Easy Agile Podcast Ep.3 - Melissa Reeve, VP Marketing at Scaled Agile

by Sean Blake, Head of Marketing

10 Nov 2020

I really enjoyed speaking with Melissa Reeve, VP of Marketing at Scaled Agile about Agile Marketing and how non-software teams are adopting a new way of working.

It's more important than ever to be customer-focused.

We talk about the danger of 'walk-up-work' and how to avoid this through proper sprint planning.

Melissa also gives an update on how agile is spreading to non-technical teams.

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Transcript

Sean Blake:

Hello everyone. And welcome to the Easy Agile Podcast. We have a really interesting guest with us today. It's Melissa Reeve, the Vice President of Marketing at Scaled Agile. We're really excited to have her on today. Melissa Reeve is the Vice President of Marketing at Scaled Agile, Inc. In this role Melissa guides the marketing team, helping people better understand Scaled Agile, the Scaled Agile Framework. In other words, SAFe and its mission. She also serves as the practice lead for integrating SAFe practices into marketing environments. Melissa received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Washington University in St. Louis, and she currently resides in Boulder, Colorado with her husband, chickens, and dogs. Melissa, thanks so much for joining us on the podcast today.

Melissa Reeve:

It's such a pleasure to be here. I really appreciate it.

Sean Blake:

Great. That's great. I really like your enthusiasm straight off the bat. So what I'm really interested in hearing about, Melissa is a little bit about how you got to where you are today. What have been the highlights of your career so far and how as a marketer, did you find yourself in the Agile space?

Melissa Reeve:

Well, thanks for asking. And I have to tell you, but just before the podcast my husband knocked on the door and he was all proud because we just got a new set of chickens and one of the chickens had laid its first egg. So that's been the highlight of my day so far, not necessarily the highlight of my career.

Sean Blake:

So you'll be having scrambled eggs and eggs on toast probably for the next few weeks now.

Melissa Reeve:

I think so. So back to the career, I really fell into marketing. My background was in Japanese literature and language. And I had anticipated this great career and international business in Asia. And then I moved out to the Navajo Indian Reservation and just pivoted. Found my way into marketing and found my way into Agile right around 2013 when I discovered that there was an Agile marketing manifesto. And that really was a changing point in terms of how I thought about marketing. Because up until that point, it really considered marketing in what's termed waterfall. Of course, marketers generally don't use the term waterfall.

Melissa Reeve:

But then I started to think about marketing in a different way. And when I came across Scaled Agile, it brought together so many elements of my career. The lean thinking that I'd studied when I studied in Japan and the lean manufacturing, it was Agile marketing that I'd discovered in 2013 and just education and technology have always been part of my career. So I really consider myself fortunate to have found Scaled Agile and found myself in the midst of scaling Agile into both enterprises, as well as marketing parts of the enterprise.

Sean Blake:

Oh wow, okay. And I noticed from your LinkedIn profile, you worked at some universities and colleges in the past. And I assume some of the teams, the marketing teams you've worked in, in the past have been quite large. What were some of those structures that you used to work in, in those marketing teams? And what were some of the challenges you faced?

Melissa Reeve:

Yes, well, the largest company was Motorola. And that was pretty early on in my career. So I don't think I can recall exactly what that team structure is. But I think in terms of the impediments with marketing, approvals has always been an issue. No matter if you're talking about a smaller organization or a larger organization, it seems like things have to go up the chain, get signed off, and then they come back down for execution. And inherent in that are delays and wait states and basically waste in the system.

Sean Blake:

Right. So, what is Agile marketing then and how does it seek to try and solve some of those problems?

Melissa Reeve:

Well, I'm glad you asked because there's a lot of confusion in the market around Agile marketing. And I can't tell you how many news articles I've read that say marketing should be Agile. And they're really talking about lowercase Agile, meaning marketing should be more nimble or be more responsive. But they're not really talking about capital-A Agile marketing, which is a way of working that has principles and practices behind it. And so that's one aspect where there's confusion around Agile marketing.

Melissa Reeve:

And then another aspect is really how big of a circle you're talking about. In the software side when someone mentions Agile, they're really talking about a smaller team and depending on who you talk to, it could be anywhere from five to 11 people in that Agile team. And you're talking about a series of teams of that size. So when you're talking about Agile marketing, you could be talking about an individual team.

Melissa Reeve:

But some people, when they're talking about Agile marketing, they're talking about a transformation and transforming that entire marketing organization into an Agile way of working. And of course, in the SAFe world, we're really talking about those marketing teams that might be adjacent to a SAFe implementation. So, I think it's a good question to ask and a good question to ask up front when you're having a conversation about Agile marketing.

Sean Blake:

Okay. Okay. And for those people that don't know much about SAFe, can you just explain, what's the difference between just having a marketing team now working in a capital-A Agile way, and what's the difference between an organization that is starting to adopt Scaled Agile? What's the difference-

Melissa Reeve:

Sure.

Sean Blake:

...between those?

Melissa Reeve:

Yeah. So what software organizations found is that Agile teams, so those groups of five to 11 people, that way of working works really well when you have a limited number of software developers when you started to get into the world's largest organizations. So I think of anybody on the Global 2000, they might have tens of thousands of software developers in their organization. And in order to leverage the benefits of Agile, you needed to have cadence and synchronization, not only within a team, but across multiple teams up into the program level and even the portfolio level.

Melissa Reeve:

And the same holds true with large marketing organizations. Imagine you're a CMO and you have 6,000 marketers underneath you. How are you supposed to get alignment to your vision, to your strategies that you're setting if you don't have a way of connecting strategy to execution. And so the Scaled Agile Framework is a way of taking those Agile practices across multiple teams and up into the highest levels of the organization so that we're all moving in a similar direction.

Sean Blake:

Okay. Okay, I think that makes sense. And from a software team's point of view, one of the benefits of Agile is that it helps teams become more customer focused. And many would argue, well, marketing has always been customer focused. But have you found in your experience that maybe that's not so true? And when marketing teams start to adopt Agile, they realize what it really means to become customer focused.

Melissa Reeve:

Yeah. I mean, you raised another great point because I think most marketers think that they're customer focused. Like many things in the world, the world is a relative place. So you can, in your mind, in theory, be thinking about the customer or you can be actually talking to the customer. So I just finished what I call the listening session. And it was during our hackathon, which is our version of an innovation, couple of days worth of innovation. So it was eight hours on a Zoom call with somebody South Africa. Just listening to her experience and listening to her go through one of our courses, slide by slide, by slide, explaining what her experience was at each step of the way.

Melissa Reeve:

So if you think about somebody who is sitting in a large enterprise, maybe has never met the customer, only knows the customer in theory, on one end of the spectrum. And you think about this listening session on the other end of the spectrum, you start to get an understanding of what we're talking about. Now, your question really pointed to the fact that in Agile practices, you're thinking about the customer every time. In theory, every time you write a story. So when you write a story, you write the story from the perspective of the customer. And I would just encourage all the marketers out there to know the customer personally. And I know that's not easy in these large organizations. It's sometimes hard to get face time with the customer, but if you aren't speaking directly to a customer, chances are you don't actually know the customer.

Melissa Reeve:

So find a way, talk to the sales folks, get on the phone with some of your customer service representatives. Go to a trade show, find a way to talk directly to the customer because you're going to uncover some nuances that'll pay dividends in your ability to satisfy the customer. And when you go to write that story again, it will be even more rich.

Sean Blake:

Oh, that's really good advice, Melissa. I remember from personal experience, some of these large companies that I've worked in, we would say, "Oh, this is what the customer wants." But we actually didn't know any customers by name. Some of us personally were customers, but it's not really the same thing as going out and listening to people and what did they find challenging about using that app or what do they actually want out of this product? So there's a huge difference, isn't there, between guessing what a customer might want or should want? And then what their day to day actually looks like, and what are the things that they struggle with? That's hugely important.

Sean Blake:

For someone who's in one of these big companies, they're in a marketing team, perhaps they don't have the power or the influence to say, "Okay, now we're going to do Agile marketing." What would your advice be for someone like that, who can see the upside of moving their teams in that direction, but they don't necessarily know where to start?

Melissa Reeve:

Well, there's a philosophy out there that says take what you can get. So if you are just one person who is advocating for Agile marketing, maybe that's what you can do is you can advocate. Maybe you can start building alliances within the organization, chatting casually to your coworkers, finding out if you have allies in other parts of the organization and start to build a groundswell type movement.

Melissa Reeve:

Maybe you can build your own personal Kanban board and start tracking your work through your own Kanban board. And through visualizing your work in that way, it's a little bit harder now that we're all remote, but should we get back into offices somebody could in theory, walk by your cubicle, see your Kanban board and ask about it. And now you might have two people using a Kanban board, three people. And really start to set the example through your mindset, through your behaviors, through your conversations in order to start getting some support.

Sean Blake:

Oh, that's really good. So be the change that you want to see in the organization.

Melissa Reeve:

Exactly.

Sean Blake:

Okay. Okay, that's really good. And when these companies are moving towards this way of working, and then they're looking to take the next level, let's say it starts in the software development teams and then say marketing is the next team to come on board. How does it then spread throughout the whole organization? Because I know from personal experience, if there's still that part of the organization that's working anti-Agile it actually still makes it really difficult for the Agile teams to get anything done. Because there's still the blockers and the processes and the approvals that you need to go through with those other teams. And I guess SAFe is the answer, right? But how do you start to scale up Agile throughout the whole organization?

Melissa Reeve:

Sure. And what you're talking about is really business agility, is taking the whole business and making the business Agile. And you pointed out something that's key to that, which is once you solve the bottleneck and the impediments in one area of the business, then it'll shift to another area of the business. So the advantage of business agility is that you're trying to keep those bottlenecks from forming or shifting. But what a bottleneck essentially does is it creates what we call a burning platform. So it creates a need for change. And that's actually what we're seeing in the marketing side is we've got these IT organizations, they're operating much more efficiently with the use of Agile and with the use of SAFe. And what's happening is the software teams are able to release things more quickly than the teams that are surrounding them, one of which could be marketing.

Melissa Reeve:

And so now marketing is incentivized to look at ways of changing. They're incentivized to take a look and say, "Well, maybe Agile is the answer for us." So let's just say that marketing jumps on board and all of a sudden they're cranking along, and except for that everything's getting stuck in legal. And so now legal has a case for change and the pressures on legal to adopt it. So there is a way to let it spread organically. Most transformation coaches will understand this phenomenon and probably encourage the organization to just go Agile all in, obviously not in a big bang kind of way, but gradually move in that direction so that we're not just constantly shifting bottlenecks.

Sean Blake:

Okay. Okay, that makes sense. And when these companies are trying to build business agility across the different functions, are there some mistakes that you see say pop up over and over again? And how can we avoid those when we are on this journey of business agility?

Melissa Reeve:

Yeah. So I feel like the most common mistake, at least the one that I see the most often in marketing, although I've seen it in software as well, is people thinking that the transformation is about processes or tools. So for example, in marketing, they might adopt a tool to "become more Agile." Maybe it's a Kanban visualization tool, or maybe they're being suggested to adopt another common ALM type tool. And so they adopt this tool and they learn how to use it, and they wonder why they're not seeing big improvements.

Melissa Reeve:

And it's because Agile at its heart is a human transformation. So we're really taking a look at in trying to change the way people think. One of the topics I speak on is the history of management theory. And while it sounds pretty dry, in reality, it's eye opening. Because you realize that a lot of the habits that we have today are rooted back in the 20th and 19th centuries. So they're rooted in assembly lines. They're rooted in French management theory, which advocated command and control.

Melissa Reeve:

They're rooted in classism. There was a management class and a laboring, and the management class knew the one best way of doing things. So more than a process, more than a tool, we're talking about transforming this legacy of management thinking into a way that's appropriate for today's workers. And I feel like that's the number one mistake that I see organizations making as they're moving into transforming to Agile, an Agile way of working.

Sean Blake:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Okay. Yeah, that's really interesting. And it really is eye opening, is it? When you look at how the nine to five workday came about, because that's the time when the factories were open and all the history around how organizations are structured. And it's really important, I think, to challenge some of those things that we've done in the past that worked back in the industrial age. But now we're moving into the information age and into these times of digital transformation. It probably doesn't work for us anymore, does it, some of those things? Or do you think some of those things are still valuable now that we have distributed teams, a lot of people are working remotely? Are there any things that come to mind that you think actually we shouldn't get rid of that just yet?

Melissa Reeve:

Oh, I'm sure there are. John Kotter has presented in his book, Accelerate, this notion of a dual operating system. So that you have the network part of the organization, which moves fast and nimble like a startup and then you have the hierarchical part of the organization. And the hierarchy is very, very good at scaling things. It's a well oiled machine. You do need somebody to approve your expense report. You do need some policies and some guidelines, some guard rails. And so we're not actually saying abolish the hierarchy. And I do feel like that's part of this legacy system. But what we are saying is abolish some of the command and control, this notion that the management knows the one best way, because the knowledge worker oftentimes knows more than his or her manager.

Melissa Reeve:

It's just too hard for a manager to keep up with everything that is in the heads of the people who report to him or her. So that's a really big change and it was a change for me. And I think why I got so fascinated in this history of management theory is because I came across some notes from my college days. And I realized that I had been taught these historic management theories. I'd been taught Taylorism, which stems from 1911. And I realized, wow, there's a lot of undoing that I've had to do in order to adopt this Agile way of working.

Sean Blake:

Well, that's great. Yeah, that's really important, isn't it? I've heard you speak before about this concept of walk-up work, especially in the realm of marketing. But I suppose, well, firstly, I'd like to know what is walk-up work. Why is it so dangerous, not just for marketers, but for all teams? And how do we start to fight back against walk-up work?

Melissa Reeve:

Yeah. So, marketers in particular get bombarded with what I like to call walk-up work. And that's when an executive or even a peer literally walks up, so think again about the cubicle farm, and makes a request. So how that looks in the virtual world is the slack or the instant message, "Hey, would you mind?" One is that it results in a lot of context switching and there's time lost in that context switching. And then the other part is rarely do these requests come in well-defined or even with any sort of deadline detach. In marketing, it might look like, "Hey, can you create this graphic for this email I'm sending out?" So now you've left your poor graphic designer with this knowledge that here she has to make a graphic, but they don't really have any of the specs.

Melissa Reeve:

So it's very, very helpful to put these things into stories, to follow the Agile process, where you're taking that walk-up work to the product owner, where the product owner can work with you to define that story, keep the person who's doing the work on task, not making them context switch or do that. Get that story in that acceptance criteria very well defined and prioritized before that work then comes into the queue for the graphic designer. And this is an anti-pattern, whether you're talking about an organization of 50 or 5,000.

Melissa Reeve:

And what I've found is the hardest behavior to change is that of the executives. Because not only do they have walk-up work, but they have positional authority too. And it's implied that, that person will stop working on whatever they're working on and immediately jump to the walk-up work being defined by the executive. So I feel like it's really dangerous to the whole Agile ecosystem because it's context switching, it interrupts flow and introduces waste into the system. And your highest priority items might not being worked on.

Sean Blake:

Okay. So how many people do you have on your marketing team at Scaled Agile?

Melissa Reeve:

We're pretty small, still. We've got about somewhere in the 20s, 23, 25, give or take or few.

Sean Blake:

So how do you-

Melissa Reeve:

I think right now we're three Agile teams.

Sean Blake:

Three. Okay. So those 20 something is split into three Agile teams. And do they each have a product owner or how does the prioritization of marketing work in your teams?

Melissa Reeve:

Yeah, it's a good question. So we do have individual product owners for those three product teams. And what's fascinating is the product owners then also have to meet very regularly to make sure that the priorities stay aligned. Because like many marketing teams, we don't have specialized skill sets on each of those teams. So for the group of 23, we only have one copywriter. For the group of 23, we have two graphic designers. So it's not like each team has its own graphic designer or its own copywriter.

Sean Blake:

Yes.

Melissa Reeve:

So that means the three POs have to get together and decide the priorities, the joint priorities for the copywriter, the joint priorities for those graphic designers. And I think it's working. I mean, it's not without its hiccups, but I think it's the role of the PO and it's an important role.

Sean Blake:

So how do you avoid the temptation to come to these teams and say, "Drop what you're doing, there's something new that we all need to work on?" Do you find that challenging as an executive yourself to really let the teams be autonomous and self-organizing?

Melissa Reeve:

Yeah, I think the biggest favor we've done to the teams is really, I don't want to say banned walk-up work, but the first thing we did is we defined it. And we said, "Walk-up work is anything that's going to take you more than two hours and that was not part of iteration planning." And iteration is only two weeks. And so, in theory, you've done it within the past 10 days. So if it wasn't part of that and you can't push it off to the next iteration planning, and there's a sense of urgency, then it's walk-up work.

Melissa Reeve:

And we've got the teams to a point where they are in the habit of then calling in the PO and saying, "Hey, would you mind going talking to so and so, and getting this defined and helping me understand where this fits in the priority order." And really that was the biggest hurdle because as marketers, I think a lot of us want to say yes if somebody approaches us with work. But what's happened is people have, myself included, stopped approaching the copywriters, stopped approaching the graphic designer with work. I just know, go to the PO.

Sean Blake:

That's good. So it's an extra line of defense for the team so they can continue to focus on their priorities and what they were already working on without being distracted by these new ideas and new priorities.

Melissa Reeve:

Yes. And in fact, I think we, in this last PI reduced walk-up work from 23% down to 11%. So we're not a 100%. And I don't know if we'll ever get to be a 100%, but we're certainly seeing progress in that direction.

Sean Blake:

Oh, that's really good. Really good. And so your marketing teams are working in an Agile way. Do you feel that across the board, not only within your organization, but also just more generally, are you seeing that Agile is being adopted by non-technical teams, so marketing, legal, finance? Are these sort of non-technical teams adopting Agile at a faster rate, or do you feel like it's still going to take some years to get the message out there?

Melissa Reeve:

Yeah. And I guess my question to you would be, a faster rate than what?

Sean Blake:

Good question. I suppose what I'm asking is, do you feel like this is a trend that non-technical teams are adopting Agile or is it something that really is in its infancy and hasn't really caught on yet, especially amongst Scaled Agile customers or people that you're connected to in the Agile industry?

Melissa Reeve:

I would say yes. Yes, it's a trend. And yes, people are doing it. And yes, it's in its infancy.

Sean Blake:

So, yes?

Melissa Reeve:

Yeah. So all of those combined, and I'm not going to kid you, I mean, this is new stuff. In fact, as part of that listening session I mentioned and we were talking about all these different parts of the business. And there was mentioned that the Scaled Agile Framework is the guidance to these teams, to HR, to legal, to marketing could be more robust. And the answer is absolutely. And the reason is because we're still learning ourselves. This is brand new territory that we're cutting our teeth on. My guess is that it'll take us several years, I don't know how many several is, to start learning, figuring out how this looks and really implementing it.

Melissa Reeve:

Now, my hope is that we'll get to a point where Agile is across the organization, that it's been adapted to the different environments. When I've seen it and when I've thought through things like Agile HR, Agile Legal, Agile procurement, the underpinnings seem to be solid. We can even things like the continuous delivery pipeline of DevOps. When I think about marketing and I think about automation. And I think about artificial intelligence, yeah, I can see that in marketing and I can see the need for this to unfold, but will it take us a while to figure out that nuance? Absolutely.

Sean Blake:

Okay. And can you see any other trends more broadly happening in the Agile space? You know, if we're to look forward, say 10 years, a decade into the future, what does the way of working look like? Are we all still remote or how are team's going to approach digital transformations in 10 years time? What's your perspective on the future?

Melissa Reeve:

Yeah, I mean, sometimes to look to the future I like to look to the past. And in this case I might look 10 or 12 years to the past. And 12 years ago, I was getting my very first iPhone. I remember that it was 2007, 2008. And you think about what a seismic shift that was in terms of our behavior and social media and connecting and having this computer in our hand. So I ask myself, what seismic shift lies ahead? And certainly COVID has been an accelerant to some of these shifts. I ask myself, will I be on airplanes as frequently as I was in the past? Or have we all become so accustomed to Zoom meetings that we realized there's power there. And we don't necessarily need to get on an airplane to get the value.

Melissa Reeve:

Now, as it pertains to Agile, I feel like in 10 years we won't be calling it Agile. I feel like it will look something more like a continuous learning organization or responsive organization. Agile refers to a very specific set of practices. And as that new mindset, well, the practices and the principles and the mindset, and as that new mindset takes hold and becomes the norm, then will we be calling it Agile? Or will it just be the way that people are working? My guess is it'll start to be moving toward the latter.

Sean Blake:

Well, let's hope that it becomes the normal, right? I mean that it would be great to have more transparency, more cross functional work, less walk-up work and more business agility across the board, wouldn't it? I think it would be great if that becomes the new normal.

Melissa Reeve:

Yeah, me too. Yeah. And I think, we don't call the way we manage people. We don't say, "Oh, that's Taylorism. Are you going to be practicing Taylorism? It's just the way we've either learned through school or learned from our bosses how to manage people. And that's my hope for Agile, is that we won't be calling it this thing. It's just the way we do things around here.

Sean Blake:

Great. Well, Melissa, I think we'll leave it there. I really enjoyed our conversation, especially as a marketer myself. It's great to hear your insight into the industry. And everything we've discussed today has been really, really eyeopening for me. So thank you so much for sharing that with me and with our audience. And we hope to have you on the podcast again, in the future.

Melissa Reeve:

Sean, it's been such a pleasure and I'd be happy to come back anytime.

Sean Blake:

Great. Thanks so much.

Melissa Reeve:

Thank you.


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