What do agile, lean, iterative mean exactly? I won’t give you a dictionary definition, but I can tell you what I think of them


The new Friendly Digital site has been up and running a couple of days now, so I thought it was worth a read through to check everything makes sense.

I was amazed by the amount of technospeak! I guess it’s just something you lapse into after a while. You’ll be pleased to know it’s mostly gone now and there’s a swear jar standing by in case I feel tempted again.

Industry terms are useful shorthand. But I’ve found they act as a barrier to genuine communication and that’s a million miles away from Friendly’s ethos.

What is agile anyway?

Great question. Even if the word ‘agile’ is off limits for the time being, the ideas behind it aren’t. Google can give you a dictionary definition. I’d sooner talk about the benefits.

In a nutshell, agile means you reject the idea of endless up front conversations about what a website, an app or other product should or shouldn’t do. I’ve seen this happen too many times in my career and it’s an utter waste of time and money.

Rather, you take a quick punt on something simple and get it in front of real users for feedback. Better still, you involve those users in team conversations from the start.

And you don’t stop there. Ideally you should be constantly listening to your users and making tweaks as you go.

When you stop to think about it, projects are never really finished. If you’re in the business of winning customers you’ll know their needs are always changing. So your service should be changing too.

Here’s an example

I’ve worked for a lot of media giants over the years and here’s a situation that actually happened. Bosses at Carpets Monthly magazine (made up name) wanted to get online, so they huddled around a boardroom table for months deliberating about site features, certain words they liked and didn’t and so on. It was painful.

In the meantime their site didn’t get launched, they missed revenue targets and, worst of all, a host of competitors drove tanks on to their shag pile. Carpets Monthly didn’t speak to any actual users. I wonder if they have to this day.

The right way to do it

They’d have done better by quickly talking to a few likely readers and then having a cursory look at other carpet related media (to make sure they weren’t completely off the pace). They could have done that in a week or two.

Armed with this valuable info they could have built a simple site, added a few basic tools to measure how it was being used and launched it.

Once their site was live, the bosses should have kept an close eye on the stats and starting learning from them. They should have made sure real readers were involved in decisions. Finally, they should have given their development team the tools and the authority to act on this intelligence and make quick changes as needed.

But they didn’t and now faster leaner competitors are hoovering up their business. Ha ha. Hoovering.

Agile makes sense

Even if I sidestep the term, agile remains a great way to work. After some quick prep you can get cracking. And you see real results almost straight away.

It can also cut down the risk. If you do it right you’ll be up and running in no time and still have money in the kitty to make tweaks later.

Talking of risks, I’ve also seen teams plunge into building something without understanding the challenges they’re trying to meet. Not good. I’ll write more about this in a future blog post.

I managed to get through all of that without using the terms ‘minimum viable product’, ‘iteration’ and ‘continuous delivery’. Looks like I’ve survived the swear jar for another day.

Stuck on a term?

I’d love to hear about the opaque phrases you’ve heard. Please do post them below and we can decipher them together. Or create a bingo scorecard.