The Spirit of Agile Optimization: Better Marketing Sprint Planning

Get agile. Crazy agile.

Let’s face it, everyone’s moving to agile these days. The market demands that we quickly adapt to constantly changing priorities without negative impacts on quality. Besides, the opposite of “agile” is “sluggish,” and nobody wants that word referring to them. You might as well go over the falls in a barrel at that point.

I’ve been discussing agile marketing with Andrea Fryrear, who runs The Agile Marketer, in various blog comments and emails for a few months. Recently, she’s recently been talking a lot about her experiments in optimizing her sprint planning.

We hear a lot about how to implement agile—and quite a bit of it reminds us how to groom our backlogs and measure burndown as a means to greater efficiency—but agile optimization often goes unsung. I asked Andrea a few questions about her agile optimization efforts.

Isn’t agile already an optimized approach? What is there to optimize? Doesn’t this run afoul of the manifesto?

That’s really interesting, as I’ve never thought of the manifesto as having been optimized. In my mind it’s a starting point—a set of guiding principles designed to form the foundation of an agile approach. Even the different methodologies represent different ways of optimizing for getting value from the principles and values the manifesto espouses.

What is continuous improvement if not optimization? Particularly in Kanban and Scrumban, the workflow is supposed to be routinely examined and adjusted based on data and context to produce the most meaningful possible version of agile for a particular team.

To me, it all comes down to Responding to Change Over Following a Plan. An agile methodology could be considered a plan, and we should be ready to respond to changes and adjust it as needed.

How would I know when and where we might benefit from optimization?

One word: retrospective.

More words: If you hear themes come up when the team sits down to review its process, those are likely either problems or centers of excellence. And it’s pretty clear which of these categories a topic falls into. The team will feel pain points, and those are areas that need to be optimized. Maybe it’s the approval and review process, maybe it’s how you deal with incoming requests to the backlog, or maybe it’s the tool you’re using, but sticking points will show up during an open and respectful retrospective discussion.

What have you done to optimize/personalize agile and why?

I’ve done so many unorthodox things to optimize agile, both for myself personally and for my teams. At the heart of most of these adjustments is the fact that agile methodologies were designed for software developers, not marketers. Our day-to-day tasks differ from theirs significantly, and our struggles are often very different too. If we just try to shoehorn ourselves into their approaches, we’ll end up optimizing for the process and not for outcomes.

How have those experiments turned out? Any remarkable takeaways?

Some of the experiments, like talking about each card on our board one by one instead of doing a traditional standup, for example, we abandoned quickly. (30 minute standup – yikes!) Others, like requiring our hands-on CEO to attend sprint planning meetings to minimize mid-sprint changes, we kept.

For me the most important part of experimentation isn’t even the increased efficiency or smoother workflows you might get; it’s the experimental mindset that’s the real win. The team gets in the habit of examining what’s going on around them and identifying ways to make it better. Experiments are, by their very nature, uncertain, but if you can get a team comfortable with doing them regularly you’re set up to eventually arrive at a highly optimized process.

How does all this drive better marketing sprint planning?

The sprint planning meeting should be up for changes just like any other ceremony on an agile marketing team. You might end up experimenting with different ways of estimating, or even throwing estimation out in favor of Kanban work item types. You might find, like my team did, that bringing in a few “chickens” increases the meeting length but helps protect the sprint going forward.

The spirit of optimization and continuous improvement applies to every component of the agile process, including sprint planning.

The spirit of optimization

Andrea nails it right there. Agile is all about optimization.

At the end of the day, it’s all about committing to deliverables that move the needleand keeping an eye out for opportunities to optimize to continuously improve your process. Constant, incremental progress is pivotal to any agile program, marketing or otherwise. By bringing an optimization mindset to our agile ceremonies, we set ourselves up for success; doing more of what works, less of what doesn’t.

How are YOU and YOUR TEAM optimizing your sprint planning?

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