I’m an advisor for several start-up firms, and one of my favorites to work with is an amazing design and technology development shop in Portland, OR, called The Brigade. The Brigade’s latest creation turned music giant Spotify into the world’s largest jukebox on wheels: a big green bus tricked out with a crowd-controlled music app and interactive displays that traveled to music festivals in 25 cities this summer. (Awesome work, you guys!)
To do something like that you have to be agile, so I decided to interview Chris Jones, Brigade’s Director of Technology, on how he sees the agile process from a developer’s perspective to a marketer’s perspective. Chris, also known by his co-workers as “The Wizard” thanks to a ton of raw talent and the ability to fix complex problems on the fly, gave some surprising answers–particularly when it came to his take on agile as a kind of art form. To him, the approach is rooted in process and maintaining team solidarity throughout is of the utmost importance.
Marketing vs. Development
Jascha: Tell me how long you’ve been using agile in your work.
Chris: I’ve been working with agile in one form or another since 2000. It all started for me when I joined a 20 person team working on a pharmacy system for HEB grocery stores in Texas. The stakeholders of that project were 100% committed to the XP methodology, by-the-book. Since that immersion, I’ve carried agile concepts like Johnny Appleseed to several different organizations.
J: What’s the biggest challenge when you go from the development world into the marketing world?
C: One of the biggest reasons I love development is the strong sense of accomplishment I get from building something. For my psychology, it’s critical that I can point to something useful that I’ve done by the end of the day. When trying to be productive in other worlds like marketing or management, I have trouble extracting that firm sense of accomplishment, since the rewards for your work don’t show up until next quarter, if at all.
J: Do you see a glaring difference or disconnect between how marketers and how software developers approach a big task?
C: A marketer might consider a project in very large-grained pieces that can be delegated and accomplished over a longer timeframe. A good agile developer will break a big task into several smaller-grained tasks, each with a solid measure of completeness, usually including unit tests which prove the completeness of a task. I think the built-in tangible measurement of success is key.
J: Do you see new app development as a kind of immediately testable marketing activity, or is marketing the dark force that descends on a good idea after it looks profitable?
C: In the non-agile days, marketing was perceived as a bit of a dark force. Product requests from marketing seemed to have these incredibly pressured timelines and often seemed experimental, or even unreasonable. When practicing effective agile, however, it doesn’t really matter whether the sprint objectives come from marketing or the CTO. They all go through the same controlled process and have the same measured output.
The Importance of Process
J: What part of the agile approach do you think is most important?
C: The most important thing is the ability to abstract the process from the project. If a team is able to adapt their process in a controlled fashion and measure how the effect of their process changes every step of the way on the overall development cycle, then they will be successful.
It’s easier for marketers to digest those larger “big idea” chunks and harder to digest this agile process that has a lot of iterations and ins and outs. And it’s really an art form to go through that process. No one person can hold in their mind the details required to make a software product. It’s too complex. So it’s got to come from the process rather than the big idea.
Open Communication is Esprit
J: As a marketer, how would I use agile to handle the structural marketing needs—email blasts, landing pages, advertising media buys, a list of deliverables—while still being able to explore new opportunities, perhaps more exploratory or more creative marketing opportunities?
C: From my experience, I place value in having a strong esprit de corps, a solid team that is able to communicate openly. The kind of team that has strong communication is the best equipped to handle agile development.
Things that are antithetical to that culture would be to break the team into, say, Team A and Team B: “Team A we’ve got this special project for you. B, you keep doing what you’re doing.” That’s a good way to destroy the team.
But you still need to do exploratory things. The best way to treat the risky opportunities is exactly the same as the other work. You might say, “For this sprint, we’re going to take a risk and explore this new opportunity as a group.” Or do it together in addition to the more routine work.
Kaizen is Continuous
J: Is team togetherness about morale? Because Don Draper goes off by himself and has that big stroke of genius over a bottle of scotch, right?
C: It’s a myth that creativity is the realm of a few magical people. I believe that given the right ownership and drive, anyone can come up with awesome ideas that fit strategic objectives or are completely new ideas for directions in the business. Broadening that responsibility to be creative to every person on the team is ultimately going to produce the best outcome.
J: To breakdown the boundary between the structural and the exploratory?
C: Yes. A lot of these ideas—agile, in general—come from Japanese management techniques and a concept called kaizen, which means “continuous improvement.”
An agile team has to have every member make the entire process better. Ideas that go into the product, ideas that make the process more efficient—that’s the responsibility of everybody. The boxing off of people into roles is traditionally how management has been handled in the U.S., and you need some of that hierarchy. But there has to be a separation between the specific roles—say CMO, creative director, art director, senior copywriter, junior copywriter—and everyone’s individual ability to have creative input, regardless of their role. You have to make sure the culture of the organization will support that.
The “Big Idea”: Work On Lots of Little Ideas
J: Can you plan creativity, is it part of the process, happy accidents along the way, or what?
C: Thats a great topic for agile and something books have been written about. In my opinion, creativity exists individually within each creator. It has to be nurtured in a few important ways:
- First, the creator needs to have strong ownership of the problem. This needs to be encouraged at a cultural level, and agile processes help by assigning collective ownership of the product to the team.
- Second, the creator needs time and a lack of pressure to let ideas germinate. This part is highly individual, but for me the best time to be creative is after I’ve slept on a problem for a night—usually during a long morning shower.
- Finally, the creative process needs to have outlets. Creators need encouragement to bring ideas to the product, and the organization needs to allow the best ideas to become part of the product.
One thing I’ve done successfully at previous organizations is to have a quarterly “hackathon”: an event that lasts only one or two days, where contributors are encouraged to work on their own ideas—either a product feature, a process improvement, or an entirely new thing—and then share their results at a small “reveal” at the end of the day. It’s not a big reveal, necessarily. But many ideas from a hackathon will live on to become part of the product backlog.
Adapt. Act. Adapt. Act.
J: What are other ways development solves problems that agile marketing should adopt for problems like awareness, understanding, and influencing customers’ decision to buy?
C: To be honest, I’m not that in tune with the specific constraints of marketing. As a generality, I’d have to say take the problem and break it down into a few small incremental steps. Then take those steps one at a time, measuring them and adapting as you go to hone the process. Don’t waste too much time planning for the future, because it will change based on the steps you take and the results you measure. And remember: If you’re not adapting in a continuous, controlled way, then you’re not practicing agile.