Working In Sprints:
The Fast & The Curious
The world moves fast, especially when it comes to digital. To be agile, we must therefore accelerate the tempo at which marketing operates if we’re to keep up. This isn’t about working harder or faster...it’s about working smarter! What we actually need to accelerate is the process by which we determine which activities we’re working on as an organisation, to be able to nimbly adjust where and how we’re targeting our energy. Primarily, we want faster feedback loops so we can update our plans fluidly based on what we learn. We can achieve this by working in sprints, i.e. time-boxed cycles of effort.
Instead of long, drawn out project stages per traditional plans, sprints 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.
Sprints fundamentally change the tempo and cadence of work. This gives us a number of benefits - not just the ability to move fast, but also to maximise our creativity and innovation...you could say more 'curious'. Here's what working in sprints brings to marketing teams:
1. Dictates Prioritisation & Focus
Sprints impose size limitations on both the scale and volume of tasks completed, forcing marketing to think and work in a more incremental and iterative fashion. They increase both the frequency of planning and also the intensity of work. The short time length means that we have to make specific choices about what we're going to do - what are THE most valuable actions that we (the team) can be taking over the course of the sprint. We have to prioritise. There's no room for uncertainty and, as such, the team has to be absolutely clear on what it’s trying to accomplish. This in turn leads to an intensity to get things done, to achieve the specified deliverables and outcomes in the timeframe of the sprint.
Sprints also help to manage incoming requests or the all-to frequent in marketing, 'fire-drills'...someone in Sales asking for a new piece of collateral that they need for an event next week, or the CEO coming up with a new idea for National Jelly Beans Day (yes there is such a thing!!!). The list of tasks to be delivered over each sprint are decided up-front during a 'Sprint Planning Meeting'. Here, the team takes into consideration and account requirements from across the business to decide what Marketing should be working on here and now. Where new things then come up during the sprint there's a legitimate ability to push back and say either that it must wait until the next sprint (at most in 2 weeks), or that something has to drop-off to accommodate. There are defined processes and practices for these eventualities so change becomes anticipated and managed to ensure the team keep focus and effectiveness.
2. Identifies Issues Quickly
Working in sprints enables us to expose issues and concerns quickly by creating repeated opportunities to gather results, feedback and information. Each respective sprint is the chance to learn what's working and what's not, as well as collect insights from the wider market and environment. During a sprint the team meet daily to share progress, next steps and flag any obstacles or hurdles that they've encountered so everyone's made aware and can troubleshoot together. These 'standup meetings' (as attendees are required to remain standing to intentionally keep the meeting short) provide a daily spotlight to identify issues and then either jump on them immediately, or add them to the prioritisation list to be reviewed at the next sprint planning.
The objective of each sprint is for the team to deliver work that can either be put live to an audience, or reviewed by business stakeholders. In this way, feedback is gathered rapidly on marketing's activities to be able to define future direction and priorities accordingly. The cadence of the sprint also allows the team to constantly be brining in new insights and information from outside, i.e. what's going on in the market and with customers.
In all, sprints create repeated feedback loops that shine light on both internal and external issues so they can be surfaced, understood and addressed as quickly as possible.
A core requirement of working in sprints is that individual team members are open and transparent with each other, as well as with leadership. There's an expectation that issues and concerns are highlighted frankly and early so the group can share ideas and work together on solutions fast. To meet the committed sprint outcomes it's crucial that nothing is hidden and everything is out in the open. This also means that individuals have to communicate with candor - time is short and it's important to cut to the chase and ensure that everyone understands where each other is coming from. This environment requires psychological safety within and around the team so members feel free to share without the risk of offense, criticism or ridicule.
4. Makes Individuals Accountable
To achieve the desired outcomes of a sprint, the team must be empowered to decide and act for themselves whilst moving at speed. They don't have time to be referring every decision up the chain or to outside specialists. The team's on-the-ground insights make them best suited to understand the situation and decide what needs to be done in the moment. The counter-balance to this empowerment though is that individuals are accountable and, per point 3, there's a transparency to each other and the wider business. Once someone commits to a sprint, they’re essentially telling all others involved that they’re going to complete a task in the set period of time. This is a public commitment to the team and business which thereby creates accountability. Now you've set a certain goal and are expected to come through. You're given the scope and support to achieve, so it's on you to deliver.
5. Builds Team Trust
This accountability in-turn creates a collective mentality, built on mutual trust - the team are in it together and committed to having each other's backs. To get things done over the course of a short sprint, team intermingling and collaboration is necessitated by the speed at which projects move. The intensity of the sprint pushes people together to get things done. This is a reason why sprint teams should be kept small, ideally 5 to 9 individuals. At this size personal bonds more easily develop and the group mindset flourishes.
6. Creates Opportunities to Ask Questions
Each sprint provides the team with a natural inflection point at which to pause, review, and adjust tactics based on feedback from either internal stakeholders or external audiences. Working in shorter cycles gives the opportunity to more frequently assess conditions and priorities based on emerging information and insights, allowing us to accommodate any changes and new demands more readily without major disruption to workflows.
Each cycle has a defined beginning and end where we can stop and ask questions. Is this initiative working? Is there a better solution? Should we be doing this? It this delivering the customer outcome that we're intending? And so on. These questions aren't just to review the deliverables of the sprint, but also the processes of the sprint itself. The sprint cycle gives us the ability to stop and modify the way we do things to make them more effective and efficient as we go along, rather than having to wait for longer-term formal process reviews.
7. Delivers Rapid Experimentation
Each sprint gives the team a short-term target for deploying work into the market sooner rather than later. In this respect, it creates a new opening to experiment with ideas and alternative ways of doing things which we can easily insert into our plans. As each sprint is small in scope, the risk of running experiments is reduced significantly. Amazon's Jeff Bezos commented, "Our success at Amazon is a function of how many experiments we do per year, per month, per week, per day." More experiments mean more opportunities to discover better solutions, methods of operating and new ideas. Sprints create discrete windows where we can deploy and run experiments rapidly, and then use the results to inform and direct future iterations, or move to completely try new initiatives. It becomes a continuous stream of ongoing innovation.
8. Gets You Closer to Customers
By putting work to market quickly, rapidly experimenting, and continuously gathering insights and feedback, we ultimately create a process of continuous customer discovery and learning. Instead of relying on ad hoc market research studies per conventional marketing planning and campaign development, sprints are a way to continually generate knowledge about customer behaviours, beliefs, attitudes, needs and wants. They then enable us to take these and action immediately, responding in timeframes that are meaningful and relevant for today's demanding and expectant customers.
This collapsing of timescales to move from long-term plans (3 months+) to short cycles (1-4 weeks) is the foundation to becoming more agile. There’s a lot more to Agile practices of course, but accelerating the cycle speed at which marketing operates alone is hugely powerful. We increase our marketing metabolism so we get more done, that's more focused and directed towards the outcomes and objectives that we're looking to achieve.
Has your team had success in moving to working in sprints? What advantages do you see and what were the hurdles or obstructions that you had to overcome. Please share in the comments below: