How Agile Inbound Marketing
is Like Air Traffic Control

Jordan Goodman

Written by Jordan Goodman on Fri, Aug 12, 2016

When I was hired by SPROUT Content at the beginning of the new year, our team was in the beginning stages of adopting the Agile/Scrum methodologies. Prior to joining the team I had the privilege of working at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) Control Tower, and was assigned to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Regional Offices, assisting in the training of Air Traffic Controllers (ATC).

Not surprisingly, there are some significant similarities between air traffic control (ATC) and the agile methodology. Being an agile inbound marketing agency allows us to work more fluidly, focusing each month on what will bring the most value for our client partners and deliver the best results, the fastest. For ATC, the priority is to ensure the safest, quickest and most efficient route possible when departing and arriving at an airport.  In both cases, following an agile process keeps communication clear and activities moving along as smoothly as possible.

Many of our clients ask why we decided to become an agile inbound marketing agency. Our answer is simple: We want to build valuable relationships, and work as a team in the most efficient and results-oriented way possible. So why is the topic of ATC showing up on an inbound marketing agency blog?

Because at SPROUT Content our agile processes hold unique comparisons to air traffic control operations. Since adopting the agile methodology, we have seen improvement in speed, predictability, transparency, and adaptability to change. These are the core principles of air traffic control’s approach to airport safety and efficiency.

The Air Traffic Control Process

ATC is broken into three main activities that involve a “call” and “response” dialogue between air traffic controllers and pilots using the military phonetic alphabet:

1. Clearance Delivery (CD) is the stage of the departure process delivers important route and weather advisory information for a pilot’s journey before the plane takes off.  ATC relays the information to the pilot as written on their travel itinerary. The pilot then relays the command back to the ATC word-for-word. Think of when an airplane “pushes back” from the gate. CD is responsible for this action. Without a proper "call and response" from the pilot, ATC will not clear the plane to push back from their gate to begin the departure process.

2. Ground Control (GC) is the process of controlling an airplane from the gate to the runway. Depending on the size and volume of an airport, there can be 60 to 80 active flights on the taxiways at any given time, and a team of three, sometimes four, are managing them all. This part of the process can be the most challenging for any ATC. While GC is communicating one-by-one with each plane, the ATC must remember every command given to ensure all pilots are aware of what’s happening around them. Airplanes do not have rearview or side-panel mirrors, so having an experienced controller ensures the safety of a flight, in the lead up of takeoff or landing.

3. Local Control (LC) warrants the safest departure and arrival of an airplane. LC works very closely with GC due to the high volume of activities that are occurring on the runway and taxiway. When a flight is departing, GC passes the plane to LC for take-off.  When a flight is arriving, LC passes off to GC. This ensures the airplane is controlled every step of the way from hitting the tarmac, to arriving at the gate. LC also ensures airport safety based on flight activity occurring above or around the airport, up to 3-5 miles. For example, if the President of the United States is passing through the aerospace system of an airport, all flights are diverted away from the airport by at least 35 miles in every direction. LC would be in-charge of clearing the aerospace system and providing safe passage for the President.

Why ATC is Similar to Agile

With the assistance of JIRA, a project management software for agile processes, our inbound marketing team is set up similar to an airport’s air traffic control.

When flights are arriving or departing from an airport, it is the local controller’s job to maintain a clear runway at all times. This entails that only one plane departs or arrives on one runway at a time. Likewise, JIRA uses a “swimlane” process outlining team members’ tasks that have begun, are in progress, or have been completed, for any team member on specific client-related work. Within JIRA, only one card (or task) can be worked on and pulled through a swimlane at a time to eliminate confusion and maintain efficiencies.

JIRA Agile Process

1. Planning is like Clearance Delivery.

In this phase, each inbound manager preps the deliverables needed for a card. They ensure that all information is included to launch the card into the Ready aisle, similar to how a pilot needs all the necessary information about weather and flight patterns before pushing back from the gate.  The “call and response” dialogue is what takes place between our inbound managers and each client to ensure everyone is on the same page before work begins. Just like CD, without all the information needed to meet client expectations, work will not be begin until a clear line of sight is established.

2. Ready and In-progress are like Ground Control.

These steps are similar to the process of controlling an airplane from the gate to the runway.  Depending on the team’s capacity, there could be 10 to 100 active cards being worked on at the same time by an implementer, designer or writer, which is like having 60-80 active flights on the taxiways.  While the inbound managers are communicating one-on-one with an implementer, designer or writer, like ground control does with each airplane, the Product Manager handles the full scope of activities for the agency like ATC does for the entire airport.

3. Internal Review and Acceptance are like local control.

Local control is like the gatekeeper for ATC. When a flight is departing, GC passes the plane to LC for take-off.  When a flight is arriving, LC passes off to GC. This ensures the airplane is controlled every step of the way.

The steps of internal review and acceptance process in our work as an inbound marketing agency works in a similar way.  When a deliverable (blog post, landing page, eBook) is completed, it moves into the Internal Review column, and then Acceptance, to ensure it meets quality control standards. Just as Local Control “warrants the safest departure and arrival of an airport,” an agency should have the same mentality when presenting completed work.  These steps ensure the deliverables are passed through in the best condition possible.

4. “Done” is like Takeoff.  

The essential purpose of ATC is to get airplanes moving safely, efficiently and onto their destinations. After all of the steps are passed, an airplane is cleared for take-off.  Similarly, once a deliverable has passed through each swimlane of the agile process, it meets the definition of “done” and is cleared for client approval or implementation.

Other Interesting Similarities

Penalized Planes are like Flagged Issues.

ATC must maintain the on-going safety regulations of other aircraft on the airfield. If a pilot performs an incorrect maneuver after receiving clear instructions from ATC, the pilot may be directed to a holding area, like a penalty box, for an unknown amount of time.

Similarly, in the JIRA agile project management system, if a deliverable cannot be moved along because of an impediment (i.e. waiting on client feedback, waiting on an external resource, cancelled meeting, technical issues) the individual card is flagged to show it’s no longer part of the regular workflow. This enables the team to focus on work that can be continued or completed until the flagged issue is ready to be worked on again, so it loses priority.

Cards Hold Pertinent Information. Clearance delivery has an information card for every airplane that includes essentials like the aircraft type, size, number of passengers, and flight route. This helps them prioritize, analyze and make real-time decisions about a flight and allows ATC to know the specifics of each plane without having to search for it.  Similarly, each card in JIRA is outlined with specific details for each task or project, including information about the client, time allotted, reference documents, links to external resources and interview notes. This enables the writer, designer or implementer to quickly get started on tasks without having to search for details.

Safety is like Strategy. The safety of an aircraft is the essence of all aviation. Similarly, the strategy behind an inbound marketing deliverable is the entire purpose for completing a blog, landing page, video, eBook, email campaign or any other tactic.  Without either, it could spell trouble for all parties involved.

The similarities between agile marketing and air traffic control are tremendous, but not completely surprising. Both require careful planning, strategy, management and execution for a flawless launch and happy clients.

Are you ready to find out how agile inbound marketing can help deliver stronger, faster results for your business?

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