Agile Strategy: Making Stuff Instead of Planning To Make Stuff

  Agile is a philosophy and development practice that began when software engineers got tired of being screwed by “waterfall” project plans that inevitably were pulled off the rails by mistakes in scope and direction, plus changes in direction. Agile focuses on getting product completed and in the hands of customers and iterating that based on feedback and needs, rather than trying to gather comprehensive requirements for a much bigger waterfall effort. Like a lot of other planners and content strategists I’ve been pulled into Agile development through software teams I’ve worked with, for me begining in 2007 with LBi New York on work for Valspar paints and the Chicago Humanities Festival portal. Since then I’ve tried to think through and build on Agile thinking in strategic planning and marketing plans.  The idea of the “always on” campaign platform makes more sense in the iterative model of Agile than the kinds of big, expensive media campaigns that consumer brands launch and re-launch a year later. Next weekend I’ll be helping to run a workshop at the UnSummit in St. Paul about “Agile Strategy.”  It grows out of some amazing work, presentations and writing done by smart people at my agency Native Instinct, and thinkers like Neil Perkin, Farrah Bostic, Ben Edwards, Rick Liebling, Adrian Ho, James Mathewson of IBM, and the British agency Made By Many. It seems that if the software team or product team adopts Agile methods, then it almost requires the entire organization to move to a more agile strategic process.  All this is can be very good, and I think real-time communications only makes it more important that companies be more closely connected—and therefore responsive—to customers. Lean is another movement that’s been closely allied with Agile.  They share the common idea of stripping away as much as possible that doesn’t add value for the customer from the planning, making and delivering of products and services, and focusing instead on delivering working product and then improving it. I can’t name the number of projects over the past 20 years where tens of thousands of dollars have been spent on getting every bit of customer / market research together and then jamming it all into absurdly inefficient and mostly irrelevant documents. Let’s get on with it! A vision of where we’re going, a clear idea of the first meaningful working version, and a team of good, smart people who can communicate closely are the basic ingredients.  As David Byrne says, “its more fun to make things than to talk about making them.” There are several resources I’ve found in the past six months about this trend to Agile and Lean thinking in business and communications strategy.   I wanted to include some of them here, especially the strong presentations by Farrah Bostic and Adrian Ho and David Annis from the Planningness Conference in Minneapolis, and thinking from MadeByMany in the UK, which has several presentations on their Website that will blow up incumbent thinking quite nicely. I’ll write more about this, and especially how content strategy can live within an agile process and a lean enterprise. Until then, if anyone has good resources or case studies they can point me to—or irritating questions I can ponder—I’d be grateful to hear about them.   Some posts: Great blog post by Justin McMurray of MadeByMany, “A Manifesto for Agile strategy: Oxymoron or Innovation?” speaks in clear language about the challenges of Agile strategy, especially scaling beyond the team level. Here’s a great rumination by James Mathewson, Editor in Chief of, “Agile Content Strategy: Scrum Favors Generalists” Neil Perkin’s thoughtful pieces on “Agile Planning,” and “Agile Marketing.”   Presentations: How To Do Lean Strategyby Farrah Bostic, Planningness 2011, Minneapolis

“How To Really Make Something,” by Stuart Eccles and Tim Malbon of MadeByMany, Planningness 2010, Brooklyn

“Production As Strategy” by Adrian Ho and David Annis, Planningness 2011, Minneapolis

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About Rohn Jay Miller

I'm a strategic designer who works with clients who are transforming their business models because of change brought on by the Internet. Solving disruption is often a problem and an opportunity at the same time. Previously I was a founding partner of Ikonic/USWeb in San Francisco, and Senior Vice President--Product & Technology for Knight Ridder in San Jose.

One Response to Agile Strategy: Making Stuff Instead of Planning To Make Stuff

  1. Andrew Nelson June 11, 2011 at 7:26 pm #

    Interesting points – looking forward to your follow up. Of course I am biased but I think Blue Ocean Strategy and value innovation already encompass agile and lean into strategy – formed on the basis of 1) questioning what to focus on to eliminate, reduce, raise and create 2) rapid deployment by building execution into strategy 3) simultaneous cost down and value up and 4) visual processes and documentation, no “inefficient and absurd” documents.