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Play Marketball: Turn Disconnected Teams Into High Performers


In his 2003 book Moneyball, Michael Lewis recounts how the management of the Oakland Athletics revolutionized baseball by relying on statistical analyses rather than intuition to choose new players. Before General Manager Billy Beane turned a single metric — on-base plus slugging (OPS) — into his North Star for every decision, team managers preferred strategies that were unlikely to fail rather than those that seemed most efficient. “The pain of looking bad,” Lewis writes, “is worse than the gain of making the best move.”

As a content marketing manager tasked with delivering my quota of MQLs (marketing-qualified leads) and hitting publication dates, I get it. Picking an approach that seems unlikely to fail is safe. Proposing a radical new management system seems not only bad, but foolhardy. “Why,” managers the world over ask every day, “should we try to fix something that isn’t broken?”

Unfortunately for status-quo fans everywhere, visionaries and innovators understand that what counts as “broken” is constantly in flux. In 2001, before Beane began his quiet revolution inside Major League Baseball, no other team’s decision-making style appeared broken. Yet Beane would soon overtake them because his success depended on breaking things.

Likewise, in the increasingly noisy and densely populated online world, the success of our content relies on its ability to break things. We have to break through to audiences underwhelmed by mediocre marketing. We have to break the habits of consumers who have always used a competing product or read a competitor’s newsletter. And, most importantly, we have to break the way we manage and structure our content teams.

We have to break the way we manage and structure our content teams, says @andreafryrear. Click To Tweet

Although, really, it’s just the last part, the management part, that we have to break — and by break, I mean teams must decide on their own structure without heavy-handed interference from management. Before the accusations of marketing communism begin to fly, let me be clear: I’m not advocating the dissolution of management altogether. I’m proposing that on a modern content marketing team (whose goals, obstacles, and workloads are typically so huge that it’s a wonder they don’t all sleep under their desks), a manager’s job is to hire amazing people, empower them using Agile principles and processes, and then work like hell to keep anyone else from interfering.

That’s a lot to do, so let’s start from the top.

Agile marketing team – what is it?

Some teams are naturally adaptive and data-driven, and could technically be considered agile (lowercase “a”). To qualify as Agile (capital “A”), a marketing team needs a structure that enables it to adapt and iterate.

This structure could take various forms, including Scrum (the classic Agile process based around sprints), Kanban (a pull-based system that uses work-in-progress limits), or a hybrid of the team’s invention. Most Agile teams work in sprints — set periods during which team members aim to complete a set amount of work that’s connected to a long-term plan. Each sprint lasts between one week and one month, with two weeks being the most common duration.

A mainstay of the Agile approach is the stand-up — a 15-minute meeting, usually held at the beginning of every work day, during which team members stay on their feet. They take turns updating everyone on what they did yesterday, what they plan to do today, and what obstacles they need help to overcome.

Whatever form the structure takes, some kind of systematic foundation is needed to keep an Agile team from descending into frenetic reactions disconnected from a long-term plan.

Changing your mind all the time does not make you Agile.

Step 1 – Hire amazing people

Much has been written (some of it on this blog and in CCO magazine) about the growing talent crunch plaguing content marketing, so we don’t need to go into a lot of depth on this topic. The harsh truth is, it’s hard to find good content help these days. But the interviews, networking, and early-morning coffee meetings more than pay off when you consider the impact that truly passionate and skilled content creators have on your organization.

In an interconnected, digital world, great marketing can spread at the speed of a click. It doesn’t matter if it came from a team with a multimillion-dollar budget or a solopreneur doing it all on her own. The internet is nothing if not democratic.

That means finding — and retaining — creators who can consistently produce legitimately awesome work that gives you a regular shot at hitting the digital jackpot. There is no greater source of competitive advantage in content marketing than a talented team.

But those teams need the space and freedom to create or the legitimately awesome will rapidly devolve into lethargic and yawn-inducing.

#Content teams need space to create or the legitimately awesome will devolve into lethargy. @AndreaFryrear Click To Tweet

Step 2 – Empower teams with agility

Whether it’s through an Agile iteration or sprint (set length of time during which a team commits to producing a set amount of content) or work-in-progress limits (inflexible limit on how much content can be in any given state such as research, writing, editing, review at one time), Agile teams are governed by limitations on their workflow. This isn’t because they’re lazy or can’t handle the workload. It’s because when people have a split focus, they do terrible work (and it takes them longer to do it).

For example, let’s imagine that your current content plans include creating a new webinar, whose launch you will support with an e-book and a series of blog posts. You plan each piece, make assignments, and send the team off to work. A week passes and you check on progress. It turns out that one person got derailed when sales asked for lead-generation collateral, another lost a day to responding to angry customer tweets, and your CEO wanted a home-page rewrite that took precedence over the blog posts.

Now you’ve got three half-finished content items, which is like having none at all.

You can’t give a webinar that ends abruptly halfway through. Nobody wants to download an e-book that’s just an outline. And blog posts just don’t work if they’re composed entirely of headlines, header tags, and target keywords.

An Agile content team, on the other hand, would have focused on finishing one piece before starting something else. Its members could have told sales and the CEO that their requests would be added to content’s Agile backlog (a prioritized to-do list that serves as the source of all work done by the team), not to the top of the list of immediate to-do’s.

An #Agile content team focuses on finishing one piece before starting something else, says @AndreaFryrear. Click To Tweet

As a bonus, not only do Agile teams produce more content in less time, they also make team members happier and more engaged. And that means team members stick around longer, are easier to recruit, and help solve that thorny talent problem we talked about earlier.

Step 3 – Get in other people’s way

You might have expected me to close by telling you to get out of the way so your team can work their Agile magic, but that’s not the final step. On our hypothetical content team, we had external requests being thrown in from all sides and derailing our content creators. Even on an Agile team, not everybody will happily chirp, “Nope,” when an executive tries to interrupt their work. Agile teams are empowered, but that doesn’t mean they have super powers.

Managers need to act like an offensive line, getting in the way of people who are trying to disrupt their team while they’re executing a beautiful play. They attend daily stand-up meetings, listening attentively and volunteering to help remove roadblocks (and then doing it). They genuinely value the creative force that their team can wield, and they actively work to create a situation where it can do its thing.

Respect tradition … or profit from it

Marketing, like baseball, has ways it’s always been done. We can choose to adhere to traditional ways of managing and creating content, or we can look outside our own typical way of thinking to gain the upper hand. Someone in your niche will be using an Agile approach to start breaking things very soon. Imagine what would happen if it was you.

Hear Andrea Fryrear explain user-story mapping at the Intelligent Content Conference March 28-30 in Las Vegas. Register today and use BLOG100 to save $100.

This article originally appeared in the February issue of CCO magazine. Subscribe for your free print copy today.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute