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Why marketing project management is more important than your tech stack

Article originally published in September 2022 by Stuart Brameld. Most recent update in February 2023.

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In this article we look at the process of marketing project management, the history (and problems) of waterfall project management, and why agile marketing project management and experimentation is the future for marketing growth.

People, Process, Technology

The People, Processes, and Technology (PPT) framework is widely used around the world to describe the 3 key elements of a successful company or team. Originating from the world of change management, and adapted from Harold Leavitt’s 1964 paper Applied Organisation Change in Industry, it has been adopted as a business practise “near-mantra” that is now widely used around the world in information technology, cybersecurity and management consulting. It has become the classic framework to assess and improve team and organisational performance.

The people, process, technology framework is often referred to as the Golden Triangle and visualised as an equilateral triangle to emphasise the balance between each element to create a strong foundation.

It is also referred to as the Three-Legged Stool, imagining that if one leg is bigger or smaller it will make the chair unstable and cause it to wobble.

The back-to-basics approach emphasises how business success often comes from maintaining a balance between people, process and technology. At the same time, the equation is complex won’t ever remain static, a change in one element requires the other two to respond in order to maintain balance. How people, process and technology interact is the key to improving outcomes and driving efficiencies.


Who is involved?

Ask a marketing leader about the people in their team, they’ll likely tell you how people are the most critical element of marketing team success. They’ll describe decisions behind team structure, and the specific details of hiring, and how people costs are often the largely item of marketing budget. Leaders will spend time on ensuring personal development, training, events, certifications and more. Without people, nothing gets done.


What they work with?

As a marketing leader about their tech stack, and they’ll be able to go into details about how HubSpot compares with Salesforce as well as their complete tech stack, from the marketing data warehouse to programmatic advertising, retargeting and ABM. They’ll talk about new technology they’re exploring – from chatbots and process automation to artificial intelligence.


How does work gets done?

Processes are repeatable actions carried out by people to create predictability and efficiency. Progress is obstructed without process. Ask most marketing leaders about the steps or actions taken to deliver on their goals, and there is a lot less insight.

Marketing project management and the technology paradox

If you were to ask most marketing leaders what makes a great team, most would probably say people, some may say technology. Very few would talk about process.

Speak to some of the world’s best growth leaders however, and you’ll discover they all talk about process.

Growth has nothing to do with tactics, and everything to do with process. Growth is not about the terminology or the tactics, it’s about a change in our mentality, process, and team.

Brian Balfour, VP of Growth @ Hubspot
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Growth is about implementing a rigorous, customer insight and data-driven process with sustained effort to remove friction

Brian Rothenberg, VP of Growth at Eventbrite
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The growth process is designed to be a positive feedback loop, to find small wins and optimizations across the business and then compound those over time as fast as possible.

Morgan Brown, VP Growth @ Shopify, ex Facebook
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In knowledge work our tools are the processes we use to approach and solve different types of problems

Andrew Chen, VC @ a16z, ex Growth @ Uber
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You can have highly competent people and state-of-the-art tech, but fail to grow and achieve KPIs because of inefficient processes. Process is the hardest of the 3 disciplines to get right, and its impact is often underrated.

How waterfall marketing project management became the norm

The inception of waterfall project management and task-based systems dates back to Frederick Winslow Taylor’s work in the early 1900s. His theory, known as Scientific Management (or Taylorism), centred around the idea that dividing work into standardised discrete tasks was the key to increasing process and project efficiency.

Taylor’s theories evolved during the era mass production and the 2nd industrial revolution – car manufacturing, steel production and tobacco – all processes that are repeated thousands of times, where the problem is well-defined and the solution is clearly understood.

Waterfall methodology argues the best thing to do with projects such as these is to decompose the project into a series of individual tasks, assign each task to a functional specialist and work through a series of steps towards the end deliverable.

Waterfall project delivery follows a series of steps, executed in a linear fashion one after the other. The steps are typically Planning, Design, Implementation, Testing and Deployment.

Image source

For a marketing campaign this may look like:

PhaseWork required
PlanningDiscuss campaign theme and objectives at a high-level
DesignUnderstand individual assets required (content, graphics, landing page & ad creation, tools, nurture sequences, analytics etc)
ImplementationCreation of the above assets, including design and development work
TestingEnsure everything works as planned, test user journey, device types, translations etc
LaunchPush live and launch to prospects and customers

To this day, Taylor’s ideas still form the bedrock of the modern capitalist economy and are very much alive in global workplace culture. His thinking permeates virtually all management thinking to this day.

The problem with waterfall marketing project management

Taylor is responsible for the way most people see work, teams, and leadership today. At the same time his theories stand in the way of many corporate innovation and transformation efforts.

The problem with task-based systems is that they work best for predictable, frequently recurring projects. In other words, waterfall planning only really works where there is certainty around the problem and the solution.

Unfortunately today’s marketers and marketing teams, and increasingly other business functions as well, operate under conditions of extreme uncertainty and constant change. Customers and audiences are changing, experiences and expectations are changing, acquisition channels are changing, company strategy and messaging is changing. In this kind of environment your marketing plan very quickly becomes less of a “plan” and more a case of “build it and see what happens”.

The most common outcome when using waterfall project planning in conditions of uncertainty is the successful execution of a bad plan. Eric Ries, renowned author and coach of lean methodology, refers to this as “achieving failure”.

In marketing this typically takes the form of a campaign that is on time, on budget and beautifully executed. All campaign planning and tasks are completed perfectly. Regular updates show everything to be on-track, and yet the end result is no increase in lead generation or revenue.

Agile marketing project management & experimentation

Marketers need to reduce the risk of spending time and money on content that people don’t read, and on campaigns people don’t engage with. If we create something nobody wants, does it matter if we do it on time and on budget?

Big bang equals big risk. You build the thing until it’s 100% done and deliver it to the user at the very end.

What is needed is an approach to reduce the uncertainty by getting early market feedback from prospects and customers. Today this is achieved through a more agile marketing process and building a culture of experimentation.

The HubSpot team adopted the 6-step growth marketing process below in order to maximise progress towards marketing goals:

  1. Perform – ongoing customer research
  2. Gather – insights to generate new ideas & opportunities
  3. Prioritise – insights to find highest impact ideas
  4. Test – run fast, agile tests to validate hypotheses
  5. Analyse – analyse the results, what works and what doesn’t
  6. Systematise – create repeatable playbooks for successful activity

In our post on marketing project management software we wrote in detail about what to look for in a good marketing project management platform.

The biggest problem with marketing project management

The biggest problem with the traditional task management approach is that quickly employees fall into the output versus outcome trap. “Work” quickly becomes focused on creating and assigning tasks, responding to notifications, joining team calls, communicating status updates and discussing the next sprint cycle. Before you know it, high impact work gets replaced with work about work, and goals start shifting towards outputs as opposed to outcomes – because they’re easier to measure.

According to a 2021 study of 10,223 global knowledge workers, workers now spend 60 percent of their valuable time on work about work, or metawork, as its become known. That’s equivalent to spending January to mid-August on work that doesn’t really move the needle.

The goal of marketing project management software is to increase the impact marketing has on sales and revenue, not to increase time spent on planning, collaborating and tracking.

Not all work is created equal. Many of us supplant high impact work with “work about work”–activities like checking and responding to emails, sitting in unproductive meetings that don’t have agendas, scouring for information in Slack channels, or spending hours on end beautifying PowerPoint presentations

Review your marketing project management

Two of the best frameworks to your teams performance are the The Eisenhower Matrix, and the Action Priority Matrix.

The Eisenhower Matrix (Image source)

The Action Priority Matrix (Image source)

To conclude

Process isn’t sexy or cool, but getting it right might just have the biggest impact on your team and company growth.

The real work is done in the shadows, alone, behind closed doors. Small, incremental improvements, as you put in the time. The piano player may enjoy performing, but the concert is just the 1% — the key is finding the joy in practicing — in the process

PR & Marketing Consultant, Peter Morscheck

p.s. looking for a course in marketing project management? We recommend the CXL courses https://cxl.com/institute/online-course/project-management/