What's now. What's next.

Agile and lean.

by Nextness published August 15, 2012 posted in Nextness 101

You welcome your visitors at the door. “Please, take a seat,” you say, eying their reactions to your delicious spread.

“Oh -- what’s this,” asks a guest, nervous.

“A lamb roast! And look, I’ve already put the sauce on it! Capers,” you say.

You’ve a right to be smug. You’d already checked your guests weren’t vegos. This lamb’s going to be the best thing they’ve ever eaten.

Then: “I’m allergic to capers,” your friend says sadly.

From perfection to disaster. The dinner did not survive its first contact with the eater.

We’re all tempted to make a product perfect before we release it to the world.

In digital agencies, that tendency’s embodied in a process called Waterfall. At its least subtle it’s basically Big Design Up Front. The client defines their need. The agency comes up with a strategy. Wireframes. Designs in Photoshop so you can see how it’ll look. Build it. Test it -- just to make sure it doesn’t break. Launch it. Maintain it. The whole process is signed off with the client in advance, to a strict budget and with agreed deliverables.

It’s how many agencies work. Even non-digital ones: in traditional agencies, the Waterfall-style process went a little something like this. Insights/strategy.  Write a brief. Get the creatives involved. Research perhaps, to choose which execution is best. Plan the campaign. Bam -- pull the trigger. The campaign rolls out. It’s measured. Then it’s over.

Now imagine a different dinner. “Come in, come in. Drinks? Oh you bought some, lovely. I’ll open them. Now what are you hungry for? I’ve got lamb? Oh you want a lamb salad? Let’s do that. Yes you chop up the tomatoes, thanks…” Less perfection, a bit more messy, but everyone gets what they need and want.

That’s agile and lean.


The Manifesto for Agile Software Development was created by software developers in 2001. In it, their stated values are:

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

Sounds good doesn’t it?

Agile software development was gradually codified:

  • Tasks are broken into small increments with minimal planning.
  • Iterations are short time frames (“timeboxes”), worked on by a team.
  • Team size is typically small (5-9 people), cross-functional and self-organizing. Most agile teams work in a single open office (“bullpen”).
  • Face-to-face communication takes preference over written documents. A daily “scrum”, lasting not longer than 15 minutes, is held where the project is discussed verbally.
  • At the end of the iteration a working product is demonstrated to stakeholders. The measure of progress is how much written and working software exists.

We’re inherently suspicious of jargon, and the model seems hard to scale.

But it’s all reasonable, even laudable. Especially today -- when technology’s changing so quickly. Not just technology -- the whole world.


In his book The Lean Startup, Eric Ries combined agile software development with lean manufacturing principles and came up with a name for what the best tech companies did instinctively.

Eschew the big perfect thing and make a “Minimum Viable Product.” Cheap, functional, rough. This is what Twitter looked like when it launched.

Allow the user to interact with and explore the MVP. Their behaviour can change what you do next. (The Twitter hashtag, for example, was invented by a user in 2007. Now 11% of tweets contain them.)

Is your idea not gaining traction? Change it. It could be a small matter of iterating: continually making improvements. Or it could require a pivot: Twitter was originally a podcast-directory called Odeo. Instagram started as a messaging/check-in service called Burbn before it became a photosharing app. Now it’s worth a billion dollars. Fail fast and get it over with.

So what’s the problem?

Agile and lean principles make intuitive sense. And who doesn’t want to emulate a start up?

But STW Digital Chief David Trewern, who’s used agile principles effectively in DTDigital (the agency he founded) -- and seen them work well in other STW companies -- sounds a cautionary note.

He agrees waterfall’s not ideal, when it becomes “all about controlling the inputs and outputs and constraining the creative and organic process -- from which brilliant and unexpected ideas emerge,” he says. As for agile and lean, though:

Pure agile works well for the right project and team. But the reality is that the objectives and parameters of many projects are not a good fit for pure agile, and many teams and clients are not ready or aligned enough… fixed budgets, time frames and mindsets mean that pure agile can be dangerous.

And many clients agree.

As Leisa Reichelt wrote, ”[Clients] effectively pay a premium for an agency who knows what they’re doing to do that thing well. It tends not to play well for an agency to then spend the duration of the contract being actively uncertain, making hypotheses and validating them, using the client’s money to ‘learn’.”

And as for emulating start-ups -- well, as much as we’d love to copy their every move right down to the last detail, we’ll save that til we’re flush with venture capital.

Agile creativity.

Though they’ve been kicking around agencies for a few years - Made by Many in particular have eloquently championed an agile-inspired approach that works very effectively for them - the concepts of agile and lean have hit the mainstream.

The latest edition of Google’s Think with Google included a feature on Agile creativity: how ad agencies are working at the pace of digital. In it, they offer and expand on 7 key tips to be faster and more flexible:

  • Physically (or virtually) co-locate
  • Add technologists to the creative team
  • Develop t-shaped talent
  • Get “real-time” insights
  • Plan an offsite “idea-thon”
  • Iterate and test campaigns
  • Partner on pilot projects

Take a few minutes to explore it.

It’s certainly not a rule book. It’s not a manifesto. It’s light on jargon. Though it’s rare to see them stated so simply and practically, none of the ideas are original.

But it combines ideal agile and lean principles and practices with the reality of agency life.

It’s a good balance.


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