If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
You’re probably familiar with this paraphrase of The Law of the Instrument, a common adage whose simplicity conceals the complex relationship at its core. In fact, there is an intricate dance among a problem, its solution, and the tools available to those trying to solve it. A solution, however clever it may be, is still the wrong solution when it’s applied in the wrong context.
As agile processes catch on in marketing departments of all shapes and sizes, marketers need a diverse set of tools at our disposal to adapt these methodologies. Yet we’re at risk of falling victim to our own Law of the Instrument by equating agile marketing with a single well-known agile tool: Scrum.
Scrum was the first official methodology to emerge from the agile software movement of the twentieth century, and it has enjoyed a strong first mover advantage for over a decade. Ask most people what it means to practice agile marketing, and you’ll almost certainly hear words like “sprint,” “scrum master,” and “daily scrum.”
Other agile tools are likely to be conspicuous only in their absence. You will rarely hear mention of WIP limits, kaizen, or workflow visualization, even though these versatile tools have proven just as effective as those used exclusively inside a Scrum team.
To be clear, I don’t want to call for the abolition of Scrum altogether; hammers have their place in every well-stocked toolbox, after all. Instead, I want marketers to discover the diversity of agile tools they can put to work on their behalf, so they don’t waste time trying to make a saw do the work of a crowbar.
The Trouble With Scrum
One of the pioneers of the agile movement, Jeff Sutherland, first articulated the practices that have come to be known as Scrum. In his book Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, he speaks eloquently of the need for new ways of working. Very early on in the book, he declares, “Scrum is based on a simple idea: whenever you start a project, why not regularly check in, see if what you’re doing is heading in the right direction, and if it’s actually what people want?”
Put that way, it’s hard to argue with Scrum. And it’s this common sense, level-headed, yet deeply revolutionary version of Scrum that most agile practitioners fall in love with. And there’s no denying that adopting Scrum can be a life-changing event, both professionally and personally. But over time, its practices have solidified into rigid, regimented routines that cannot be broken under any circumstances. This rigidity does not mesh with the varied environment of modern marketing.
Sutherland points out that he simply designed Scrum as the means to put agile values into practice. “There is no methodology,” he baldly states. Yet now we have sprint velocity, Scrum masters, burndown charts, and an entire certification industry devoted to making sure people have paid enough to legitimately practice Scrum. It’s this inflexible, ossified version of Scrum that marketers need to avoid.
Kanban’s Most Powerful Agile Tool
If Scrum falls at the most prescriptive end of the agile methodology spectrum, at the other extreme, we find Kanban. Originally articulated by David Anderson and rooted in Toyota manufacturing processes, Kanban focuses on identifying bottlenecks that stymy productivity and removing them one by one.
Scrum limits the amount of work that a team can handle at any time using timeboxes, or sprints, while Kanban gets more granular and limits how much work can be in each stage of work at any given time. Known as WIP (Work in Progress) limits, these simple parameters can almost instantly force teams to stop starting on new projects and start finishing what they’re already working on.
For instance, my personal workflow might be as simple as:
To Do → Doing → Done
Visualizing it like this helps me see what’s going on, but I could easily have a dozen different projects that I’m “Doing” at once. Applying a WIP limit of two to this stage instantly keeps my multitasking tendencies in check. If I’m working on two projects, I can’t begin a third until one is done. Now, instead of having twelve incomplete projects and twelve unhappy clients, I’ll start to complete work faster and more efficiently.
WIP limits are enormously powerful on both a personal and team level, but they make no appearance in Scrum. They are just one example of an agile tool that marketers will never encounter if Scrum is their only agile alternative.
Understanding Agile’s Powerful Hybrid
Take a quick tour of any home improvement store and you’re bound to find a multi-tool that claims to combine the essentials of several other tools into a single, easy-to-use package. Maybe right now you need a screwdriver, but later on, you’ll need an allen wrench. Both are at your fingertips. The hybrid agile methodology of Scrumban takes a similarly flexible approach.
It lets teams start quickly by applying Kanban visualizations to their existing workflows, but it can also deliver work on a predictable cadence by maintaining the timeboxed sprints that make many marketers comfortable using Scrum. Essentially, Scrumban offers up a fully customizable menu of agile options.
Scrumban may sound like the perfect choice, particularly for marketers who are already trying to adapt methodologies originally designed for use by development teams. The problem is there are no step-by-step instructions for using this approach. Each Scrumban implementation is unique, and each evolves at its own pace as time goes on, so there’s no blueprint for new agile marketers to follow.
When faced with a choice between a methodology that offers training and the comfort of a clearly defined implementation path, or one that sets you free in uncharted waters, many uncertain marketing teams opt for the former.
Pick the Right Tool for the Right Job
For marketers struggling with a complex, constantly evolving landscape, agile marketing offers a toolbox overflowing with life saving implements. From cross-functional teams to work item types to retrospectives, there are dozens of ways that agile practices can make marketing work better.
But we need to get comfortable reaching for the right agile tool to suit our current need.
Scrum, like a hammer, is effective in many situations. In others, it will just make the problem worse. Spend some extra time exploring all the agile options that are out there, whether it’s Kanban, Lean, systems thinking, or something else entirely.Your marketing problems won’t always be a nail, so make sure you have more than just a hammer on hand.
Andrea is an agile marketing evangelist who spends way too much time thinking about things like backlogs and WIP limits. She is the founder and chief content officer for Fox Content, where she helps drive content strategy and implementation for her clients using agile marketing methodologies. You can also find her writing and editing The Agile Marketer, a community and resource center for all things agile marketing. She’ll also be speaking about this topic at Content Marketing World 2017, in Cleveland, Ohio, September 5-8. Use discount code BRANDQUARTERLY to save an extra $100 on registration.