A brief history of Agile

Agile is an iterative approach to project management and software development, with the purpose of minimizing the time it takes to develop and deploy the features that are most important. Instead of doing one big software launch, Agile teams could now deliver in small but meaningful increments. Things went smoother overall and were less error-prone, with the added benefit of optimizing the value to market.

As the Agile manifesto puts it, the core values of Agile involve emphasis on team dynamics and communication, a flexible mindset prepared to face changing circumstances, and avoiding unnecessary bureaucracy when it comes to documentation. Grand principles aside, what Agile boils down for most is a set of practices and tools applied in a mix and match model of their liking; daily standup meetings, sprint based planning and reviewing, kanban boards, and retrospectives being the usual suspects.

Since those early days in the 2000’s the Agile development field has gone through a series of changes, the most significant of which began in early 2010’s with the introduction of DevOps; a continuous integration & development (CI/CD) model which allows an even more streamlined and rapid deployment. While DevOps has its roots in Agile, it is not considered an Agile methodology per se; it has transcended from Agile into a set of practices, processes and technologies used by developers to accommodate the demand of increasingly faster software deployment. Since the rise of DevOps, the popularity of Agile has been in steady decline, now showing up in Google Trends at roughly ¼ of volume it was at its peak.

Agile in marketing

Having witnessed the benefits of Agile methodologies in development, marketers became interested in the possibility of applying that same mindset to their field of work. Even though the initial mindshare was only a fraction of that of Agile development, adoption has been steadily on the rise with a culmination in 2021 according to AgileSherpa’s State of Agile Marketing Report (4th annual edition); for the first time, more than half of marketers labeled themselves as being Agile. With the volatile landscape which began with the introduction of COVID-19 to the world 84% of those marketers found Agile to be a key means to handle the changing circumstances; the flexibility it added allowed for fast course corrections as the world turned upside down.

The most favored model is, as in the earlier days of Agile development, that of a hybrid framework – very few have adopted strict Scrum or Kanban models, for example. The most often applied techniques are sprint planning & reviews, daily standups and digital kanban boards – the last one something that has gained popularity undoubtedly thanks to the hybrid working model enforced upon all in 2019.

What this has resulted in so far has been nothing but positive: Qualitative benefits reported by Agile marketing practitioners include more streamlined comms and less time used planning and coordinating. The overall feeling is that it’s easier to get along as well; friction caused within and between teams was reported as lower than that in traditional teams or those who work on a purely ad hoc basis. The Agile teams feel they’re better equipped for emerging opportunities in the form of future development of tools and processes. On top of that, the Agile marketing departments find it easier to stay strategically aligned with the organization’s vision – with ad hoc there is a clear disconnect, which risks rippling through both strategy and tactical activities.

So, if it’s all so great, why did the adoption rate of Agile in marketing drop from 51% to 44% in 2022 (State of Agile Marketing Report, 5th annual edition)?

The decline of Agile

Remember when we used to refer to marketing and digital marketing as separate things? And how, with time, these two merged to the point of there being only marketing; the digital no longer a separate add-on, but rather an integral part of marketing to the point where mentioning it was superfluous? Marketing included digital, and those that treated it otherwise were set on a course towards declining performance.

This may be the road paved for Agile; the practices are beginning to be so interwoven with marketing operations that labeling anything as explicitly Agile is redundant. Adoption has reached critical mass – it’s become a universal gospel of truth – with those not implementing some form of Agile practice finding themselves increasingly in the minority.

This is one possible explanation for that declining number for 2022; Agile has become so inherent in marketing operations that emphasizing it explicitly has become passé. Extrapolating that trend indicates we’re approaching another change – a major iteration of how marketing functions are operated.

With that comes the somewhat provocative conclusion: Agile is dead.

However, its principles live on in the work we do.

The rise of Marketing Ops

With Agile absorbed into marketing and no longer a clearly defined separate entity, what is this next iteration in our way of working we should consider for adoption? What can those winning principles transmute into; what does the post-agile marketing landscape look like?

Scott Brinker from Chief Marketing Technologist has an interesting take on this: Where Agile development gave rise to DevOps, so could also Agile marketing evolve into a more holistic approach – say hello to Marketing Ops, the future enabler of planning and executing marketing in a streamlined way.

However, where DevOps is a practice utilized by several teams, Marketing Ops would be focused on a role or team within the marketing organization; a function that manages the MarTech stack, including automation and instrumentation, and processes in order to further shorten the distance between marketing idea and concretizing that to customers.

It is worth noting that Marketing Ops is not an overly technical role, as martech platforms are becoming increasingly no-code even when it comes to advanced functionalities. This further empowers the marketing department and expands their self-service capabilities, decreasing the need for specialized technical training and dependencies to IT and developers.

To clarify, the core concept is to enable a role or team to control the entire martech stack and the marketing activities that are channeled through it. This Marketing Ops team would have the ability to not only plan but also execute advanced marketing operations, without being unreasonably dependent on technical developers.

Just like DevOps handles smooth deployments of software, so does Marketing Ops ship marketing – quickly, easily and with a minimum risk of error.

Even so, Marketing Ops isn’t an independent solution; the importance of strategy, planning, roadmaps, prioritization, team coordination and collaboration are still essential. And these, in turn, are benefitted from Agile practices.

The legacy of Agile lives on, but in doing so has taken a different shape.

All aboard!

There are several trains leaving at this station we’re scrutinizing; the tried and true Agile train is almost at speed and the slightly more intrepid looking Marketing Ops one is blowing the whistle for everyone to get onboard.

Where do you find yourself at this junction; on the platform, or already onboard one? In the event that you’re still picking your destination – and one is recommended for the benefit of not becoming stagnant when it comes to ways of working – it’s a good idea to start moving. The world continues to go through tectonic shifts around consumption and promotion of those products & services, and those not thinking on their feet risk falling through the cracks.

If you decide to make a run for the Agile train, there’s an established set of recommendations on where to start: lean experimentation, tool up with project management software, and acquire executive sponsorship. Pilot a few projects, iterate, and then rollout to the wider organization. You can still make that jump and catch the handrail of the last train wagon – it’s a dependable train and you won’t regret getting onboard.

If you’re feeling more adventurous and go pioneering on the Marketing Ops train, you can expect to face a frontier of uncharted lands. Bring a good compass and open-minded courage for that terra incognita – undiscovered riches await.

Either way, reach out – we’d love to coach you on your way toward a smooth running marketing operation.

State of Agile Marketing report (editions 4 and 5) from AgileSherpas
Chief Marketing Technologist

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