You can talk and think about stuff for ages and ages before doing something or other. Why not just do something straight away and learn from that?

London was basking in unexpected sunshine and Tim Malbon (aka @malbonster) and I were wolfing down some fish and chips in Soho. His off-the-cuff comment stopped me cold – chip halfway to mouth – and in one way or another I have been thinking about it ever since (it was 6 months ago!).

Doing over planning‘ might be the simplest way to summarise the Agile philosophy that Made by Many so fervently pursues (a great non-tech articulation of the Agile approach to web apps is Getting Real by 37 Signals).

I was further prompted by Stuart's excellent recent post exploring some of the differences between "Agile" the philosophy and "agile" the adjective, in which he concludes:

Two of the most interesting questions for me is how is Agile going to scale beyond a team level? And how well can it be applied to processes outside software development? At Made by Many We have made a lot of ground in Agile interaction design but there is obviously much more to do and tools to create.

So this is the question that has been haunting me: what role can or does strategy have in an Agile world?As Stuart alludes, we've been able to translate the Agile philosophy to things like interaction design (for example, see Isaac's post 'The future of wireframes'), however strategy seems an altogether more challenging proposition.

By some definitions, strategy is pretty much only thinking and planning, so on face-value 'Agile strategy' seems like an incongruous pairing. However when you actually look through the four principles laid out in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, the gaps immediately start to narrow:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

(The qualification to these guiding principles states; "That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.")

The Agile software manifesto grew from discontent with heavyweight and unwieldy methodologies that had helped so many (perhaps most) software projects run way over time and over budget. So the real question to address (even before exploring whether Agile + Strategy can co-exist) is whether there is a need for an alternative, lighter-weight approach to digital strategy and planning.

My short answer to this, is most definitely.

Here are 4 quick observations from my own limited exposure to this industry to back this assertion up. Serendipitously, I've just finished the latest 37 Signals book Rework and it happens that there are some very apt quotes (included below) from the book that match my points:

1. Segregation

Although things are slowly changing, planners still occupy a hallowed and often completely separate part of the agency. They are the quintessential geniuses in the dark corner who are brought in for a specific and frequently one-off engagement. However this treats strategy as a singular event and not an ongoing process. This type of 'baton hand-off' process can create confusion and uncertainty amongst the team as the work gets further and further 'away' from the strategy. This can result in heavily compromised creative work, and while "flexing your intellectual muscles can be intoxicating" (Rework p.112), it's surely time for planners to come down off those pedestals.

2. Insights as false idols

The obsession that so many planners have with identifying those 1-2"insights" is a constant source of bemusement. I don't know where the practice of boiling down sacred diamonds (almost mystical in nature) stems from, but it seems ridiculous to me. I don't know of any other business or industry that relies on such black magic. I know they're supposed to be provocations but I think that insights often restrict creative thinking and more importantly are completely at the mercy of the planner's whims (and style). What I think would be more helpful is a simpler (broader) statement of purpose that acts as a guiding philosophy to help the team develop and judge their thinking because "when you don't know what you believe, everything becomes an argument" (p.44). This is more akin to the strategy I have seen work well in brands, tech companies and start-ups. Insights are often 'hit and miss',  nebulous and even risky. As Dan Heath puts it in this excellent FastCompany article; "Simplicity [in strategy] allows people to act".

3. Time & slow deduction

Deep research and immersion in complex problems is all good and well. However this approach is very much based on analytical thinking styles that tend to breed very deductive and often long-winded conclusions. Not only does this take a great deal of time, the rigidness and codification of the 'ultimate solution' presents an absolute with little room for argument. But too often this is simply an academic exercise in imagination, but perhaps 37 Signal's advice to "stop imagining what may work. Find out for real" (p.94) is a smarter alternative. More broadly, if you're in the business of creative and innovative thinking, I think it's time to move away from formulaic deductions and towards a more abductive, design thinking approach.

4. Change is the enemy

Given change is the only constant, the very concept of "planning" can get slippery. What often happens is that a great idea emerges (somehow) during the creative process that frequently bears little or no resemblance to the planning (or even the insights). But it is a good idea and the team is galvanised. So it's left to the planner to backfill the strategy with retrospective justification. Don't laugh, it's a running joke in agency land that this is most of a planner's job. It's almost as redundant as an information architect changing their wireframes to match finished designs (ahem, this happens too). So let's stop pretending that strategy is always the driver of good ideas. 37 Signals' even more savage indictment is that "planning is guessing".

So, where does this leave everything? Well, assuming there's the makings of a case for a new type of strategy, let's see how we might adapt/mash/mix/invent a 'Strategy' version of the Agile Software Manifesto.

Manifesto for Agile Strategy Development

Collaboration & conversation over strategy decks & documentation
Don't take a brief and disappear into planner world to create some 200-page deck grand reveal. Talk, discuss, argue and start shaping a shared understanding of what the real challenges are. And then stay with the process through to realisation.

Simplicity of purpose over 'sacred' consumer insights
You want to make it easy for teams to make decisions and develop their thinking, not confuse or handicap them with insights that might - or might not - be right.

Testing hypotheses over long-winded research & deduction
Develop or invent hypotheses to test immediately. It's about prototyping for opportunities, propositions and strategic themes rather than deep diving into deducing a singular 'right' direction over time.

Responding to change over following a plan
Strategy is a self-informing process so create a platform that accommodates and welcomes the inevitable changes in direction and thinking. Think iterations and renovations, not a fixed 'build once' structure.

(Eagle eyes will note the last tenet is unchanged from the Agile software methodology.)

Ultimately I think that 'Agile strategy' - or whatever you want to call it - needs to account for the fact that the strategic process is not only self-informing, but intimately integrated throughout the core of the project itself. So all the debate about 'strategy versus execution' and 'ideas versus implementation' is missing the point. It's all one thing. And in an Agile world, strategy needs to pull its socks up and get properly into the game.

So whaddya think? Is there space for a new type of Agile Strategy? Does this go beyond what good/progressive planners are already doing? Where are the gaps? What's missing? Jump into the debate in the comments or feel free to grab the graphic and talk in your own spaces. (I haven't gone into specific examples of how we're already using some of these principles in our own strategy work here at Made by Many, perhaps that's another post). I welcome your comments, thoughts, suggestions and experiences. Thanks to Anel @thinkdsignchnge for the awesome illustration and MxMers TimStuart &William for the various conversations that helped prompt this post.

Justin McMurray

Justin McMurray

Justin likes start-ups, digital service design and lean thinking/action. He loves talking ideas and good coffee, preferably together. He's on Twitter at @juzmcmuz and in real life he doesn't look anything like Lionel Richie or a strange combination of Miami Vice's Crockett and Tubbs (as explored with this Venn diagram).