facilitating key sessions and encouraging the team to improve.

In the software development world, the Scrum Master is a full-time role, however, most marketing organisations lack the resources to dedicate an entire team member to managing the Scrum process. The Marketing Owner may therefore double up to take on the remit of the Scrum Master as well, or the responsibilities can periodically move from one team member to another, for example monthly or quarterly. Sharing the Scrum Master role in this way can help team members to learn and appreciate the process, as well as gain new perspectives on how it could work better for the team. Again in software development the Scrum Master has increasingly become an accredited position with 'Qualified Scrum Masters' being much sought after. For marketing, this isn't necessary especially as you get started; a basic understanding of Scrum principles and practices is enough, at least to begin with. 

Finally, we have the Scrum Team who are responsible for doing the work. Scrum is designed for teams of five to nine members, when they’re larger or smaller things can get complicated. Departments too big to fit into a single Scrum team can be divided to form multiple teams based on criteria such as audience segments, or stages in the buyers' journey. These multiple Scrum teams would then be coordinated using a 'Scrum of Scrums' approach where each team provides a representative who attends a daily meeting to discuss progress with representatives from the other teams.

2. Events

In traditional Scrum parlance these are referred to as 'ceremonies' which can seem somewhat grandiose for us mere marketers, so we can look at them simply as the events or meetings that take place to facilitate the Scrum process.

In Scrum, work is divided into time-boxed iterations known as Sprints. These last a relatively short period, usually from one to four weeks with two or three weeks being the most common. Each Sprint represents a modest block of time to produce meaningful but not large deliverables. Big projects or campaigns wouldn’t be completed in a single Sprint; instead, they’re produced through a continuous sequence of many Sprints, one after another. Each Sprint would make incremental progress, with the benefit of being able to make adjustments along the way. The Scrum methodology is built around the concept of Sprints as a way to create focus, intensity and speed for completing work tasks.

Each Sprint kicks-off with an initial Sprint Planning Meeting. This is where the team determines what it will work on over the course of the Sprint based on the prioritisation in the Marketing Backlog and estimations of the work involved (see below how these work). Generally, you should allow one hour for each week of the Sprint, i.e. a two week Sprint would take two hours to plan. After the Sprint Planning Meeting the team is committed to a set amount of work and the Sprint begins.

As the Sprint proceeds, the team meets everyday at a Daily Stand-Up (also known as a Daily Scrum) to update on how things are going. This should last no longer than 15 minutes so it doesn’t impinge on the teams work time, hence why people stand as it motivates them to keep it short. The format of the Daily Stand-Up is to talk about what each team member did in the previous day, what they plan to get done that day, and any roadblocks that they’re experiencing so the team can offer their advice and support. The Daily Stand-Up gets issues out in the open quickly so they can be addressed and resolved by the team.

At the end of the Sprint we have a Sprint Review. All internal stakeholders attend and the Scrum team shows what they’ve completed during the Sprint. The goal is to have something that can be released to the external audience whether that’s some new creative, a piece of content, a website update, etc. If it’s a small component of a larger campaign you don’t HAVE to release it, but the great thing about Scrum is that it helps us deliver marketing to our audience constantly and consistently.

Also at the end of the Sprint we hold a Retrospective (or Retro) meeting. This is only attended by the Scrum team (including the Scrum Master) and it’s their opportunity to discuss how the process is working and look at how they could make it better. Any suggestions are documented and added to the Marketing Backlog so they can be implemented. After the Retro the cycle starts again with a new Sprint Planning Meeting.

Finally, we have a Backlog Refinement Meeting. This usually takes place towards the end of a Sprint and is where the Marketing Backlog (see below) is reviewed to ensure that the prioritised list of tasks that the team need to complete is comprehensive, still relevant, and prioritised correctly based on the latest information and views. It's also where the top priorities are composed as 'Customer Stories' - this is when tasks are written from the perspective of the end customer specifying exactly who they are, what they want, and why. In this way, tasks and actions are grounded in the value that they ultimately bring to the customer to create their desired outcomes.  The benefits of holding a separate Backlog Refinement Meeting are threefold: it reduces the need for lengthy Sprint Planning Meetings, it provides the chance to reflect on Backlog items before committing to the Sprint, and it gives the flexibility to look further ahead.

3. Tools

In Scrum, all the tasks that need to be completed at any one point in time are captured in the Marketing Backlog. This is simply a prioritised to-do list for the marketing team to use as the source of all their work. It’s a simple concept, but backlogs are shockingly difficult to maintain! They need to be constantly updated and the tasks near the top of the list need to have sufficient detail that the Scrum team could start working on them immediately without needing to ask anyone any questions. A good backlog is key to any high functioning Agile Marketing team and, if neglected, you’ll quickly find issues cropping up throughout the process.

It's crucial for the team to only maintain ONE Marketing Backlog. This can be a tricky concept for marketers who like to have lots of separate to-do lists, for example for different functional areas, projects or initiatives, etc. However, without one centralised Marketing Backlog it becomes impossible to prioritise effectively and for the team to know what THE most important thing is they should be doing or focusing on. The motto is, "One Backlog to rule them all!"

During the Sprint Planning Meeting, the team pulls work from the Marketing Backlog to form the Sprint Backlog. This is the sub-set of tasks that the team believe they can complete within the next Sprint. It’s up to the team to make this decision, NOT their manager or the Marketing Director / CMO. Scrum works on the principle that the team themselves are best placed to understand how long things really take, so they’re the most qualified to decide how much they can get done.

The work carried out by a team during a Sprint is visualised on a Scrum Board. The board can take many physical and virtual forms but it performs the same function regardless of how it looks. The board is traditionally divided up into three columns representing work stages: To Do, Work in Progress and Done. All tasks that need to be completed during the current Sprint, i.e. the Sprint Backlog, are added in the To-Do column in priority order. The Scrum Team then updates the board by moving items to Work in Progress as they start working on them, and then Done once the item is completed. If the Team is located in the same space, it helps to have a physical Scrum Board located in a central area where people can easily see and access it. If the Team is spread across multiple locations, there are a number of online apps available that provide virtual Scrum Boards, often having lots of added-value features and metrics to help improve the team's process. Some teams use both physical and virtual boards in unison to get the respective advantages of each, although it's important to ensure that both are constantly in sync.

Work Estimation

A key aspect of Scrum is to understand how much work a team can complete during a single Sprint. This is an important consideration so the team can plan what they're able to accomplish and make commitments to the business during Sprint Planning.

To figure this out, we have to estimate the size of work in our Backlog so we can then understand what's realistic for the team to deliver.

Unfortunately though, people are generally pretty poor when it comes to estimating how long it will take to complete something using time, i.e. the number of hours.

Traditional Scrum advocates using a relative scale instead, with the preferred system being the Fibonacci number sequence: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21. Here, work tasks are sized by comparing them to each other and 'scoring' them using the Fibonacci sequence; in this respect, a size 2 task is deemed to require one quarter of the work that a size 8 task will, and so on. Fibonacci therefore provides more precision and distinction between the estimated sizes.

For marketing though, especially when you're just starting out with Scrum, Fibonacci can seem somewhat technical and complicated. A simpler and more accessible approach to begin with is to quantify each task using Day or Half Day blocks of time. It's more basic and less precise, but will allow you to get familiar and comfortable with work estimation.

Another alternative is to use t-shirt sizes, i.e. small, medium, large, or extra-large. The difference between each can be somewhat arbitrary and subjective, so you may want to assign a numeric scale, i.e. small is 1, medium is 2, large is 3, extra-large is 4.

It's best to experiment with different estimating methods to see what works best for your team and the type of work that you're doing.

After working for a few Sprints, you'll have data on how much the team has been able to get done. This value - the total work points completed per Sprint - is known as the team's Velocity, which you want to increase over time. When you see Velocity dipping, you should look at factors that are impacting the team's performance, such as the amount of external interruptions, and try to address accordingly.

Task delivery is tracked within each respective Sprint using a Burndown Chart. This is a graphical representation of the work left to do in the Sprint, versus the amount of time remaining. It tracks the team's completion of work as they progress towards the end of the Sprint, ideally so that everything gets done. It's used to predict the team's likelihood of completing their work in the time available.

For longer-term projects, such as preparing for a product launch, a Burndown Chart can be used to track progress across Sprints, where the time axis represents each individual Sprint iteration. You can create your own Burndown Chart using a simple spreadsheet, or most Scrum software tools / apps will include functionality to track Burndown.

Sprint Burndown Chart

Applicability of Scrum for Marketing Teams

Scrum works great in particular contexts, but it’s not necessarily right for everyone. It’s especially relevant for teams that suffer a lot from external interruptions given how it accommodates incoming demands.

As Scrum is based around working in time-boxed Sprints, this offers us the flexibility to deal with new, additional requests that come up whilst a Sprint is already in progress in one of three ways:

  • 1
    We can defer the request to be completed until the next or a future Sprint cycle - in this scenario, the request is added as a task to the Marketing Backlog to be reviewed and prioritised at the next Backlog Refinement or Sprint Planning Meeting. This is the preferred or even default way to handle new requests in Scrum.
  • 2
    If the request is deemed by the Marketing Owner to be both required immediately and of high priority, it can be added to the current Sprint  - in this case, however, tasks at the bottom of the Sprint Backlog (i.e. lowest priority) of equal estimated effort to the new request should be removed from the Sprint and added back into the Marketing Backlog for review and prioritisation at the next Backlog Refinement or Sprint Planning Meeting.
  • 3
    The final option, in exceptional circumstances where the new request is required immediately, of high priority, and considerable effort, the current Sprint could be cancelled altogether and a new Sprint cycle started based on a re-planning / prioritisation of overall work. As I say, this is a very rare exception and is a measure that should be taken only as a last resort.

Given these scenarios, dealing with change in this regard becomes part of the Scrum ways-of-working and is accommodated as an ongoing factor, rather than an interruption. Scrum minimises 'fire-fighting' where everything has to be suddenly dropped and efforts re-focussed. 

Scrum does mean serious change to how you manage work on an ongoing basis, especially versus the way marketing has historically worked - so you need to be committed and prepared to stick with it before you jump in.

Summary and Key Takeouts

  • Scrum is a simple, lightweight, iterative process for project management offering better quality outputs, accelerated speed-to-market, more control and less risk, and improved alignment to customers.
  • Although originating in the software development space, it holds significant application for other functions, including marketing; however, it must be adapted to account for marketing's specific nature, nuances, and context to be successful.  
  • Scrum comprises a set of practices that cover specific roles within the team, events that take place, and tools used to facilitate the ways of organising and managing work.