*The Power Players series highlights industry professionals who are expanding the boundaries of content operations, marketing and martech strategy, and digital asset management. Interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

The Power Player: Andrea Fryrear a.k.a. The Trailblazer

The Power Play: “Make Marketing agile first—the rest will follow.”

Agility is the top priority for Andrea Fryrear, President and Co-Founder of AgileSherpas, when it comes to making content operations work. 

In a world of closed offices, distributed teams, and a steady stream of business, Andrea has all of her chips on Agile—and not just for the usual suspects like digital or web teams, but for the entire organization. But the shift into Agile methods isn’t always appealing for legacy organizations who think they’re above the new way of working. Andrea’s here to say that every company everywhere can benefit from Agile. In this interview, get Andrea Fryrear’s point of view on changes for Agile as a result of the pandemic, why Agile is key for companies of all kinds, and what her unique power play is.

All About The Trailblazer and AgileSherpas

Ed Breault, CMO at Aprimo: You just had some new research that dropped that I’ve been following. The State of Agile Marketing, and we’re really excited to talk about that today. First, though, tell us all a little bit about you and AgileSherpas, your company.

Andrea Fryrear, President and Co-Founder of AgileSherpas: AgileSherpas is an agile marketing, coaching, training and consulting organization. 

I discovered Agile when I was running content marketing for a SaaS company many years ago now and have kind of become a professional Agile nerd. At this point in time me and my coaches go into marketing organizations and help them adapt what’s worked in Agile software development and really apply it to marketing work.

ED: Yes, SaaS loves Agile doesn’t it? Do you think those two things absolutely go together?

ANDREA: Yeah, I mean, that’s the origin of Agility, right? Getting software updates and new features into the customers hands more quickly. And now I think over time, once we eliminated some of the bottlenecks in the creation of good features, the bottleneck started to shift into the ability to market those features effectively. So now marketers need to be able to move at that same pace.

Agile Adds Flexibility in Tough Times 

ED: What’s your perspective on organizations that have had mature levels of Agile, that were relatively seasoned over 2020, a year of absolute chaotic change for many of us. And did you see them really navigate and sail through the turns with Agile? And did you, conversely, see folks that didn’t embrace Agile maybe get broken by the shift of moving to 100% digital? How did that play out for you in your observations over the last year?

ANDREA: Yeah, I mean, we heard a lot of our clients saying like “thank goodness we had this already in place,” right? We have [Kanban] boards. We have visibility. We have communication lines that are already open. 

The shift [over last year], you know, nobody was like “Woohoo, this is awesome,” right? But the the shift was less painful and disruptive for the folks that already had an Agile system in place. They could make that shift more easily than their counterparts, but then we also had a lot of folks calling us up in April and May saying we’ve had [Agile] on our radar for a while and it is suddenly non-negotiable.

Right, it was this accelerant for a transformation that had been considered and maybe kind of deprioritized for one reason or another. It’s kind of the, you know, “never let a crisis go to waste” kind of mentality of let’s use this as a catalyst for change and I think we saw that in the research. 38% of our respondents said that the pandemic accelerated their adoption of Agile and then I think it was 84% of the already Agile folks said that it was crucial to getting them through 2020.

You associate agility with speed so much that it can get overlooked that it’s about sustainable pace and people being able to not work themselves into the ground.

How Agile and Empathy Go Together

ED: I mean, we learned so much that year, even, and I’ll just underscore empathy. You know, a lot of us threw ourselves back into “we are just humans.” And whether that be marketing or business, we had to quickly pivot from promotions and heavy marketing to really just communicate and connect with people knowing that we’re now communicating, not just business to business or business to consumer, but home to home in many cases.

So there’s been some fatigue there along the way, but have you seen that when we think about Agile and we’ll call it the happiness quotient of workers. Have you seen that those internal cultures thrive that were more agile? Also, are you seeing organizations where that is a fatigue problem? Just a work culture problem? They’re turning to agile as a solution.

ANDREA: Yeah, yeah. We’ve had several times where poor employee engagement numbers are a trigger for an agile adoption. There is so much of an emphasis on empowerment and sustainable pace within an Agile system that it can really help, especially as we’re getting now into month 418 of lockdown—like it feels like forever and people do need to be able to start saying no to things and to manage their work lives more effectively.

You associate agility with speed so much that it can get overlooked that it’s about sustainable pace and people being able to not work themselves into the ground because they have a system that allows them to focus on the valuable work and kind of ignore everything else. 

And one of my favorite parts of the report this year is where we kind of compare and contrast the more traditional and ad hoc styles of work with the Agile marketing styles of work, and we see the agile folks tend to be just generally more satisfied with the way work is getting done, they report less friction. They are more engaged with their work. Like we see that as a very clear differentiator among the different work styles.

Technology Is An Enabler For Global Work

ED: Other questions in the survey illuminated the reliance or need for technology to facilitate a lot of this. What have you learned from some of these organizations you’ve been working with in this new work from home?

You know, in terms of working from home, working globally, working virtually, the parts of our day in which we work are now just so fractured. It’s not you go in and you’re working and then you’re out. It [was] really about fitting it in within what you could do and it’s turning into, it’s the outcome it’s the result that’s being measured, not like the physical presence, and technology has become a hub for enabling that. What have you noticed there, in terms of technology being an enabler?

ANDREA: You just can’t do it right. You cannot do those kinds of things without the technological foundation being in place. Whether it’s different time zones, different demands on our lives in terms of childcare, family, what have you. Work schedules are so different than they used to be. Having a single source of truth that everyone can confidently refer to [is important for distributed teams]. So whether I’m online super early and you’re online super late and everybody is kind of in between. We can all look at this tool in this system and know that what we’re seeing is accurate, that it’s creating visibility and transparency about what’s being done and who’s responsible and so forth and so on. 

The adoption of the right tool is the top-cited enabler for the folks that have gone through an agile transformation, and so being thoughtful about what you need, you know, what visibility do you need? How much can you concentrate into one place, so people don’t have to log into 87 different platforms to figure out different components. I think it is something that’s really, really foundational to making Agile stick over the long run too.

Because if you’re spending two years figuring out what your pilot is going to be, your competitors have gone through their entire Agile transformation in that time. You’ve gotta still up your metabolism to make it work.

Overcoming “Ostrich Syndrome”

ED: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we think about not just retaining talent, but attracting talent and how much technology plays into that. You know, top talent doesn’t want to go to an organization that isn’t modern and has the best technology in place. They really want to have this digital fabric or this digital collaboration to get the best out of their teams. Whether they’re leaders or individual contributors.

So how about some of these [folks]? I love to use the term “ostrich syndrome.” It’s like an ostrich right? They put their head in the sand while the change, while the scary stuff happens.

Some folks either had made the changes or were in the process of changes, but how about some of those organizations that are stagnant, that are stuck in their ways, that failed to move? I mean, think about the financial risk associated with not moving [in this “adapt or die” environment]! Is the pain of staying the same greater than the pain of change with agile?

ANDREA: I think most people have started to get over [ostrich syndrome] since one of the things that we always ask in our survey and we have asked for four years now, is what’s the main barrier to greater Agility. And last year it was neck and neck between knowledge—like we just don’t know enough about Agile—and current processes working well enough. Like this is OK. And then this year it’s like the number of folks who said our processes work well enough plummeted.

So in a weird way that made me happy, because people are finally recognizing that “good enough” isn’t good enough anymore and that they have to be responsive, adaptive to the market, to our customers, to the craziness that we’ve all had to deal with over the last year. I think that we’re seeing that shift. The difference is going to be whether people can, especially in these large legacy organizations, move more quickly than they are accustomed to in order to make those changes. 

Because if you’re spending two years figuring out what your pilot is going to be, your competitors have gone through their entire Agile transformation in that time. You’ve gotta still up your metabolism to make it work.

Yes, Agile Works Here, Too

ED: Last year. I mean, we said there’s a lot of silver linings obviously that came out of last year. You called it an accelerant of many cases, making the most out of an opportunity to change. At Aprimo, we’ve seen our customers do that. Financial services organizations, life sciences.

Some consumer brands took the opportunity to change as well, and some of them were already on [Agile] platforms. They literally just didn’t need to show up to work anymore. They pulled up to their [home] desk and business continued.

And so any other silver lining moments that you’ve seen with some of your clients?

ANDREA: Yeah, I know we share some clients who used that moment to shift. I’m thinking about financial services organizations that needed to communicate that the PPP loans were coming out.

They needed to communicate really rapidly with their client base about what was available and how to take advantage of it, and so forth, and so they quickly spun up some Agile. They called them Tiger teams. They employed Agile ways of working for the first time in that organization to tackle those problems, and it was this great use case for Agility and they were able to prove that, yes, it works even without some kind of major culture shift. Or, you know, we didn’t have to wait for those things to happen. We could begin to employ Agile ways of working now.

To solve business problems and then of course, we’re trying to also create the conditions for larger culture shifts and things over time, but it’s not a “first this, then that.” They can be moving in parallel. 

You know that some people have been like “we’re so traditional there’s no way this will ever work here.” But necessity created the conditions to prove out that, yes, it can work here and now that financial services organization I mentioned is 10 months along in an overarching [Agile] transformation for all the teams. 

Focusing on Customer Value Changes Everything

ED: Agile is traditionally in more of, like, an execution phase of a company’s go to market.

What about agile now? And I saw some of this data in the research, Agile has found its way upstream into the strategic annual planning, go to market processes, things around budget in planning and then optimization cycles built into an execution cycle. Whether it’s iterative planning, iterative budgeting, iterative investments, rapid reallocation of spend and investments, pulling out of markets, redistribution of funds.

Because now we’re getting these insights in real time. So it’s almost like Agile has moved up a tier in the echelons of enterprise, and then also earlier on in go to market processes. The data showed that, but have you seen it there too?

ANDREA: Yeah, it’s so exciting. This is the first year we’ve asked that particular question, and I’m really glad that we did because I was surprised at how pervasive that has shown itself to be. How many organizations have made that change? So it’s no longer, well, let’s plan. Let’s do our annual plan like we always have and then try to get the teams to execute that plan in an Agile way. Which of course creates friction and challenges. Especially when they re-examine those plans quarterly, some people are even saying monthly. 

They’re looking at things and determining based on the data, what’s working, what’s not. I’m even seeing some of the more progressive organizations will dynamically reallocate, reconfigure, let’s say, their teams. To say, you know, this is an emerging opportunity. Let’s put more people on this problem. Let’s put more money in that direction and it’s really exciting to see that kind of fungibility showing up at the enterprise marketing level. 

So it’s not just optimizing for team-level execution of Agile ways of working. It’s now more holistic across multiple teams. One of my favorites has been, you know, I actually heard a marketing leader say, you know, the priorities that I’m traditionally responsible for are not what the business needs, so make my budget right. Like let’s put it towards a more high value activity. Take my people, right? You would never hear that happening in a super traditional environment, but [that’s different now] because everybody is fixated on customer value. Like how are we going to deliver value? How are we going to meet the business needs? Whatever it takes, that’s how. Let’s reconfigure and let’s get that done as a group.

Instead of like, well, I’m responsible for this metric, and so I’m going to do whatever it takes to move that needle, even if that’s not the most important thing for us to work on as a unit.

Agile Adoption Beyond the Usual Suspects

ED: [It’s about] ultimately being more accountable with the funds of the organization, so it brings a whole new level of operational thinking. Thinking of the entirety, like getting wider in your strategic vision for whatever your functional area is, definitely makes you a stronger player. 

But then back to the stats in the survey. Did anything else surprise you or jump out at you that you weren’t expecting, that made you say “wow” even after four years of running this survey? What really stood out?

ANDREA: You know those were some of the big ones for me. Were those new ones. Oh, the another [new question on the survey] was that we asked folks which kind of functional areas in marketing were applying Agile ways of working, and [we saw] the usual suspects are kind of digital, web. Those sorts of people that tend to bump up against Agile ways of working because they collaborate closely with the tech folks. 

But it was also like creative services, operations. ABM. Some of these things that you would not have expected to be at the top of the list, and I continue to point to that data with our clients and say there’s no excuse! Everybody can use this. It’s pervasive across all types of work.

Like, well, we’re creative and special magical snowflakes that don’t need to put our work on a kanban board. But it works beautifully for all kinds of work! And now we’ve got data points to say that you may be a special magical snowflake, but you still need to put your work on the kanban boards.

Andrea Fryrear’s Power Play

ED: You’re a thought leader in Agile. Agile has taken on new meaning over the years. What is your power play?

ANDREA: You know, I think my power play is getting the entire organization to go agile by getting marketing to do it. So we’re like the Agile Trojan horse right now, where we’re going to sneak agility in for everybody by adopting it inside of marketing. 

So that’s the secret, it’s out of the bag now, but that’s our power play: marketing is the forerunner for business agility for everybody.

WATCH THE FULL INTERVIEW HERE.