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Agile and Sales

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In the article, Agile and Sales: Reflections on my first Scrum Sales Team, sales manager, Eric Krisfelt offers his explanation to the often asked questions of can a sales team be Agile, and how do you make the change. He details the steps he used to implement Scrum in a sales organization and shows that teams outside of engineering can become self-organizing Agile teams.

To begin the transition, Eric identifies the four steps taken to implement Scrum with a traditional sales team:

Training:   It is important for the teams to be trained on Agile/Scrum so that they understand the methodology and the goals.  It can help everyone if the sales team begins to gain a better understanding of the development cycle…

Stand up: Stand ups allow teams to adapt and react quickly to how the process is working for customers and external teams.  Stand ups are a natural for sales teams; most sales people are impatient and like short meetings that are to the point, and that can help them resolve problems and focus on accomplishments…

Sprints and Retrospectives: For sales, the sprint cycle may be much longer than recommended for a typical development team, but it’s important for sales managers to follow the sprint structure. Sales teams often work on monthly goals, so that’s how we set up our sprints…

Re-interpreting Product Backlog: Our team implemented an EPIC board (Customers) and Tasks were set up as “backlog items” with a “pending”, “in-progress”, or “completed” status. Suddenly, the entire sales and sales management team had a clear visual for the enormity of tasks during the iteration.

Eric reported that the sales team easily adapted to Agile with these steps in place. Training was well accepted by individual contributors; stand ups and retrospectives were simply reinterpreting existing meetings and processes. Although the product backlog was a new concept, once implemented it gave transparency to what was happening in sales to all other areas of the business, including engineering. Even with these steps effectively in place, Eric cited management as his biggest challenge.

Switching to Agile wasn’t easy on the management team. How would they hold individual sales people responsible?  How would they compensate each sales rep?  What if someone on the team wasn’t making enough calls? Many executives thought the stand up meetings would be too short to accomplish all of their weekly goals.

In order for a sales team to truly adopt a Scrum mentality, both management and team members would require a significant shift from traditional sales methodologies. The sales team using Scrum successfully made the switch; unfortunately, management did not. The old processes were brought back and the Scrum framework was dropped.

For reasons I still fail to understand, the company restructured itself, and the Scrum Sales Teams were eliminated, but not before we realized the power of Agile within sales.  It was the first time that entire teams reached quotas assigned to the company, as opposed to just individual sales contributors.

Conservative management teams reverting back to what they know is a common end result of organizations trying to implement a new process. This failure is not specific to Eric’s team, but rather a root cause for why any team would fail with Agile. Ken Schwaber wrote in his blog of why Agile fails:

When it is adopted, some of its practices are inconsistent with the culture of the team or organization…Some managers like to believe that a team or organization will only succeed through the application of their own and only their own intelligence and insights. Self-organization of teams does not occur then.

Even with management dropping Agile, Eric was able to implement a Scrum framework in a sales organization and showed that an engineering centric methodology can be applied to a sales team. Likewise, Jeff Sutherland outlined how another sales team transitioned to Scrum:

Since the introduction of Scrum to the sales team, the company revenue doubled. Although it is hard to really state that this was only cause by using Scrum, the general manager indicated that at least 50% of the revenue increase can be attributed to the adoption of Scrum. The company attempted to grow, so more actions were taken to achieve that. However, using Scrum was a major change because of the self-direction by the sales team, the reflection on sales process effectiveness, and by installing a frequent inspect and adapt cycle.

Eric’s team not only hit all of their goals within a six month period, but they also found “that this shared work model led to more consistent revenue and compensation in addition to a more even workload.” He concludes with more positive lessons learned through implementing Scrum: self-managing teams, team members being able to focus on specific domains more deeply than they would as individuals, and a better work-life balance for all team members. In Eric’s view, Agile can be implemented in a sales team—and it can work.

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