We’re All Making Software Now: The Paradigm Shift of the Modern Agency

By Victor Allen, Chief Technical Officer

What if there was a world in which the creation of new, transformative digital experiences was fluid, limitless and dare we say it, fun? Where relentless examination was valued, even sought-after? Rapid advancement in mobile computing has erased the distinction between the tried and true management methodologies: marketing vs. product development. Digital studios traditionally followed one of two paths: the agency model; producing marketing, advertising and content, or the product development model; building software for commercial release. The historic divide makes sense, as the strategy, scope and execution of these seemingly polarizing management and development paths have traditionally been very different.

That’s all changed.

Marketing departments are taking an active leadership role in the content creation, management and release of cross-platform applications. Products are being retooled from applications to web apps, and responsive design across all platforms is required, not coveted. Ubiquitous mobile computing and social networks have dramatically increased the complexity and user expectations for tools they use. With the rapid adaptation of such business tools becoming prerequisite, has traditional business and project management methods paralleled this evolution?

Everyone, everywhere is now building software. This is a tipping point for our industry and the companies that capitalize on the shift will hold the competitive advantage in the marketplace. Adjusting to the new landscape involves more than learning to deal with different screen sizes and device capabilities. For many, this means coming to grips with new ways of planning, executing and supporting projects. It means treating every digital project the way you would treat the development of a new material product. The good news is that there are decades of lessons learned from product development that lead the way.

New Dogs, Old Tricks

For project owners that are experienced with the agency model, there are some fundamental differences in the way product development must be approached. From the get-go, teams are empowered to act autonomously, with authority to experiment, test and retest throughout the development lifecycle. High value is placed on what was once an immeasurable, intangible element of the creative process: ideation, innovation, and, when necessary, realignment. Repetitive, rapid work cycles center around a user-first experience, allowing teams to retool work on a reoccurring basis to see the intention through to fruition. This can mean entering unfamiliar territory – creating space for contemplation and exploration – but the rewards are better products, fewer missed deadlines and more predictable budgets (and everyone can agree that those are good things).

In the traditional model, the end result is planned completely in advance, along with the timeline and budget. You know exactly where your product will be in its lifecycle each and every day. Everything is accounted for, everything is a pre-determined measure. The portion of the schedule given over to formative concepts is a small fraction of the time given to the design and development, and by definition occurs before there is any feedback from users. Any disruption of the plan will cause budget or scheduling overruns, because there is no built-in way of responding to change.

Product development embraces “planning over plans” and incorporates the process of specifying and planning into the project itself. The project can respond to change, the plan can be constantly improved and adjustments can be made to the final product ensuring a release that is on time and within budget. The product development model promotes innovation by embracing change and by not limiting itself.

Embrace Change

Can you name a project where everything went according to the original plan from beginning to end? The problem with plans, no matter how expertly done, is that they cannot account for every eventuality. Change can be disruptive (for both good or ill) but unless the process accounts for it, this change will almost always be for the worse. A proper development process assumes that changes will take place, embraces that and manages it in a way that minimizes its impact on what is really important: releasing a successful product.

This means incorporating good ideas that come up after initial planning. It means abandoning weaker ideas that looked good at first. It means postponing or removing features that are not contributing directly to the product’s success or adding features that are needed to remain competitive. It means quickly and frequently checking your assumptions against the feedback of real users. Most of all it means learning lessons from the project in progress and adjusting the plan accordingly.

Don’t Limit, Refine

Creating innovative products means being open to as many ideas as possible, rejecting nothing that might succeed. Then, through a process of winnowing out unworkable, unsuccessful or impractical ideas, the best possible product remains, like a sculpture revealed from a block of marble. If this process could be mapped out in advance, it wouldn’t be necessary. Every project must start with a plan, but fixed plans have a chilling effect on innovation; new ideas are inherently difficult to estimate, making them too risky to commit to. Yet these are the ideas that are the most valuable to cultivate.

A good product development process starts with an abundance of features and through a progression of refinement delivers the selection of those features that are most valuable. Frequently, a kitchen-sink approach will be less valuable than a more streamlined set of features (think of the simplicity of the iPhone or Instragram). This process requires strategy, prototyping, user testing and the evaluation of the cost-versus-value of each feature. It frequently means making hard choices and it always means giving a wide berth for unforeseen innovation.

A business, a management style and a product should never be limited to only what that can be guaranteed in advance; they should be a refinement of the possible into the successful.

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