If you’re part of a marketing team, you know that trying to wrangle all of your projects can be about as frustrating as playing dodgeball blindfolded. Your landing pages need updating, your content calendar is behind schedule (again), and you’ve been trying to launch that new product video since the Dark Ages. Oh, and sales needs more leads. Yesterday.
Why is it so tough to get a handle on everything? That’s where Scrum comes in.
In this post, I’m going to show how Scrum can help you transform your marketing processes from a quagmire of frustration into a streamlined bastion of ingenuity that would make even MacGyver proud.
What the heck is Scrum?
Scrum is a rugby term that refers to a closely-knit huddle of burly men who are bludgeoning each other for possession of a leather-covered ball. Scrum is also a learning-based project-management approach. It helps teams focus on priorities while remaining responsive to new circumstances. While it’s commonly used in software development, you can apply it to any discipline. Especially marketing.
You can read entire books about Scrum, but there are two principles that I want to outline here:
Principle #1 – Responsiveness
Traditional project management says that you should plan every detail of an initiative ahead of time. Once the planning phase is complete, your team simply executes against the plan. Simple, right? Sure – except real life isn’t like that. And those plans you worked so hard on can suddenly become obsolete.
Scrum eschews that approach. Instead of spec-ing out your new website in minute detail in advance, you’ll break a project into smaller chunks – tweaking your plans at each stop along the way. This is why Scrum is called an agile approach. Sanity is now within reach!
Principle #2 – Constant improvement
Wouldn’t it be great if your team got better every week? With Scrum, your team regularly and intentionally improves its processes. You’ll be like HAL 9000 from Space Odyssey: 2000 – you’ll use what you learn to get smarter and will soon want to take over the world (except unlike HAL, you’ll use your powers for good).
Scrum even helps you measure your output to see how much you’re improving, which I’ll show you how to do in a bit.
Key Terms of Scrum
There are key concepts of scrum that you should be familiar with first:
- Backlog – a list of things your team wants to get done at some point
- Sprint – a period for working on selected projects (and only those projects). Typically 1-2 weeks.
- Daily Stand-up – a brief daily huddle where your team checks project status
- Retrospective – a review period at the end of each sprint
- Product Owner – the person who decides what’s added to the Backlog and each Sprint
- Scrum Master – the person responsible for enforcing your team’s Scrum processes
Scrum in 30 Seconds
Here’s a 30-second overview of how to use Scrum:
- Build a backlog of every marketing idea sitting in that geeky brain of yours.
- Create a sprint plan of the projects you want to complete by the end of your first sprint.
- Conduct daily stand-ups to share project status and resolve roadblocks.
- Hold the Retrospective to identify process improvements for the next sprint.
- Incorporate your improvements into the next sprint. Revel in the glory as your team levels up.
Applying Scrum to Marketing
Great, so what do these principles look like in practice? Keep reading for a step-by-step breakdown of how to get started.
The Backlog – Because Even Ironman Needs Help
Just like Ironman needs Jarvis to keep track of everything, you need a repository for all those amazing ideas swimming around your head. Enter the backlog.
There’s just one maxim you need to know about the backlog: an unkempt backlog is worse than no backlog. If you don’t nurture your backlog, it will soon turn into an overgrown, abandoned parking lot of ideas that would look right at home in a post-apocalyptic zombie movie.
Get a handle on your backlog with these steps:
- Label each idea with an estimate of how much value it will add to your company. We use game changer, improvement, and nice to have.
- Add another label that indicates of how much effort might be required. We put everything into three buckets: epic, project, and task.
- With those labels, it’s easy to see which projects will add the most value to your company and take the least amount of time. Tip from Mr. Obvious: do those first.
- Cap the number of items allowed in the backlog. This will help keep things from getting out of hand. We limit ours to about 40.
- Finally, don’t allow just any idea in the backlog. Some projects should never be done. The Product Owner should lead the decision for what should be included.
To give you a sense of how this looks for a marketing team, here are a few items from our own backlog:
To keep everything tidy, segment your backlog into these three sections:
- New Additions To Review – anyone can add ideas here. But they aren’t added to the proper backlog before they’re vetted.
- Active – anything we’re actively working on (surprise).
- Backlog – all the vetted ideas live here, like eager puppies waiting for adoption.
Now that you’ve got your backlog defined, roll up your sleeves, take a swig of coffee and build your first sprint plan…
The Sprint Plan – One Leg of An Epic Journey
Think about a sprint like planning for an epic journey across Middle Earth. It would be silly to plan every stop in advance. There are too many unknowns that could impede your progress: orcs, elves, and even giant talking trees.
Instead, you’ll focus on just the first day. If you’re departing from the Shire, you might target Bree as your destination. All you worry about on day one is getting to Bree. You can map out stops for second- and third-breakfast, debate over which type of beer you’re going to drink at day’s end, and even estimate your arrival time pretty accurately.
The following day you’ll focus the next destination, and things can progress smoothly from there (at least until the Eye of Sauron notices you).
OK… each leg of your journey? That’s what each of your sprints is like.
To build your sprint plan, you focus on a select group of projects – not everything in your backlog. Here’s how to get started:
- Identify a project in the backlog that adds a high level value for a relatively low amount of effort.
- Define the scope of the project. Ambiguously defined projects are the enemy of progress.
- Ask yourself, “can my team complete this project within one sprint?” If not, break down that project into smaller chunks.
- Estimate the effort required to complete that project. Scrum uses a concept called story points for this. The more effort required, the more points given. The first time you do this, your guesses are going to be off a bit. That’s OK. You’ll get more accurate over time. Nerd tip: use the Fibonacci sequence for story point values: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, etc.
- Repeat steps 1-4 until your gut tells you that your team’s at full capacity for the sprint. Or until your team starts yelling at you. Now that your sprint plan is full, any remaining projects in your backlog will have to wait until a future sprint.
- Assign an owner to each project in the sprint. The project owner keeps eyes on the project and makes sure it actually gets done. They may work on it directly and/or require help from others.
- Take a look at the projects assigned to each person. Does everyone have a roughly equal balance of work? Is anyone overburdened? If so, adjust the sprint plan accordingly.
There are two signs that you’ve done things correctly: everyone has a clear idea of what they’ll be working on, and you’ve planned just enough work to keep everyone productive during the sprint.
Here Are Some Things That Keep Us From Messing Up Too Often
Our first sprint plans were like slow jogs in untied shoes. Some 50 sprints later, we’re like that guy who annoys his friends by telling them about every marathon he’s run.
Here are some tweaks we’ve made along the way:
- Create a separate document for each sprint. Don’t let one sprint plan merge into another, or you won’t be able to measure anything.
- Break each sprint into stages. This will help you see which projects are crying themselves to sleep at night from lack of attention. Here are the stages we use:
- To Do – everything goes here at the beginning of the sprint
- Defined – once all sub-tasks are added
- Create – someone is actively working on the project
- Review – the project is mostly done, but needs someone else’s eyes on it
- Implement – hold on to your butts, this project is about to go live
- Done – At the top of your lungs, shout “Now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station!” Or just mark the project as complete.
- Add an Impromptu tag to any projects that were added after the sprint begins.
- Try Waiting On [Name] tags. If your name is Biff and you see a bunch of Waiting On Biff tags, you’re holding back the rest of the team!
The Daily Standup – Team Cheer Required
This is your opportunity to get a status report from your team. Each person will share three things: what they did yesterday, what they plan to do today, and what they need from others to move forward. If there are any roadblocks, they’re addressed here.
For example, let’s say a blog post can’t be published because the creative isn’t ready. Instead of scrambling at the last minute, you’ll have the chance to solve the problem ahead of time.
The daily standup is also a good time to bring up “impromptu” projects (unplanned work that needs to be added). Maybe you discovered an error in an email workflow that needs to be corrected ASAP. During the standup, you can raise this issue, identify someone to tackle it, and adjust the sprint plan accordingly.
Bonus: come up with a cheer your team can break on at the end of each sprint. Yes, the rest of your company will roll their eyes at you but that’s half the fun.
The Retrospective – Hitting A New High Score
Remember assigning those story points to your projects at the beginning of the sprint? (Those were the estimates of how much work each project would take.) This is your chance to see how many points your team actually got done. Here’s how:
- Take a look at all your completed projects for the sprint.
- Add up the story points for each. This is a rough estimate of how much you got done.
- Repeat the process for three or four more sprints.
- Take the average number of story points you complete. That’s your baseline for how much work your team can handle each sprint.
With your baseline established, you’ll easily be able to see when your team under- or over-performs. Which brings us to the real point of the retrospective: constant improvement. Here’s how to lock it in.
First, ask each person on your team to share what went well during the sprint. Perhaps someone found a way to reduce the time needed to build a landing page by 20%. By sharing this knowledge with the team and making it part of everyday practice, you can lock in that improvement going forward.
Next, ask everyone to share what problems they encountered. This isn’t a chance to blame others – it’s an opportunity to find better ways of getting things done. Keep talking about the challenges you faced until you identify potential solutions.
Finally, add the implementation of those solutions to your next sprint. For example, maybe your marketing campaigns take forever to get completed because everything is done ad hoc. For the next sprint, add a project to create a clear campaign process for your team.
If you can come up with just one improvement per week, your team could make 50 process improvements in a year. And guess what? Those improvements will add up big time. Not only will you get more story points done, you’ll progress from being Rocky the noob boxer to Rocky the Apollo Creed-decimating prize fighter.
Two Apps That Your Marketing Team Needs to Try
Asana – Unicorns Are Now On Your Team
While there’s no “best” app for Scrum, we’ve found that Asana works really well for both managing the backlog and planning sprints. It allows us to keep everything in one place and it’s great for handling sub-tasks.
Bonus reason for using Asana: rainbow-generating unicorns that fly across the screen when you complete a project. Does your current project management software provide unicorns? I didn’t think so.
Slack – Your Life Is Now Complete
Slack isn’t just another glorified messaging program – it’s so good that you may be tempted to name your first child after it. We use Slack’s channels feature to help us sort through messages. For each project in a sprint, we create a new Slack channel. Any messages related to that project go there. When the project is complete, we archive the channel and never have to see it again.
But Read This Before You Start
Scrum isn’t a panacea. In fact, it will probably be pretty messy when you start. But if you put in the effort, you’ll see your team grow like the Hulk (minus the rage, purple pants are optional). Not only will your team produce more, but they’ll enjoy their jobs more. Better planning = less stress = happier people.
So if you decide to try Scrum with your marketing team, stick with it for at least a month before you decide if it’s right for you. And make sure to get your team on board first. I suggest having everyone on your team read Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work In Half The Time by Jeff Sutherland and J.J. Sutherland before you begin.
Already use Scrum with your marketing team? If so, I’d love to hear how it works for you. If you have any tips to share, please add them in the comments below!
About the Author: John Rougeux is Co-founder and CMO at Lexington, KY-based Causely. His company helps businesses and organizations generate referrals by supporting world-class charities through its Sweat Angels, Check-In Angels, and Reach programs. Chat with John on Twitter at @johnrougeux.