Bits & Pieces?
I’ve been thinking about the Ben Folds’ song “Bastard” lately. The chorus goes, “Why you gotta act like you know when you don’t know? It’s ok if you don’t know everything.” Those lyrics come to my mind when I encounter someone that strikes me as a know-it-all – someone that is clearly forcing an answer into the space of question just because the space exists. And hey – it takes one to know one. I am this person on MANY occasions. It’s usually me reminding myself that it’s OK to just utter those three simple words: I don’t know. But I bet I’m not alone. I’m sure this is rooted in how we were brought up as students – a focus on the answer more so than the process of discovering it. Plus, there’s just that amazing feeling of being right.
But one of the things that makes us know-it-alls annoying, as well as harmful, is that we’re not always right – or there’s no way to prove whether we are or we aren’t. Yet we hop into the answer hole so fast, we often (unintentionally on my part at least) discourage others from seeking another (equally or even, gasp! more right) answer.
Now before you think this is just some personal rant, let me make a connection. In an earlier post on agile development I referenced the somewhat controversial statement out of 37 Signals as they contend that the planning process that is part of most traditional development cycles is simply guessing – and that guessing is dangerous. We also took a look at the difference between that traditional development cycle of Learn > Make > Test and the agile cycle of Make> Test> Learn.
In a traditional environment the learning is scheduled up front. A lot of good primary and secondary research is done and, when combined with our experience, produces valuable insights that then feed our strategy, design and execution. But these insights – much like the planning I believe 37 Signals had in mind – are really just (educated) guesses. And unfortunately, those guesses serve as the “answer” deliverable and that task of seeking answers is often considered closed after that inital phase.
An agile environment certainly is not void of upfront research and insights – but there is focus on getting to them fast and treating them as valuable, but temporary. We’re forced to leave the space of the question open for a while and that can be uncomfortable! And it’s uncomfortable for most clients too! No one wants to say, “We’re not sure, let’s just try it and see.” But we have to. It’s the best chance our next website/social campaign/”killer app” has. The agile agency must fight to be metrics-driven – meaning learning and acting based on measuring the first build. Not just collecting the data, but genuinely seeking answers that potentially prove our insights wrong – and having the time and budget allocated to be iterative.
Now back to the song. I don’t think Folds is on any sort of personal rant either. I think he just wants to say that there is something very special – whimsical yet substantial – about discovering life’s truths – the details of which can be largely missed if we rush into knowing. Which, strangely, has amazing relevance to our lives in an agile agency.
Today’s post is a follow up to my post from a couple of weeks ago on agile development.
Last time I focused on a few definitive characteristics of an agile environment – many of which Sue Spaight highlighted on originally in her SxSW session recap. There are a couple of things that I’ve run into since then that have me thinking, so I thought I would share them. Primarily my muse for the past week has been a presentation on Slide Share by digital agency Made by Many, Agile Planning, Learning to Iterate.
First off, let’s be clear – the type of evolution I’m talking about is digital integration beyond what many are just addressing now. “Marketing, Advertising; please meet Technology – I think you guys should get to know each other.” Yes, beyond that. And beyond a campaign support cast of minisite, banner ads and a Facebook page. Tim Malbon, founding partner at Made by Many, in a comment to his own Oct 7, 2009 post said, “I’m certainly not arguing that everything should be digital. Rather that digital platforms are increasingly ‘the glue’ that makes the sum of the parts greater.” This means fundamentally innovating the way a brand is available for and useful to a consumer. Innovation is change, change is new, new requires development. Smart and fast development.
So I’m thinking about two basic, but big, concepts of such smart and fast development and how they would require some fairly profound changes in the way we think and act.
Basic Concept #1: At the heart of the agile methodology is the MVP – the “Minimally Viable Product,” defined as such by Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup. It’s not that the product is not well planned – or just half-baked. It’s fully planned to be the product that will be the least burdened, that will meet the critical needs of a specific target market and that will be viable enough to test and learn from.
Corresponding Agency Paradigm Shift: Planning is guessing. This statement in the book Getting Real, by software development firm 37 Signals, seems to be either interesting or insulting – or BOTH, depending on your perspective. For the planners of the world – the strategists, the researchers, those of us that just value logic – this is harsh! The word “guessing” connotes carelessness. Guessing is irresponsible. Guessing is what we do when we have no idea. On the contrary, we have a lot of great ideas. Our plans are based on really legitimate fact and well-studied trends, but still we are guessing/predicting what will happen. In agile, the quicker we can develop an MVP that is based on our top 5 (or so) “guesses,” the quicker we’ll be able to PROVE IT. If we don’t KNOW, we should make our best guess and move forward so we can test.
Basic Concept #2: Iteration. So after we have the MVP, then comes iteration. Where the cycle of traditional project management/product development would go learn>make>test, an agile environment needs to embrace make>test>learn. This process MUST include iteration because an agile (or “lean”) agency would have planned (guessed, if you will) that they might learn a thing or two once the product got out in front of the early adapters (or perhaps the brand fans/followers).
Corresponding Agency Paradigm Shift: Not only do we need to embrace iteration, but our clients do as well. I think it’s not completely random that we look to start-ups when we seek the best agile performers. It’s because they started from scratch! Agile developers seek agile-friendly client? Done! But for agencies contemplating this metamorphosis while at the same time crafting campaign work with existing and beloved, I might add, clients – it is more complicated. Committing to iteration means committing to something longer term. It’s taking a bigger step. The Made by Many deck hits on the distinction between iterative and incremental. Incremental means to build “it” in parts – Phase 1, Phase 2, Phase 3, etc. – smaller steps to reach a whole. Each phase has a launch date and a subsequent phase rarely has anything to do with learning about or altering the prefacing phase. Iterative means to build “it” completely the first time, then build it AGAIN.
There is some fear on the part of agencies of even going there (Do we have the right people/processes? How will this change our relationship with our clients? How much does it cost? ) And there is no doubt some legitimate questions on the part of the client as well (Is the risk too big? How will we sell this to the CEO? How much does it cost?) Iterative is making a commitment together (agency and client) to the product and to the product’s responsibility to the (ever-changing) end users.
This is not a journey all agencies will choose to navigate. And it may not be the right path for all clients. Certainly there has already been a share of agency splits and start-ups over this leap within our industry.
The way we see it here though, it’s lose-lose if we worry too much about rocking the boat (both our own as well as our clients’). To stay relevant in what Malbon described as our current “rapidly mutating media convergence culture,” we’re having some tough heart-to-hearts about our digital future. If our clients aren’t demanding this, don’t we owe it to them to get them there?
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