Derived from the Agile Manifesto, the 12 Agile Principles have served as the foundation of all Agile frameworks over the past twenty years. Here's how research organizations can rethink the 12 Agile Principles as we usher in a new decade of innovation.
What comes to mind when you imagine software development? Chances are, you are probably picturing a small team of programmers huddled together in a brightly lit room, working seamlessly to push out line after line of code.
While this may be the image associated with modern-day programming teams, this was not always the case. For a long time, software industry projects were in deadlock. What should have taken weeks, took months, and what should haven take months, took years. Owners and sales teams complained that developers weren’t producing enough, while developers complained that the requirements were constantly being changed.
A large part of why expectations and reality conflicted in development can be attributed to how companies and startups used to operate. Faced with situations of high uncertainty, companies were afraid of getting their product launches wrong, and dedicated the bulk of the project’s time towards researching and planning.
Yet, after all this time dedicated towards planning, product launches still tended to fail. The reason was simple - customers were only able to start providing genuine input about the project after they had seen the first release of the product.
If it takes the entire length of the project to achieve feedback, then a development team only gets their first round of input near the end of the project, leaving them virtually no time to make necessary adjustments.
In view of this, Agile techniques were developed to provide focus and sanity to teams operating in environments of high uncertainty. These techniques helped teams disprove or prove their hypotheses as early as possible so that they could focus on the educated guesses they knew to be true.
Beyond software development, recent trends indicate that Agile techniques could find applications in other industries. Within the consumer products industry, approximately 95% of the 30,000 new products that are released each year tend to fail. At the same time, consumers still expect and demand product innovation from the brands they purchase from. Being able to apply Agile principles in these fields thus becomes crucial.
Of the 12 guiding Agile principles that are used throughout the innovation cycle, we believe at Remesh that the principles fall under three broad pillars, namely:
Embracing all three pillars of the Agile principles is crucial for any organization to truly operate in an Agile environment.
The start of any project always exists within an environment of high uncertainty. These environments are defined by low amounts of quantitative data. If your client or brand is building or advertising a new and innovative product or service, by definition there is no data, standard, or benchmark that can predict success.
At the start of a new project, a qualitative understanding of the target population’s behaviors, problems, and needs are the only data points available with which to make decisions. This means that good, qualitative research becomes the foundation of successful innovation. Delivering products and services regularly becomes a crucial means of collecting these insights and understanding your customer.
The start of a new project is when you know the least about what the final end product or service should be. So, spend as little time as possible planning for the end product and instead:
Through this process, technology provides a valuable opportunity to speed things up.
Online tools such as online focus groups, message boards, and video-enabled 1:1 interviews allow you to reach and interact with audiences quickly. The greater scale enabled by these digital platforms can ensure you don’t miss a minority—but important—viewpoint.
Technology can also help you make sense of responses more quickly—particularly when operating with the kinds of data that come from larger-scale studies. While AI and automation tools are no replacement for a talented researcher, they can assist and augment by creating faster workflows and better organizing information for analysis and presentation.
Once enough assumptions have been validated, the next step is to launch.
This step flies in the face of traditional research and planning. How can your clients or brand proceed with an idea when so little is known? The simple fact of innovation is that customers cannot tell organizations what to create to meet their needs.
At this point, no matter how much up-front research and planning is done, the first iteration of your product or service is likely going to fail. There are simply too many questions you can’t get answers to.
So, get something out there that you expect to fail and learn from it.
In Eric Ries’s book The Lean Startup, he introduces the concept of Minimum Viable Product or MVP. This is the absolute smallest, lowest effort product or service that can be provided to customers in order to learn more about what they need. Releasing an MVP quickly allows you to gain early customer insights, and make any necessary pivots as soon as possible.
Releasing the product or service provides valuable quantitative data that presents itself in the form of questions such as:
Understanding why a customer purchased your product, or used it the way it was intended to be used, forms the next step in the cycle for qualitative research. A few crucial follow up questions you may want to pursue are:
The Lean Startup refers to this process – from planning through release, plus gathering new information – as a Build > Measure > Learn cycle. This process is repeated for every iteration until the product or service has met its goal, or it becomes clear that the goal will not be reached.
This principle suggests that products should be released every couple of weeks to every couple of months. While these time scales may seem to only apply to the software industry, flexible manufacturing, rapid prototyping, direct to consumer eCommerce, and advances in shipping and delivery mean that this methodology can be applied to other industries like consumer packaged goods, media, or even finance.
While the two weeks to two months time frame might not be possible for everyone, after taking these advances into consideration, there are very few industries who couldn’t reduce their time to launch significantly and start seeing benefits over the competition.
The key to achieving this is the MVP, or minimum viable product. By releasing quickly and iteratively, you are never that far from course correcting, so missteps are less impactful. The benefits of quick, directionally correct business decisions far outweigh the risks, particularly when the risk of not making a decision in a timely manner means losing your window of opportunity.
It is crucial to balance quality with speed.
Unfortunately, much like the term “Agile,” the term “MVP” is often co-opted to mean “a subpar version that we rush out the door in the name of speed, and hope it succeeds.” Rather than being designed as a starting point for customer input, MVPs often turn out to be a half-baked version of what teams think the final product should be.
Remember that the “V” in “MVP” stands for “value.” To truly be innovative, value comes in two forms:
Testing and iterating on poorly designed work often results in inconclusive findings that don’t add value. To avoid this trap, move away from the MVP to the related concept of the Riskiest Assumption Test or RAT.
Technically, the RAT is not a new type of initial release, but the original concept of the MVP renamed for easier understanding. Both RAT and MVP involve building just enough of a concept to test it, with the key difference being that RAT allows you to first identify your riskiest assumptions and build around them.
Neither the MVP not the RAT are complete prototypes.
Both the MVP and RAT are intended to be experiments that test your assumptions. The key difference, again, is that a RAT spells it out in more detail. The first step of RAT is to identify the riskiest assumptions you are making about your customers’ needs – these are the assumptions that, if untrue, will negate your idea entirely.
Second, you design your initial release as a means of testing those risky assumptions. This helps to identify and invalidate key misconceptions as quickly as possible and determine whether customers are fundamentally interested in the concept before building anything.
Rushing into poor experimental design at any stage, whether qualitative or quantitative, isn’t going to give you the outcome you need. Rather, you should aim to get as close as you can to the right answer without excessive testing. Here, online tools can also offer added benefits:
During the following events, it is crucial to have all relevant stakeholders in the same room:
While it may seem counterintuitive, involving more people during these crucial decision-making events is often faster than working on specialized, but siloed teams. This cuts down on back and forth time involved in making and communicating decisions from group to group, and eliminates miscommunications that result in wasted time working towards the wrong goal.
Virtual rooms enabled by online and mobile technology make this possible with clients, researchers and participants anywhere in the world.
While a collaborative team is central to Agile methodologies, there is still a need to avoid design by committee and trust in the skills and expertise of each member of your team. While the client understands their business domain and constraints better than you, ultimately you are the expert at how best to get the answers they need.
It’s crucial to set a regular cadence of Build > Measure > Learn cycles and limit the amount of input going into each cycle, according to how much the team can commit to. Giving the team the autonomy to communicate and decide how much they can do within a cycle helps teams avoid burnout, and keeps them committed to their goals.
At the same time, this allows you (as a manager, team lead, etc.) to trust the team’s realistic estimates and ensure the team commits to meeting their delivery dates.
When conducting qualitative research with customers, there’s often no replacement for the kind of depth and nuance you can get from face-to-face conversations.
Yet, in-person interviews and focus groups can be incredibly resource intensive, as compared to alternative methods such as online focus groups. As with any research it’s up to you to weigh the benefits and drawbacks and choose the tools and methods that are right for each particular project and research stage.
At the heart of any agile project is the self-organizing team. There are a few key reasons to grant project teams more autonomy, namely:
Allowing teams to have autonomy and to figure out the methodology that works best for them allows contributors to react quicker to changes on the ground, iterate on the fly, and push the entire organization to achieve business objectives in a more Agile fashion.
Just as a good Agile team iterates on products and services delivered, so too must it iterate and improve on its own internal processes. At the end of each sprint cycle, hold a retrospective to discuss what worked, what didn’t and what could be done better. There is no fixed process in Agile. As long as the principles are generally adhered to, find a process that works and constantly look to improve it.
The same can be done with your clients or within your organization, too. While it requires a high degree of openness and trust, doing this can allow your clients or org to have a greater sense of control, feel like they have skin in the game, and cement relationships between work and the greater organization.
Following the Agile principles can help every team respond more quickly to changes in the market, and build products that truly bring value to customers. Ultimately though, every team should find how these principles can best work for them, and iterate until they find that winning formula.
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