September 15, 2021
By Ross Lancaster, Content Specialist
In 1986, Japanese business professors Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka published “The New New Product Development Game” in the Harvard Business Review. The paper argued that traditional forms of product development — namely, the “Waterfall” method that breaks down projects into sequential phases — were becoming obsolete.
Takeuchi and Nonaka realized that some of the world’s most successful and innovative companies at the time were using development processes among teams that were more autonomous, cross-functional, and flexible. These companies were also eschewing the sequential development curve prescribed by Waterfall and used an overlapping “rugby” approach, “where a team tries to go the distance as a unit, passing the ball back and forth.”
This new way of thinking helped companies manufacture products quicker, under-budget, and with fewer defects. It also helped Toyota become the world’s largest automobile manufacturer and the largest company in Japan.
But while Takeuchi and Nonaka likened this “new new” form of product development to a rugby scrum pushing the opposition down the field, what we know today as the Scrum framework in the United States was instituted by software executive Jeff Sutherland in 1993 and first presented by Sutherland and software developer Ken Schwaber in 1995.
As part of Agile principles, Scrum works in sprints where teams get as much as possible done on a task or set of tasks within a set amount of time, usually one or two weeks. It also relies on a deliverable product being produced in smaller increments, unlike Waterfall, where one stage of development has to be largely finished for the next to begin and testing doesn’t begin on a product until later in the development process.
Another key difference between Scrum and Waterfall is that while Waterfall prescribes hard-and-fast deadlines for its stages of completion, Scrum embraces uncertainty in finishing the final product but also requires quality work to be done and improved upon.
As Sutherland writes in his 2014 book, Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, “At its root, 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? And question whether there are any ways to improve how you’re doing what you’re doing, any ways of doing it better and faster, and what might be keeping you from doing that.”
Most importantly, Scrum is not a methodology or top-down project management approach. It also doesn’t prescribe how a team should accomplish its goals in a given sprint, just that the task within the larger project should be completed.
While the image of “sprints” may conjure images of weary teams hustling to meet their progress targets and accomplishing the impossible at the 11th hour, Sutherland says that’s not the case.
“A team that depends on regular heroic actions to make its deadlines is not working the way it’s supposed to work. Constantly moving from one crisis to the next causes burnout, and it doesn’t allow for reasoned, continuous improvement. It’s the difference between a cowboy riding in and rescuing the girl from the bad guys and a disciplined Marine platoon clearing the kill zone.”
But Scrum was first created in the tech world as a lightweight project management model for software development. So how does it relate to marketing and the agency space? And is it truly applicable to the day-to-day workings of marketing campaigns?
One aspect of Scrum that makes it ideal for marketing campaigns is the Scrum board, which keeps track of all tasks in a sprint. At a minimum it contains three columns outlining the status of a given task:
For marketing campaigns, Backlog and Review are two additional columns that many teams use on their Scrum boards, with Backlog featuring tasks that aren’t currently priority items but will need to be done. Review is an important column that can encompass internal review in an agency team as well as client review.
At a basic level, Scrum boards let the team know what’s being done by each team member during that sprint. At their most efficient level, they enable the kind of quality end product that leads to successful campaigns with improved conversion rates and high-quality B2B lead generation.
Breaking things down into sprints also enables constant iteration when Scrum is applied to marketing campaigns. For example, why plan a $5,000 ad buy on LinkedIn when you could start with $500 and make sure you’ve targeted the right buyers with the right message? If your campaign doesn’t convert when you go big at the start, the client has spent a pretty penny for no results, possibly creating a strained agency-client relationship.
By the same token, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to have a 30-page whitepaper delivered to a client without periodic review when a two-page brief composed during a sprint can make sure the content marketer, agency, and client are all on the same page before moving on to a longer-form piece of content.
Yet another example of how scrum is ideal for marketing campaigns and a team is with regular stand-up meetings, often at a daily or weekly interval. These meetings help the project manager or lead take account of where each person stands in completing the sprint and its necessary tasks. If there are obstacles or issues getting in team members’ way, those are addressed in a stand-up.
Marketing campaigns can undoubtedly benefit from the quality, speed, and communication improvements that come from sticking to as many Scrum tenets as possible.
Erica Chappell, ClickUp, How to Build and Use a Scrum Board (Ultimate Guide), July 13, 2020.
Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka, The New New Product Development Game. Harvard Business Review, January 1986.
Jeff Sutherland and J.J. Sutherland, Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, Sept. 14, 2014.
Manifesto for Agile Software Development, 2001.
Scrum.org, What is Scrum?
Warren Lynch, The Brief History of Scrum, Jan. 8, 2019.
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