How to Align Product and Marketing Teams: Iterative Systems

Andrea Fryrear on Content Marketing

Talking about product ownership with marketers can seem like a bit of a disconnect.

We often don’t own the product or have much say in its direction; we just market whatever the product team gives us.

But on an agile marketing team, we need someone who communicates with other departments (like the product team) and makes sure that our marketing backlog accurately reflects the product’s direction.

To that end, I recently completed a Certified Scrum Product Owner training, and I’m going to do my best to translate its core tenets to an agile marketing team.

There’s a lot of value in having a dedicated product owner on your agile marketing team, and it’s something we’ll be exploring in more detail in future articles. But for now, we’re going to tackle two core parts of the Product Owner role on an agile team:

  1. Create a shared understanding of goals, objectives, and strategies through deliberate collaboration.
  2. Use that understanding to turn marketers into a high functioning team that can continuously deliver value to their audience.

Shared Understanding of an Agile Marketing Team

Take a moment and consider a recent conversation you had with a team member. Were you like these three folks?

false appearance of agreement

This type of “shared” understanding often happens when we discuss ideas verbally and then walk away.

Communication That Leads to Understanding

Agile practitioners tend to place a high value on face-to-face interaction (and it’s certainly an important part of team communication), but it’s not the only kind of communication that gives us insight.

When we take the next step and get information out of our minds and onto the walls we often learn surprising things:

turns out we don't really agree

Now that we’ve discovered a disconnect in what we all thought was agreement, it’s time to reestablish the team connection.

We do this by organizing information, distilling it down into its essential parts, and identifying overlapping patterns. It might go something like this:

finding the aha moment

And then we can all go back to our individual responsibilities with increased confidence that we are all driving toward the same goal, not our own individual understanding of that goal.

actual shared understanding

Team Conflict and Marketers

These nice slides are almost certainly glossing over the tense discussions that these digital people needed to go through before they reached their happy shared understanding.

It may be uncomfortable, but collaboration needs to allow room for conflict.

As our instructor Aaron Sanders reminded us, instability creates room for innovation.

To get to great marketing innovations, we may need to focus on the ideas that originate in instability and disagreement.

But more than many other types of professionals, marketers can have issues with conflict. Product owners need to take a good hard look at their teams before collaboration begins so they can try to intercept these issues before they derail group sessions.

Coming to a truly shared understanding may take time; you need to set these expectations with your team and encourage respectful disagreement if it helps drive the team toward excellence.

From Understanding to Agility

Once your team has reached a shared understanding, they’re ready to really collaborate on an agile team. We need to all have the same big picture in our heads in order to create cohesive iterations and marketing experiments.

Increments versus Iterations

The most important step towards this type of marketing agility is to start thinking in terms of iterations rather than increments.

Consider this incremental approach to creating the Mona Lisa:

creating incrementally

Unfortunately, as that slide indicates, incremental projects require fully formed ideas and extremely accurate estimation. That sounds a lot like the big, up front, waterfall process that is no longer serving marketing well at all.

Instead, we want to adopt an agile, iterative approach to marketing a product.

This process starts with a much broader idea and adjusts it as more information comes in, like this:

creating iteratively

It’s Not Iteration If…

One final word about iteration: it’s not iteration if you only do it once.

It can feel like rework or rehashing if you continue to go back to campaigns “that we already did,” but this is the only way to release campaigns in a “good, better, best” cadence without the overall quality suffering.

Put review into your process; make things constantly better, and you and your executive team will have much less hesitation in putting out a minimum viable campaign.

Maximizing Learning With Agile Marketing

The goal of iterations is to organize our projects so that they give us the maximum amount of data up front. The more we know, the more confident we can be that our campaigns will succeed.

There are two parallel things going on in this approach:

  • Organize work to maximize learning: When picking projects, we focus on those that will teach us as much as possible as quickly as possible.
  • Knowledge is the inverse of risk: Once we’ve internalized those lessons, our knowledge should allow us to create future iterations that have a much lower risk.

If we’re applying what we learned we should get a lot closer to the goal than before we had those lessons available. So we need to get as much of that learning done as quickly as possible, though we should have an ongoing build-measure-learn loop running on our team at all times.

The Power of Games for Agile Marketers

When your team is first preparing to make an agile transition, it can be difficult to keep your focus off the process itself. We get fixated on the rituals and terminology but lose sight of why we’re messing with “this agile stuff” in the first place.

Product Owners may need to keep the team focused on their goals by bringing the discussion back around to the product, the audience, and the “why.” A great way to do this is by thinking about games.

Because games have simple rules almost anyone can learn to play them; the sophistication comes from the strategies and tactics used by skilled players and coaches.

Similarly, marketing has simple basic rules. The cool stuff happens when we apply our specialized understanding of our products and audiences to those rules.

Winning, Rules, and Agile Teams

In addition to having simple rules, games have a clear objective. We always know whether or not we have won the game.

And although the rules of a game are crystal clear, you don’t win just by following the rules. You have to meet the objective to be considered the winner.

It’s also important to remember that having an individual play their position really well while their team loses is not considered winning.

Let’s say that again just to make sure it sinks in for us individualistic marketers out there: individual success does not equal team success.

Good Agile Teammates

Games have positions, not roles. There is often a deep specialization of players — think quarterbacks versus offensive linemen — but each player maintains a general level of proficiency in the game.

Sound familiar? It’s the good old “T” shaped marketer concept.

We should have a deep understanding of a particular marketing skill, yet be able to step in an assist our team in other areas as needed.

It’s the difference between playing just to our position versus figuring out how to win the game.

Sometimes the offensive lineman has to run the ball, even if that’s not what they usually do.

Many thanks to Aaron Sanders, whose Certified Scrum Product Owner Training course from Rally’s Agile University inspired this article and was the source of the slides/screenshots. Thanks also to Jeff Patton, whose book User Story Mapping provided Aaron with much of his source material.