Revving Up Your Agile Marketing Engine with Better Ceremonies with Andrea Fryrear

June 27, 2017 Andrea Fryrear

This year, our special guest star on all things Agile marketing, Andrea Fryrear, will be providing Agile marketing newbies with a monthly step-by-step guide to their first year as an Agile marketer. This post is the seventh in the series. Enjoy!


In the early days of an Agile marketing rollout, the focus is often just on getting the engine running.

It might not roar or purr or make any of the right engine noises, but as long as it starts moving us along the right path we’re satisfied.


Watch our on-demand webinar "Agile Marketing 101" for more information from Andrea Fryrear and Raechel Duplain.


But then, as we move past the early days of an Agile implementation, it’s time to start evaluating how each component is working. It’s time to examine the parts of the engine and see what could be working better.

Over the past several months we’ve covered the basics of getting started with the three main Agile marketing methodologies, Scrum, Kanban, and Scrumban. Now it’s time for a more detailed explanation of the roles and ceremonies that most Agile marketing approaches share.

By understanding each of these components more fully, you’ll be able to continuously improve how they work on your team.

While improvement might take the form of eliminating one or more of these pieces if they don’t help your team, you shouldn’t cut one out until you’re completely sure you’ve given it a chance to succeed.

After all, engines work best with all their pieces in place.

Common Agile Marketing Ceremonies

You probably noticed that I’ve been referring to “ceremonies” rather than “meetings” so far, and that’s a very intentional word choice.

Meetings carry a lot of baggage—who hasn’t been in a truly terrible meeting?—so Agile pioneers tried to steer clear of this loaded language, and the practice has become commonplace.

But don’t think of these gatherings as purely ceremonial, either. Each one serves a specific function for the team and its efforts. So whether you call it a meeting or a ceremony, make sure each of these Agile practices is doing its best work for your team.

Daily Standup

What it is: A gathering, usually daily, of the entire Agile marketing team designed to identify problems and opportunities quickly and efficiently.

Standup is one of the most powerful ways that Agile teams stay in constant communication with one another, allowing them to attack emerging roadblocks as a unit. Everyone should leave standup with a very clear understanding of what they need to do next to help the team meet its commitments.  

The most commonly used format for a standup meeting is for each team member to provide a three-part update that covers what they did yesterday, what they plan to do today, and any blocks they’ve encountered. Scrum teams tend to gravitate towards this format.

An alternative format, which you’ll find most often on Kanban and Scrumban teams, is to have a facilitator go through the board and speak only about notable projects or tasks.

Things that are blocked from progressing, items that the team has new information about, or unplanned work that’s been added would all come up in this type of standup meeting.  

Whichever style you use, you should be finishing your standup meeting in under 15 minutes, regardless of how many people are on your team.

How to make it work better: The strict 15-minute time box can be challenging, but going long every day becomes a serious waste of the team’s time.

Task someone to act as timekeeper and gently nudge team members prone to oversharing to keep it brief. If you’re going long a lot, you might also consider the facilitated version so each team member doesn’t need to share individually. 

You may also find that team members use standup as a simple check-in, a rote exercise where they go through the motions of updating their coworkers. But it should really be a mini-strategy session where the team puts its heads together to figure out their plan of attack for the day. 

Make sure you don’t allow laptops or phones at this meeting, and make sure Agile marketing leaders are pushing for communication and problem solving, not just a status update.

Backlog Grooming or Refinement

What it is: The backlog acts as the Agile marketing team’s to-do list.

They should always be able to pull the top piece of work with confidence, knowing it’s the most important thing they could be working on. To keep the backlog functioning properly, stakeholders need to meet regularly to update it. This is known as grooming or refining the backlog.

The term “grooming” has recently fallen out of favor, as it implies that we’re just making the backlog look nice when we should be making it work better. "Refinement," with its emphasis on specificity and reduction in size, seems to better fit the goal of this Agile ceremony. 

How to make it work better: Oftentimes backlog refinement meetings aren’t effective because the right people don’t attend. Decisions then get deferred because the team needs approval from someone who isn’t there.

Avoid this by getting decision makers in the room during this ceremony. If attendance is a struggle, let them know that their priorities may not be reflected in the team’s output if they aren’t there to make their voices heard.

You may also find these meetings feeling like a never ending death march if you try to discuss every single item in the backlog at every meeting. Focus on the work the team is likely to start on before the next backlog refinement session, and don’t worry about things farther down the list.

It’s quite possible items near the bottom will be removed as priorities change, so spending time rearranging and refining them is a wasteful activity.

Sprint or Iteration Planning

What it is: For teams using sprints, or time boxed iterations, the planning ceremony marks the beginning of their next round of work. It’s where they decide exactly how much work they can complete during the next sprint, assign tasks to team members, and commit to a clear sprint goal. 

Teams who don’t use time boxes, but rather release work whenever it’s completed, most likely won’t need a dedicated planning meeting. Their backlog refinement meetings will serve this purpose.

How to make it work better: Be strict about how long a planning meeting can run. A good rule of thumb is one hour for each week of the sprint. You don’t want to burn half a day planning if you’re only doing a one week iteration.

You’ll also find that planning is much more efficient if your backlog is in good shape.

If the team has to interrupt their planning to search for information about an upcoming project, this meeting will become wasteful very quickly. Make sure items near the top of the backlog contain all the detail the team will need to start working, and planning meetings will go much more smoothly.

Retrospective

What it is: The retrospective ceremony is a time for the Agile team to come together and honestly discuss their process.

Only people who are actually contributing work on the team should be allowed to attend, so that people feel safe voicing concerns or frustrations about leadership if that’s a source of problems for the team.

Typically time boxed from one to two hours, retrospectives (or retros) are easily the most powerful tool for Agile teams to continuously improve their process.

How to make it work better: One of the most common struggles with retrospectives is a lack of progress. The team brings up issues, suggests solutions, and leaves feeling optimistic. Then nothing changes.

To counteract this tendency, add action items to the team’s backlog immediately so they can be incorporated into the workflow. Assign an appropriate resource to shepherd that item so it doesn’t get overlooked amidst more urgent projects.  

Review

What it is: Reviews, or sprint reviews as they’re often called, usually only happen on teams using sprints, because these ceremonies are a chance for the Agile team to demonstrate what work they’ve completed during the last iteration.

Unlike the retro, a review should be attended by many non-team members so they can familiarize themselves with the recently completed work.

This particular ceremony makes a lot of sense in a software context, when a demo is a natural outcome of completed work, but it may not work for every marketing team.

How to make it work better: If your reviews are sparsely attended, consider rolling them up into other company-wide meetings, like a weekly all-hands meeting or a quarterly review.

You might also consider taking the review virtual, sharing the team’s recent outputs via chat, webinar, or other online sharing system so people can review work at their leisure.

Bonus: Marketing Strategy Sessions

What it is: Strategy sessions aren’t strictly Agile, but marketing teams need to make sure their day-to-day efforts are in line with larger organizational objectives.

If members of other departments and organizational leaders don’t attend your backlog refinement and/or planning meetings, you may want to add a quarterly planning ceremony (if your organization doesn’t have one already).

This should be an opportunity to course correct or pivot so marketing is still delivering value to the rest of the organization.

How to make it work better: Strategy sessions may not be Agile themselves, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use an Agile approach to make them better.

Make sure whatever is discussed in the strategy session gets thoroughly documented and reflected in the team’s backlog. Don’t have a large scale planning meeting if it won’t impact what the team’s doing; it’s just another wasteful meeting if you do.

You can also make strategy sessions more effective by having the team’s backlogs clearly visible. Having the team’s current priorities as a reference point can streamline discussion and keep it focused on action items instead of vague generalizations.

Do Agile Better to Be More Agile

Don’t let your Agile practice stagnate as you progress towards more advanced levels. Even if it’s off to a good start, the engine can stall if you neglect to care for all of its parts.

Keep looking for new and better ways to be Agile by optimizing, adding to, or eliminating the ways that you do Agile in your department.


See "Building and Growing an Agile Marketing Team" where Andrea Fryrear digs into the basics of building your team.

About the Author

Andrea Fryrear

Andrea is the president and lead trainer at AgileSherpas (http://www.agilesherpas.com/), a training, education, and consulting company designed to help marketing teams transform their work from frantic to fantastic. Her most recent book, *Death of a Marketer*, chronicles marketing’s troubled path and the steps it must take to claim a more Agile future. She geeks out on all things agile and content @andreafryrear.

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