Kanban System for Agile Marketing: A Beginner’s Guide

The Scrum methodology is one of the most popular ways for new teams to adopt an Agile marketing approach, but it’s by no means the only option.

In fact, many former practitioners of Scrum in the world of software development have found Kanban, either used alone or in conjunction with Scrum, to be an excellent alternative.

See "Rolling Out Kanban with Andrea Fryrear" for more tips on how to get started with Kanban.

Here’s an overview of how marketers can adapt this tactical Agile system to their own teams.

what is kanban

What is Kanban: A Brief History

Kanban translates to “billboard” or “signboard” in Japanese, and was originally developed by Toyota in the 1940s.

Inspired by grocery stores, which only stock as much product as people need, Toyota’s manufacturing teams began using cards, or kanbans, to signal to other parts of the production line when they needed more parts.

This was part of a JIT (just in time) approach that allowed plants to create only as many parts as were needed at the time, and not waste resources by making extra.

Software developers built on these ideas to create their own version of the Kanban system as part of the Agile development movement.

kanban board

When used by development teams, Kanban features a large backlog (list) of user stories that need to be addressed. Business owners/stakeholders are responsible for maintaining and prioritizing that list religiously, because it is the sole source of work for the developers.

Listen to our podcast, "4 Agile Tools to Make You Happier and More Productive (No Matter What Kind of Team You’re On)," to learn more about managing a backlog.

When a team member is ready to work on a new story, they pull it from the backlog and into the “In Progress” column on the Kanban board. As the project progresses it moves across the board until it is completed.

The team member(s) handling that project should not start on anything else from the backlog until their current project is complete.

components kanban

Key Components of the Kanban System

As with most Agile methodologies, Kanban is designed to make teams work better, and anything that isn’t working for your particular group should be up for change. But the core of Kanban is made up of these components:

  • An extensive backlog of work. This is where new user stories get added by business owners, project managers, and anyone else who has a stake in deciding what work the team does.
  • Columns and/or lanes through which stories move. This visualization of a story’s progress is a crucial part of the transparency that makes Kanban a great Agile option.
  • Work in Progress (WIP) limits. Each column/lane has a limit, and once that limit is hit no new items can go into that lane until one is moved out. For example, if you have four stories that are “pending review” by an editor and your WIP limit for that lane is four, you can’t move any more content into that lane until one gets moved out.
  • Continuous releases. There are no sprints in pure Kanban that require you to release a new iteration after a set period of time. Instead, Agile teams on the Kanban system release software or marketing projects as soon as they are completed.

how to kanban

How Agile Marketers can Adopt a Kanban System

Here’s how a marketing team can start implementing a Kanban system. The good news is that Kanban requires a lot less up front buy-in and planning to get started.

Many teams won’t have to change much about the way they currently function.

Watch our on-demand webinar, "6 Easy Steps to Becoming an Agile Marketing Team," to hear more from industry experts.

What Kanban offers is a clear means of prioritizing work, offering a transparent view of what marketing is working on, and maintaining a steady flow of manageable workloads across the marketing team.

Prioritize Work with a Well-Maintained Backlog

The most common failures in Kanban come from management, product owners, or other higher-ups ignoring the backlog.

Keep in mind that the pull-driven model of Kanban means that team members will pull their next projects from the top of the backlog. If something important has come up but hasn’t been incorporated into the backlog, it isn’t going to get the team’s attention.

Create Transparency with a Kanban Board

Kanban originally worked so well in a factory environment because it established visual cues for work that needed to be done.

I put this card up to show that I’m running out of drive shafts to build engines. The team that makes drive shafts see that and creates more to meet my emerging need. When I get them, I take down my card to signal my need has been met.

In a marketing environment it works the same way.

Listen to our podcast, "How to Visualize Your Agile Marketing Workflow (and Why You Should) with Andrea Fryrear," for more on Kanban boards.

The Kanban board makes it completely clear what the team is working on, so stakeholders and people from other departments can tell at a glance how close particular initiatives are to completion.

If development needs to wait on our content team to produce a promotional email before they can release a new feature, it’s very valuable to them to have a visual tool in place to track the email’s progress.

Also, a good Kanban team will track its time to completion, so that an outside observer will be able to know that once a project enters the “In Progress” column, it should be completed within a set timeframe.

Keep Workflow Consistent with WIP Limits

By creating explicit limits on how much work can be in each of your Kanban board’s columns, you ensure a consistent flow of work.

Using WIP limits means that the team can focus on getting backlog items fully done before starting on something else.

See our post "Everything You Need to Measure Your Team's Agile Marketing Performance" for expert insight into Agile measurement.

Scrum teams that are focused on a sprint cycle will have releases timed to the end of their sprints, while Kanban teams release regularly whenever a feature or update is complete.

Marketing teams might release portions of a campaign as they are completed rather than holding out until every single part of the campaign has been done.

kanban agile marketing

Two Early Wins When Adopting Kanban for Agile Marketing

If you move from Scrum to Kanban, you’ll likely see some nice boosts to your team’s productivity and morale right away.

Eliminating sprints and implementing WIP limits will give many teams the flexible structure that they need to accomplish real world marketing objectives.

Benefits of Eliminating Sprints

The beauty of Kanban for Agile marketing is that it doesn’t box your work into pre-determined sprint lengths. Depending on your team’s style and the market you’re in, this can work much better than Scrum-style sprints.

See "Building and Growing an Agile Marketing Team with Andrea Fryrear" for advice on how to create an efficient Agile team.

In the real world, things in marketing change constantly. We can rarely afford to take six weeks to do anything like a development team might be able to do, and that means much shorter sprints.

This high velocity can create a lot of stress for an Agile team, particularly if urgent issues crop up often and derail their focus.

Kanban doesn’t impose the time box of a sprint, and some teams will thrive without this limit. Others will need to keep the constant ticking of the sprint clock in place because it helps drive them on.

The Power of WIP Limits

WIP limits can also be a great tool for marketers, because it forces us to see a project through to completion before starting on anything else. We can’t start on a new SlideShare if all the email campaigns are stuck in the “Review” lane, for example.

I find WIP limits particularly valuable for content marketers because some tend to stop after their article is written.

Instead, having a content-specific Kanban board can remind us to move our user story all the way across the board. This might include lanes for research, writing, editing, images, and promotion via social media.

Download our free ebook The Art of Agile Marketing to learn more about various Agile frameworks and how you can implement them on your team.

scrum vs kanban

Differences in Scrum and Kanban

There are two primary differences between these two Agile methodologies: how they deal with timing and their differing treatment of meetings/rituals.

Scrum focuses on getting things done within the predetermined sprint length. Each Scrum team determines how long its sprints will be, but it’s nonetheless a fixed timeframe.

Kanban, on the other hand, focuses on continuous releases. As soon as a feature/project/story is complete it goes out, and the team moves on to the next one.

Similarly, Scrum is more rigid in its approach to regularity and ritual. There is a great deal of importance placed on having the appropriate roles within the team and having the right meetings at the right times.

Sprint planning meetings, during which the team determines exactly what it can accomplish in a sprint by estimating the complexity of various tasks, are often cited as a serious drawback to Scrum.

See "Rolling Out Scrum on Your Marketing Team: Part 1 with Andrea Fryrear" for more on Scrum and how it can benefit your team.

These meetings can run very, very long (four to eight hours), and they rely on the team being able to estimate accurately the time it will take to do each item.

For some teams, this process alone becomes the Scrum deal breaker.

In Kanban, the process is much looser. Teams are expected to continuously improve their own processes and procedures just as they are expected to release continuously.

There is a greater onus on the team, particularly as there is no equivalent to a Scrum master who is in charge of managing the processes themselves.

These are merely the two most glaring differences in these two Agile methodologies; here’s an overview of the rest:

scrum versus kanban

Discovering the Agile System That's Right for Your Team

Teams who don’t take well to the rigidity of Scrum may find freedom in a Kanban system, while those who need additional insulation from upper management may need the buffer of a Scrum master and product owner.

See "Revving Up Your Agile Marketing Engine with Better Ceremonies with Andrea Fryrear" to learn more about how efficient ceremonies can take your team to the next level.

I suggest starting with one system and paying careful attention to the feedback from your team.

If you start with Scrum but hear about issues around meetings and processes, Kanban may be a better choice. Alternatively, if you try the Kanban system first and your team seems adrift, the structure of Scrum might help.

For teams completely unused to Agile methodologies, the ritual and constancy of Scrum may offer them a sense of security. Kanban is more often adopted when Scrum begins to break down, and so may be a good second iteration of Agile marketing for some teams.

It’s quite possible that a hybrid system is really going to work the best; that’s what our own team has found. We maintain the structure of the Scrum approach without its rigidity.

The important thing is not to try and force your marketing team into a system that isn’t right for them. Agile is about constant improvement, and that goes for your processes as well as your products.

This article is by Andrea Fryrear from marketergizmo.com.

Tune in to our podcast "Never Stop Learning: 3 Stages to Keep Your Agile Marketing Mastery Growing" to learn more about Agile.

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