I’ve been fascinated with lean thinking lately, especially how the intersection of lean thinking, agile thinking and design thinking can work together in an organization. I’ve found it mildly frustrating though that many of these philosophies and methodologies are promoted heavily in tech and very little elsewhere. I wondered how I might go about applying lean methodology to a service based business, but there are few examples to draw from. So I set out to find out for myself.
Using leancanvas.com, I started identifying assumptions about my business, translating my services into solutions and turning my target audience into channels. I realized that with any methodology, it’s really just another way of thinking about the same things we already think about. Sounds confusing, but I’ve found it to be a surprisingly cathartic creative process that has generated some big ideas. So I guess it’s working, if in no other way than to get me thinking about the same things from a different perspective.
After filling out my lean canvas for The Social Shoppe, I tried to run experiments based on my problems; unfortunately, the sales process in an agency can take awhile. This is why lean thinking works so well for tech companies, where rapid iterations are possible, and not so well for an agency or service-based business, where a lot more time and energy is spent trying to figure out if a particular solution is worth pursuing.
Undeterred, I took a new approach. What if I was thinking to macro? Agile thinking is all about chunking your workload into the smallest possible components so that you work efficiently and stay focused.
Instead of translating my business model into lean canvas language, I looked at the work I was doing for my clients. Since I’m working in social media for my clients, I can make changes quickly and see (or not see) results rather easily.
Take a Facebook ad campaign for example. Based on my previous experience and industry knowledge on running Facebook advertising, I assumed that starting with a very narrow target and then creating iterations of the same ad while slowly widening the target would net a decent amount of Facebook fans in a 1-week period for $100. So I set a modest goal with my client, honed in on a target market, crafted some stellar messaging and ran the experiment. We met our goal in 3 days with $50 to spare. Experiment validated. From now on, I’ll be putting all my social campaigns in lean canvases to organize details and better visualize all the elements working together.
Although I figured out how to use lean thinking effectively within the context of my client work, I’m still bothered by the all-important principle of experimentation within the confines of a traditional agency/client relationship. In the tech world, it’s almost expected that an app released in beta will be a minimum viable product, or MVP. That does not stand for most valuable player; arguably an MVP is the most valuable at teaching you what works and what doesn’t. A minimum viable product is brought to market as quick as possible, even if the product is crap, so that designers can learn quickly what users want and make those changes accordingly to improve the product over time. In other words, the product is constantly evolving into its best self. Lean thinkers work this way to avoid wasting time building a huge product that bombs.
What if we thought this way in the social world? What if social campaigns, branding, advertising and PR were always evolving? Oh wait, they already are…And yet, in many ways, experimentation is NOT on the agency service menu. Few account executives want to go back to their client with the news that the strategy failed – even fewer clients want to keep that same agency on payroll. What a creative wastebasket.
According to research done by Rutgers professor Stanley Gully and outlined in the book Better By Mistake by Alina Tugend, employees with certain personality traits learn better and are far more successful in their jobs when encouraged to make mistakes than those who are told mistakes are bad and should be avoided at all costs. In fact, those who were encouraged to learn from their mistakes and not worry about screwing up “did more poorly initially but ended up with deeper processing of information, more complex learning, and more confidence about performance.”
What an agency/client relationship really comes down to then is a prioritization of short-term vs. long-term marketing goals. Are you willing to make mistakes in the beginning to understand how your brand will be successful for years to come, or would you rather cruise along 5mph under the speed limit all the time, minding your business and accepting mediocre success?
The current agency model is unfortunately siloed, disjointed, and in many ways grasping desperately to return to the nostalgic glory days of Mad Men. What’s more, social media has come along to shake things up and no one knows what’s going on, who owns what services or how (and what) to sell to potential clients. Sorry, but there’s no going back.
No better time than now to bring in new perspectives, new rules and new operational principles to create better than ever, bigger results. Of course, this won’t be achieved without a series of blunders. As professionals, we have to fail to learn but we also have to figure out how to add value to failure. Once we can do that, we’ll be granted the space and freedom to achieve something even bigger, better and more successful than ever before.
But it takes two to tango. Clients need to be willing to take risks too. They need to understand that everything executed for them won’t be perfect – that’s just not realistic, especially in a medium that changes constantly. They need to understand that running a litany of experiments might just help them reveal information that can and will change their business significantly for the better. And they have to be willing to let a social agency tell them that.
It’s crazy, but it just might work.
I’m willing to be transparent and let you know what works and what doesn’t as I continue my quest to apply lean thinking to a social media agency model. I’m willing to take the risks if you are, and I’m willing to tell you when my experiments fail. It won’t be for a lack of trying, that’s for sure. And I certainly won’t make the same mistakes twice.
StrengthsFinder once told me my biggest strength is learning. That puts me in the perfect position to help clients grow and dream BIG through social experimentation. My first client is my own business. Consider this my MVP.
Are you familiar with lean, agile or design methodologies? Are you an agency interested in shaking things up? Are you a company, brand, author or event needing some social mojo? Let me know what you think about this mishmash below! All well-intentioned perspectives are welcome. That’s how we learn. Discuss!