Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Becoming a Lean Thinker - Part 2

The "Becoming a Lean Thinker" Series is an account of your friendly neighbourhood Strategic Planner's transformation from a predictor to an experimenter - and my ongoing attempt to apply Lean Thinking to aspects of business, marketing, and even life!

Part 1 told the story of the gut-wrenching beginning of my journey. Part 2 will take you through the 1st core concept that helped to win this skeptic over - "Reducing the Feedback Cycle".


Reducing the Feedback Cycle


 A "Feedback Cycle" is not a scary thing, oh no. We encounter them every day. When we check for grey hairs on our head in the morning. When we think about how much time we wasted in meetings all morning, even when we check the battery on our cell phones to see how much juice we've got left for the day. Feedback Cycles, at their core, tell us how we're doing. We're either doing well, need to tweak a few things to get where we need to be, or we're failing terribly. Simple as that. The Feedback Cycles I just described can happen once, but more likely several times a day.


But in the business and marketing world, what goes around doesn't come back around as quickly. Some feedback comes monthly, such as a check-in session or a status call, but more often than not, feedback is an annual thing. Annual performance reviews, year-end sales reports, advertising and marketing campaign post-mortems that dissect everything that happened in the previous fiscal year - and whether it worked or not. What have we learned over the past year, if anything? What should we do with our campaign this year - how should we tweak it or change it in order to improve on where we were?

Why have Feedback Cycles become tied to one-year markers, or fiscal calendars? It's convenient, for one. After all, in our own lives, we often wait for New Years Eve (or better yet, our birthdays) before contemplating what happened the year before, and what we want to change - our "resolutions" - in the coming year. In businesses, the annual cycle keeps feedback conveniently in line with existing planning and reviewing milestones, so that all of the "dirty work" happens at around the same time. One-year Feedback Cycles also make us feel comfortable, because it forces us to keep things big picture. Instead of outlining the details of how you'd like to lose weight, including a plan of exactly what you plan to do and when you plan to do it, you can simply say "This year, I'm gonna lose some weight" and that's generally good enough. That leads us to the last reason - one-year cycles free us from being held accountable. They give us the breathing room of the greater part of the year to not have to think about being accountable. And that makes most of us happy. It also means we'll never know whether what we're doing is working or not until it's too late. We're always one year behind.




Lean Thinking takes the opposite approach to feedback, by seeking to reduce Feedback Cycles to as short a time period as possible. There's no such thing as a one-year plan or prediction, as the Lean approach cuts that year into a series of short-term plans. As Ries puts it in The Lean Startup - "Instead of making complex plans that are based on a lot of assumptions, you can make constant adjustments with a steering wheel called the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop."


Shorter Feedback Cycles reduce the drawbacks of long-term planning, which often deliberately postpones the gathering of data until either (a) one can be sure it was a success or (b) whether or not the campaign worked has no impact on the current situation/personnel. But, as Ries mentions, "Such delays have the unfortunate effect of increasing the amount of wasted work, decreasing essential feedback, and dramatically increasing the risk that a startup will build something nobody wants."

The main advantage of reducing our Feedback Cycles? We increase our capacity to learn whether what we're doing is actually working or not. And by working, I mean - is it getting you closer to your objectives? Are you seeing positive growth or change - or not? It is often said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. How would we know whether we're doing the right thing or not, without the ability to learn? Are we geniuses, or just plain crazy? Ries puts it perfectly:
"We must learn the truth about which elements of our strategy are working to realize our vision and which are just crazy. We must learn what customers really want, not what they say they want or what we think they should want. We must discover whether we are on a path that will lead to growing a sustainable business."



So, how can we actually source feedback in shorter, more frequent cycles? Remember, feedback can be both qualitative AND quantitative. Qualitative Feedback can mean asking our audience (customers, co-workers, business parters, etc.) "What did you like? What could be improved? What do you wish would happen?". Quantitative Feedback can mean being more aggressive about baking your important success metrics into what you're doing, so that you're able to measure activities (from time spent, money spent, to things like basket size and loyalty). It's easier to do this in some areas of marketing than it is to do it in others. Often the creative and media portions of campaign planning - including the personnel and agencies involved in producing them - are far removed from the metrics that they're trying to impact, which is often sales. Another common sentiment "I know that half of my marketing spend is working, I just don't know which half" speaks to that disconnect.

In other areas, Feedback Cycles and the ability to measure results quickly is much more prevalent. Anything involving Direct Response (be it a click, call, or sign-up) will immediately tell you whether one activity is working or not, or which of several activities is working the best. Digital Marketing, and Digital Advertising in its purest form (Google Adwords!) have shortened Feedback Cycles to days, even hours. You can immediately see whether what you're doing is working or not. And as digital media (and the ability to track audience reactions) extends outside of the computer and mobile screen, we'll be able to measure things we never could - such as the number of people who look at a Digital Out-of-Home billboard.

The purpose of reducing the Feedback Cycle, of putting it into practice, is of course not just to learn, but to adapt. It will help you figure out which elements, messaging, or tactics are working - which ones are adding value to the business - and which are not. And that ultimately shapes what you'll do in the next Feedback Cycle, which hopefully isn't too far away.



And there you have it! My first epiphany - the first core concept that drew me towards the idea of becoming a Lean Thinker, and the first aspect of Lean Thinking that can help improve your business, marketing, and yes - even your life, too. Next up:
  • Reducing the Feedback Cycle
  • Going from MVP to Scalability
  • The Eternal Experimenter

Stay tuned! :)

No comments:

Post a Comment