What’s the Big Deal About Agile?

Ten years ago, “agile” took the software development world by storm. This model has expanded beyond software development into various industries, including digital marketing. Many of us in marketing have taken note of agile’s benefits, and a steady stream of agencies are integrating an agile model into their marketing projects. But if you’ve never experienced an agile project, you may wonder how a movement, which sprang from software development practices can have any application in a digital marketing environment.

A Brief History of Agile

If you’ve heard the term agile before, you probably equate it with software development. Rightly so, since agile’s heritage grew from the persistent problems developers faced working in the waterfall model of software development. Interestingly, since there was no software development methodology years ago, the waterfall model was borrowed and modified from the manufacturing and construction sectors. This model operated under a very structured, heavily documented approach to development. This tight structure was thought to make software projects more stable and predictable, which management loved, but developers working within this model found lacking, so the search was on for a new approach to the process.

Most of the ideas developers came up with weren’t new, but were definitely more lightweight and moved away from the bureaucracy of engineering and other waterfall methodologies. The focus was to try to achieve a balance between too much process and no process. In an effort to make development more adaptive and iterative, agile was born.

The real difference in agile was not the fact that the practices were less document-oriented. Many lightweight practices that agile espouses were around long before agile was conceived. The biggest contribution that agile made to the software industry is that it gave the industry an individual set of values. These values arose from the need for a better way of making decisions and achieving success.

Aligning Business Values With Customer Values

Online marketing, like software, has borrowed processes and ideas from various industries for years. While our basic purpose as marketers is to convert prospects to buying our product or service because they see it as the only logical choice, sometimes our methods are haphazard. We may take whatever we can from wherever we see complementary practices – offline direct marketing, book publishing, Six Sigma, the stock market, more tools, fewer tools, etc. Industry-wide, our strategies can vacillate between focus on persuading a well-defined persona group to focusing on tools.

What can agile do to keep us focused on the right things?

In the software development industry, agile’s greatest contribution are the values it uncovered. This value system is industry-specific and doesn’t borrow from other industries. This is the key to agile’s success in software. Inherent in agile is the idea that you can borrow practices and principles from any industry, but only if they’re in line with your own industry’s particular values. Having this freedom, they were able to clearly define their values in the Agile Manifesto.

According to “The World Book Dictionary”: “Value is an established ideal…that the members of a given society regard as desirable.” A set of values for our industry would give us a yardstick on which to measure how well we make the right marketing and management decisions for our industry and for consumers. Many of the management practices within agile are perfectly suited to managing online projects, as the nature of conversion-driven online marketing is iterative.

Start Small

Agile emphasizes face-to-face communication in order to facilitate breaking tasks into small increments with minimal planning. These increments are called “sprints” and generally involve working through a complete project cycle when a working product, or “walking skeleton” is demonstrated to stakeholders. This minimizes risk and allows the campaign to adapt to changes quickly. The goal is to have small teams working in an environment. This facilitates open communication and team collaboration. In an agile team, short, daily “stand-ups” keep communication open and iteration active, uncover any bottlenecks in the project before they become serious roadblocks, and keep the project on track.

My next column will explore good project candidates for agile marketing and take you through a basic scenario of how your marketing team might implement an agile process. In the meantime, as marketers, we need to ask ourselves, what might an agile manifesto for online marketing look like? What are our collective industry values? For some inspiration, please check out the Declaration of Interdependence.

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