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Why setting key priorities is essential in agile marketing

In this chapter of “MarTech’s guide to agile marketing for teams” you will learn how your team should assign singular responsibility for prioritization, to optimize its backlog for clearly communicating priorities, and keep from over-committing and burning out.

The best agile marketing teams I’ve seen are masters at prioritization. In this chapter you will learn how your team should assign singular responsibility for prioritization, to optimize its backlog for clearly communicating priorities, and keep from over-committing and burning out.

A single person on the team needs to prioritize

While your agile marketing team doesn’t necessarily need to follow the Scrum framework by the book, the one thing you absolutely need to do is have a single person responsible for prioritization on each team. This person may be called a product owner, a marketing owner, a strategist, a project manager, team lead or even just a manager. Regardless of the title, they’re the single source of defining what is most valuable to customers and the organization.

When there isn’t a unique role that has this responsibility, your team accepts all work requests, regardless if they’re in the best interest of the business’s overall goals and strategy or not. This leads to feeling burnt out as a team member and a lot of context switching.

I’ve heard so many complaints from marketing team members that they’re overworked, they’re constantly getting new requests, and that they don’t feel like they’re accomplishing anything. This old-school way of producing output rather than focusing on business outcomes is the cause of people leaving their jobs.

I’m coaching a company right now that doesn’t have anyone on the team responsible for prioritization. They’re using Asana to manage work, which is a good start, but anyone on the team can enter work at any time, and they tend to come in as last-minute tickets rather than well-thought-out priorities.

While the practice of having everyone on the team enter work isn’t necessarily bad, the fact that no one is there to funnel through the right work leaves the team overloaded, juggling too many competing priorities and starting a lot of projects, but not delivering value to customers. So getting new ideas from the team is great—as long as there is a single person who can vet those ideas against all of the other ideas to decide what’s the most important.

The best teams I’ve worked with have this role clearly defined. This person spends about half the time with business stakeholders and customers looking ahead at priorities, and the other half of the time with the team answering questions about the strategy and outcomes expected of the work. What this role doesn’t do is define how the team will work — that’s part of what an agile marketing team does on its own.

If you don’t have a role on the team today responsible for prioritizing, I encourage you to help your organization define someone who can. This person should be able to:

  • Have access to key stakeholders and customers
  • Be able to make priority decisions
  • Have time to work with the team on a day-to- day basis (not doing work, but communicating priorities)
  • Feel comfortable saying “No”

A retail company that I worked with had recently begun agile marketing. They embraced the product owner role and she had visibility into all of the work that had already been requested to the team. Before agile marketing, those requests were going to individual team members, so there was no visibility into the overall picture of just how much work was on the team’s plate. The product owner put all of the work requests into a backlog and had the team provide sizing to the work. When they added it all up, they discovered that the team had already committed to two years worth of work! They realized they had two choices to make—hire several new people and create at least two more teams, or decide which campaigns weren’t going to get done. They chose the latter and learned that many of the ideas were not even needed anymore. The marketing team was able to streamline the work and the team was able to work at a much more manageable pace.

Optimizing work through a marketing backlog

Once you’ve defined who will be in charge of prioritization, all work requests need to funnel through that role. This is one of the most difficult parts of agile marketing to implement, but it’s also one of the most effective ways to keep your team focused on working on the most valuable tasks and delivering value to customers earlier.

Brace yourself for this one—in agile marketing your manager no longer assigns you work! Yes, that’s right—the marketing backlog is the single source of truth for what the team will work on next and it has to be funneled through the one role that understands all work the team may need to do so that the team can actually accomplish something.

If agile marketing is new to your organization, it’s going to be critical that everyone on the team educates their managers on how this works. While they may not like losing control over work assignments, this elevates managers and gets them out of the weeds so that they are able to do more strategic work.

So when work comes to you as a team member from your manager or anyone else, you’ll need to be able to explain how the team is now working off of one prioritized backlog. The benefit to this is clear visibility and having the team work on the most important items.

Some teams allow requestors to enter whatever they want into the team’s backlog, but the marketing owner must be able to distinguish new requests from old ones, which is feasible in many agile tools. Other teams I’ve seen do a great job of planning quarterly priorities with their stakeholders and work gets added to the backlog at that time.

The marketing backlog is a fluid, transparent place for all future work. Your team’s marketing owner should be looking at it daily, moving things up or down the list as they learn more from how campaigns are performing and what stakeholders are needing.

If you’re not the marketing owner, encourage that person on your team to keep the marketing backlog up-to-date so all team members and stakeholders can easily see upcoming work and what’s the most important at any given time.

Setting prioritization criteria

What about those pesky last-minute urgent requests? We don’t want to create such a rigid system that we can’t ever respond to those, but the team and stakeholders need to define “urgent” and what’s worth interrupting the team or causing planned work to slip. Urgent requests need to be the exception, not the rule, or your team will never get anything done.

The product owner should lead the prioritization criteria and determine what is really urgent. A good rule of thumb—If we don’t do this work today, will it cause loss of sales, bad publicity or upset customers?

The team’s priorities should always be leading up to larger business goals. Are we trying to sell
a new product? Get new customers? Keep old customers? Which of these is most important to our organization at this point in time? 
The marketing owner needs to always understand this and recognize that not everything can be an equal priority.

The most effective way to set the team’s priorities is to align on those big goals with stakeholders and to maintain a quarterly roadmap of key projects. As new requests come in, the marketing owner needs to assess them against the agreed-upon priorities. This role may need to be asking:

  • How does this work tie into our roadmap goals?
  • Does this work have an urgent market need?
  • What are the negative impacts if we don’t take on this work?
  • How will this work benefit our customers?
  • Will this work impact other work we’re doing?

When your team clearly understands business priorities and how work impacts the roadmap, customers and the team, it will be well on its way to succeeding with agile marketing.
by Stacey Ackerman
source: MarTech