Often, it is not the ideas that stagnate a company’s growth, but the execution. To paraphrase Jack Welch, only a small portion of success is the aha idea; the main success comes from the execution of that idea. As such, it is imperative that we look internally for other ways to excel at execution and create stronger growth opportunities.
Back in 2005, I was introduced to the concept of Agile web development. Quite innovative at the time, Agile methodology broke down software or web development into bite-sized efforts defined along the way, creating a more effective and efficient outcome than defining all business requirements upfront and setting forth a project plan to complete development (called the waterfall approach).
Over time, this method proved successful for me and my teams with product management and development. We used two-week plans (called sprints) and broke down requirements into stories (bite-sized efforts that a software engineer could plan during the sprint). This process led to a very quick go-to-market for new products and features with fewer resources than our competitors at the time.
From that time onward, I had developed the motto “iterate to great.” That is, if you can create a workflow that is iterative — and, more importantly, a culture that will always be a “work in process” — then perhaps you can grow your company faster than expected. Today, we talk about “growth hackers” in companies. The challenge with growth hacking is that it is often in a silo of your organization: testing new ideas, doing research, variation testing, etc. However, growth hacking is difficult to execute upon once hacks are found since the discipline is not embedded into the operational workflow of a culture. For example, if you test an idea to generate e-commerce conversion rate improvements, then it is sometimes difficult to deploy a validated idea because execution requires dependencies on others who were not included in the original test. It is unclear where that hack fits within the priorities across the organization.
It dawned on me that if we could distribute Agile methodology and iterative planning across the entire organization, we could embed growth hacking into the organization. If every department were doing the same planning, would it be easier to identify and implement growth hacks? Over the past 15 years, this is exactly what I have done at my organizations.
The next department to migrate to Agile planning was marketing. Marketing seemed to always be an execution-driven department, receiving requirements from the business and planning projects to execute. The first step toward Agile culture deployment was to eliminate the term “project” from the company vernacular. There were no more projects. It was important to indoctrinate the marketing team toward the “iterate to great” philosophy, which is focused on outcomes. The marketing teams quickly adopted an outcomes-based approach to planning, for example, to increase the e-commerce conversion rate by 10%. By focusing on the outcome, nothing became a project, but rather bite-sized efforts needed to achieve the outcome.
The next step toward Agile adoption was professing the idea that nothing would be 100% done. In fact, we would never come close to 100% done. Why? Because “iterate to great” would assess along the way whether the efforts performed were going to achieve the outcome or not. If not, the effort gets abandoned quickly (fail fast). If so, the efforts could iterate based on what is learned. Over time, the marketing teams achieved Agile Zen with two-week sprints on the same cycle as technology. In the end, all departments adopted Agile in some form. When challenged with “This function can’t be Agile,” we often sought to define outcomes and set up a workflow. A great example would be customer service. How could customer service use Agile? Well, if we want to reduce call abandon rates or improve customer satisfaction scores, there needs to be efforts defined to achieve that outcome that are tested along the way.
Once “iterate to great” Agile planning is achieved across an organization, there are two critical elements that are required to support the workflow: transparent alignment and prioritization. Transparent alignment means that all departments should work in sprints that have roughly the same interval planning (e.g., two weeks) and are all distributed and discussed among teams in order to identify intrasprint dependencies. Think about this as the next evolution of project management whereby departments can view sprints of other departments and align where there are dependencies. For example, if the marketing team is working on a new web design to test, but the development team has not accounted for its implementation, the efforts need to align.
Prioritization is the other area to support successful Agile workflow in an organization. As sprints are planned and transparency is created, it will become evident that there are dependencies that compete for resources and outcomes that compete for priority. It is imperative to deploy a steering committee to constantly stack-rank overall company priorities based on ROI. As the priorities are stack-ranked, the prioritizing decisions become self-evident across teams. No longer will politics or opinion drive priorities, but rather ROI-based decisions.
In the end, Agile planning is a great way to deploy growth hacking across an organization. Company culture is at the center of this adoption, and leadership must be fully committed to its deployment.