IBM's steps to becoming Agile to the core

IBM’s marketing transformation plan has four pillars, one of which is to become ‘Agile to the core’. In this exclusive extract from our new report Alison Orsi, CMO at IBM Europe explains how Agile marketing is a crucial part of “becoming the most outcome-orientated, customer-centric marketing team on the planet”

“The journey we’re on is to become one of the most outcome-orientated, customer-centric, Agile-to-the-core marketing teams on the planet. It’s not easy. You might think ‘but you’re IBM, you’re a huge organization’, but that also comes with its challenges.

One of the things I found most exciting was embracing Agile as a marketing function – and I mean Agile as a discipline, not agile as an adjective. We know there’s a blueprint of how to deploy Agile in the context of software development, we’re trying to work out how to deploy Agile in the context of marketing.

It’s about how we develop the culture of Agile. It’s not just down to the rituals of team sprints and daily stand-ups. In fact if a team tells me it’s doing Agile just because they’ve got a 15-minute interlock every day, I’m not impressed.

Perfect is the enemy of done

When we first started experimenting with Agile two or three years ago, the outcome of the first two-week sprint was to source data that would help them segment. But I wanted to know what they were actually going to deliver – what they were going to put into market in the coming weeks. It was a complete mindset shift for teams to start thinking that way; to start seeing their campaign as the outcome of their Agile project. 

The best feedback you can get is putting something into market and knowing whether it worked or not. Part of Agile is embracing the mantra that ‘perfect is the enemy of done’, and knowing that you can release something and correct your course while it’s live.

Suddenly we had specialists in the team rolling up their sleeves; I had comms specialists engaging on digital activity and product marketers acting as campaign managers – because that’s what was needed in the two weeks before the next campaign milestone. I had one of my really junior people excitedly run up to me telling me she got legal approval in three hours when it normally takes three weeks. That was her job in the team and she was thrilled she’d figured out how to short-circuit the system.

Alison Orsi, CMO at IBM Europe, speaks at B2B Marketing Get Stacked 2019 in London

Training the Agile champions

Most importantly we want the teams to go on a learning journey and understand that they are assessing their own Agile health, asking how much they understand Agile and how it adds value to them.

We conducted two quarters of both virtual and face-to-face training in Agile. I really can’t recommend it enough, the teams just have so much fun doing it this way and we have people falling over themselves to become Agile champions. We’re providing support through Agile coaches and we now have five coaches and 60 agile champions. That program is expanding globally. 

Once a quarter we ask whether the team enjoys this way of working. The first six to eight weeks involves hard change, you have to work and collaborate in a different way. But once people have understood the power of creativity and speed, no one wants to go back. 

It wasn’t the easiest of journeys, particularly in a company like ours where we can’t make changes overnight. The commitment we made to our teams was to make them the best marketers they could be and to give them the best skills for their careers. 

We were asking people to come in to, and be in the office every day. That didn’t match the way some people liked to work, so we lost some people through that. But I would say that most people who started to embrace Agile have come to love it and wouldn’t go back. It’s attracting a whole new set of marketers.

One of the big things I’ve learned arriving back from the US is that we in the UK and Europe like to moan a bit. My team will say ‘we can’t do that’ and ‘I need that’ or ‘this bit’s missing’. I’ll know our Agile transformation is complete when they start with ‘this is what I want to get done’ – because when we focus on the goal, not the limitations we’ll end up going further. That for me is what Agile will do.

I really can’t recommend it enough, the teams just have so much fun doing it this way and we have people falling over themselves to become Agile champions.

The IBM Agile stairway

  • Values: Define and educate teams on core values of trust, respect, openness and courage.
  • Spaces: Create strategic and collaborative spaces that enable effective, cross-functional teaming
  • Training: More than 5000 marketers and 500 leaders globally have been trained in Agile principles.
  • Support: Add Agile coaches, an escalation group, a champions program and partner enablement.
  • Learning: Launch an Agile Health Radar to empower teams to identify and solve challenges.

Agile marketing: The pill for productivity, adaptability and innovation

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