Just about everyone uses “agile” or “lean” in describing their business these days, but very few people actually use the terms in ways that embody their real meaning.  And, while it may help with marketing, if you say you’re running lean, and you’re not actually practicing the discipline, consider yourself warned.  Project and product management methodologies are disciplines, and they require rigor and practice in order for your company to reap the benefits.  As a certified SCRUM Master, I take my disciplines seriously.  But this is as a result of surviving the kind of cautionary tales one hopes only to read about in glib blog posts.  And I hope this primer helps you avoid some of the pitfalls to which I was exposed.

Let’s start by imagining a scenario.  You’re in New York City, and you’re craving a unique dining experience.  You’ve heard about a place up in Boston, but you’re not sure if it’s really what you’re looking for, even though you’ve researched whatever you could about it.  And, if you want to go up there, you’ll need to commit.  That means, get on the freeway or hop on a train, and head straight there.  The only drawback is that you might arrive and find it’s not at all what you imagined.  Then your investment in the journey is a waste, and you have little choice but to go back and start researching again to find a better fit. 

MVP of a Curious Catalyst Opportunity Map

MVP of a Curious Catalyst Opportunity Map

However, if you were to hop in the car and drive to your current favorite restaurant and ask them where you should go, they’ll probably have a recommendation closer and one that’s more inline with your vibe, as you have some shared criteria.  And even if you drive a short distance more, only to find it’s not your cup of tea, you’d get another recommendation and more information about what you actually thought you wanted, so that you can make a better decision over time.  This loosely speaks to the assumptions underlying both agile and lean methodologies: that shorter bursts of activity, with built in feedback loops, for gathering user insights and refining the offering, will ultimately lead to a more satisfying outcome.  Note that I didn’t say less expensive, and this is one of the most misunderstood principles when deciding which development approach is right for you and your company.

But let’s begin by clarifying a few terms.  Traditional product development is called “waterfall” because when you plot sequential design with dependencies, progress looks as though it flows down from step to step over time.  This practice developed in manufacturing and construction industries, where there is a clear case to be made for building the framing of the house before you can proceed to painting the walls.  It also should be obvious that in waterfall projects, if you have changes to requirements mid-way through the process, the cost will be exorbitant.  For example, if you’ve built a house, put tiles in, and decide to change the entire shape of the kitchen, you can do it, but you can be sure you’ll pay for it.  The key assumption here is that you never proceed to the next step until the previous one is complete.  And, from a team planning standpoint, resources with different skill sets can roll on and off the project as needed.

A traditional waterfall project plan often called a Gantt Chart

A traditional waterfall project plan often called a Gantt Chart

During the early heydays of digital agencies, the idea of “agile” entered the lexicon as the new way to save costs and push the boundaries of technical innovation and development.  As one of the most widely adopted flavors of agile, Scrum was first defined as "a flexible, holistic product development strategy where a development team works as a unit to reach a common goal" as opposed to a "traditional, sequential approach" in 1986 by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka in the "New New Product Development Game."  They claimed this approach would increase speed and flexibility, based on case studies from manufacturing firms in the automotive, photocopier and printer industries; and they called this the holistic or rugby approach, as the whole process is performed by one cross-functional team across multiple overlapping phases, where the team "tries to go the distance as a unit, passing the ball back and forth."

More recently, in 2011, Eric Reis coined the now frequently used term the “lean startup” to describe a method for developing business and products in shorter cycles.  Central to his approach is what he calls “validated learning” – or a combination of business-hypothesis-driven experimentation and iterative releases. Ries' overall claim is that if startups invest their time into incrementally building products or services to meet the needs of early customers, they can reduce the market risks and sidestep the need for large amounts of initial project funding and expensive product launches and failures.  The art of doing this well is in knowing how to define the fundamental unit of testing, which Reis calls the “Minimum Viable Product” or MVP.  As I am known to say, this can be half a product but it can never be a half-baked product.  And, at best, the MVP captures the core value and biggest user need, so that the product grows organically out of a truly human-centered solution.

Generally, both agile and lean methodologies put primacy on rapid iterative and incremental design with a dedicated, self-organizing, multi-disciplinary team.  The requirements and solutions then evolve over a time-boxed period of intense effort called a “sprint” with well-defined tasks.  In both cases, estimation, storytelling, frequent communication and reporting are critical for success - and this skill set is as much art as it is science.  With daily check-ins, teams can immediately and flexibly respond to issues, changes, or discoveries, before getting too far along.  And by being clear about actionable metrics and a backlog of additional features, all team stakeholders can make clear, informed decisions at critical moments before deciding to push on or pivot the product.

A great capture of the SCRUM cycle courtesy of Agilitrix.com

A great capture of the SCRUM cycle courtesy of Agilitrix.com

As you look to evaluate vendors or consider putting one of these disciplines into practice, beware the jargon and look for experience, which probably comes from emerging technology, mid-stage startups or the rare intrapreneur with a mandate to experiment.  More than anything, agile and lean practices produce artifacts of directed thinking and prototyping, user feedback and guideposts to the next sprint. 

At Curious Catalyst, we expand on the Opportunity Map sketch you see above as the key deliverable coming out of Discovery and Visioning sprints.  Each “roundabout” represents a critical assumption and a potential area for investigation.  And, depending on what we find during a given sprint, we may continue on in the direction we were going to prototype, or we may recommend changes to the strategy behind the solution we’ll test next.  This allows us to remain responsive to rapidly changing market demands, to leverage new insights in real time, and to demonstrate traction after mere weeks instead of years.  Let's take the example of our foray into using re-imagined food trucks to mitigate the complexities of food deserts.  In this case, we should start with the most obvious assumption, which is that people will buy food (produce, prepared food, frozen food) off of trucks.  If that isn't proven to be true by our group of citizen stakeholders, it would be a waste of time for us to investigate and prototype solutions around mobile recipes and grab-and-go dinners.

When tackling the increasingly complex challenges that our urban centers are facing, we believe an approach combining agile and lean methodologies is the only way forward – for harnessing broader expertise, wisely allocating limited funds, and building a tangible vision for change that can be implemented sprint by sprint.

    

Posted
AuthorKaz Brecher

I am a fastidious grammarian. Usually. And my copywriting guru tells me that I need to stop using ellipses in my business writing. But...

There IS a reason. And it dates back to my days in theater and film. The inimitable and beloved acting and directing coach, Judith Weston, wrote two books that any director worth his salt will have worn and dog-earred in his bag. And the most effective tool I learned from her is a simple but powerful technique: the strategic use of the word "or."

But it's not: Or. 

It's: Or... 

The ellipses are the magic. They are an invitation to co-create what comes next.

  With Jon Gosier, my THNK challenge partner, in the common stance of innovation designers - open, engaged, listening, mediating.

 With Jon Gosier, my THNK challenge partner, in the common stance of innovation designers - open, engaged, listening, mediating.

When a director is trying to do the delicate dance of coaxing out a layer of emotion from an actor, inviting her into the process while carefully creating a safe environment for experimentation and exploration, a declarative will kill the mood.  It's too aggressive.  But ellipses open a door. I have used this technique to sublime effect in rehearsals, with petulant developers in technical settings, and with resistant clients. And I was reminded of this dynamic while pondering the question of exactly what the role of a "designer" is in today's world of crowdsourced solutions and hackathons.

There is an incredible value in looking to bottom-up input, but brilliant urban planning isn't the result of voting on ideas or distilling the common denominator from the flood. I learned this lesson first-hand while pouring my energy into a project called Tribewanted. It launched in 2006 as an effort to take a social network, like MySpace which was burgeoning at the time, and do something pro-social in the real world. The founders, who had both vision and energy, rented an island in Fiji and, for a small membership fee, do-gooders from around the world could visit the island and vote on how funds were allocated for village development. In theory, a novel idea; in practice, it led to the kind of vanity projects and whimsy on which too many tax-payer dollars are wasted.  

I joined shortly after the project got underway, to indulge my interest in social experiments. And I got hooked, eventually art directing a flat-pack furniture project to raise money for the local primary school. But the most valuable lessons were learned in observing how the role of design works in complex social settings. Where dynamic systems are concerned, the designer often arrives at the best solutions when acting as an experienced instigator - balancing stakeholders, constraints, and needs (business and user, because you can't succeed without both).  

But more than provocation, the designer must be accomplished at orchestrating discussion, facilitating lateral approaches, and culling bottom-up inputs as well as knowing when to do so. Subject matter expertise is engaged and leveraged in context, and fresh eyes are invited into the process to contribute new observations and perspective. But innovation most often happens at the intersection of "how things have always been done" (the frequent expert perspective) and "wouldn't it be great if" (the most common layperson perspective). And I credit the good designer with being the catalyst who can locate or conjure the conditions for this kind of ideation.

A Public Workshop project with Demoiselle 2 Femme and eleven incredible teenage ladies which won the Metropolitan Planning Council’s Placemaking Award (Grand Prize!)

A Public Workshop project with Demoiselle 2 Femme and eleven incredible teenage ladies which won the Metropolitan Planning Council’s Placemaking Award (Grand Prize!)

One of my favorite proponents of this interpretation of the designer is Alex Gilliam, the cheerleader of possibility behind Public Workshop, an organization dedicated to helping individuals, schools and communities achieve great things through design and maximize its potential as a tool for positive social change. I met Alex during Compostmodern 2013 where we chatted about how difficult it is becoming to disabuse clients of the desire to look for answers solely from the crowd. It's not that we framework thinkers are defending our own role in the design process, but we know that it's an art to coax the best results out of the increasingly empowered citizens within the lessons learned by long-time practitioners.

This is the type of innovation design we practice at Curious Catalyst, and it's more akin to what I'd describe as the application of creativity.  It's a point of view or a way to listen to the spectrum of stakeholders so that solutions emerge and develop to gain shape and definition. Today's urban challenges will not be solved by experts nor the wisdom of crowds alone.  And as I ponder the future of collaborative innovation, I wonder if it's a question of "and" instead of "or"...

  

It's never easy to pinpoint the genesis of an idea that may have been percolating for years, waiting for the right conditions to bloom into being, seasoned in a stew of opinions from friends and colleagues, but this incarnation of Curious Catalyst is the direct result of my fellowship at THNK, the Amsterdam School for Creative Leadership. A new program - which is part EMBA, part accelerator, part d.School, part professional coaching (those of us who have survived it jokingly describe it as "summer camp for overachievers looking to accelerate a mid-life crisis) - THNK is on a mission to "develop the next generation of creative leaders that will have a significant societal impact in our world" while balancing the needs of innovating for people, planet and profit.

CC_WildCard_THNK.png

The first six months of the program are a firehose of methodologies, philosophies, tools for pushing design thinking beyond its cliche and jargon, and hands-on examination of how teams work best, all in the context of a challenge.  I joined the program while heading up strategy and operations for a cloud computing company, with the aim of finding the best way to combine my nearly two decades of experience in shaping emerging platforms with my passion for social impact.  And I was assigned to a challenge team tasked with reducing greenhouse gas emissions using machine-to-machine (M2M) technologies.  It was more than a rollercoaster...as this short study in delirium at the end of the first module highlights.

But we reveled in navigating complexity theory frameworks and examined how best to employ the mechanics of scaling dynamics.  And the heady promise of combining multi-disciplinary thinkers and rapid ideation and prototyping tools in a pressure cooker of 14-hour days again proved the magic of what I've seen time and again at technology companies: it is not only possible but likely that you will generate new insights and push your product thinking beyond what seemed certain.

Players changed teams, we made discoveries, interviewed Subject Matter Experts from utilities to user experience, and my team launched a JV called BotTalk, which is currently exploring the impact of a public platform like Twitter in the Internet of Things.

BotTalk_Jam_Sketch.jpg

More importantly, I was able to identify and align all of the elements and factors that matter most to me in the form of Curious Catalyst.  This new consultancy is a way for me to have a positive impact on the city in which I live and toil; to get back in the trenches with an exceptional group of framework thinkers who deserve to find the right home for their multi-faceted talents in LA; to use mechanisms I've employed in the technology world, like agile project management and open core licensing, to disrupt entrenched urban challenges; and to amplify our findings for the world at large.

Years ago, the founder of an early digital agency texted me after a meeting I'd arranged for him: "kaz, you are a curious catalyst"...I have no doubt he was scratching his head when he tapped out the note.  But it stuck with me, and I've understood it more and more deeply over time.  If you're a curious catalyst, too, I hope we'll be working together soon! 

Posted
AuthorKaz Brecher
CategoriesGeneral