“For the last ten Monday afternoons, as winter turned into spring, I’ve been working with my 22 brand leadership students on three real-life client projects. Classroom 2.03 is a bit of a hothouse, literally and metaphorically, so it’s been heady stuff. And week by week, it’s become clearer that the method I’ve been teaching is a million miles away from reality. It’s time to rethink that method – and to learn from the very different world of software development.
I’ve been teaching a linear model: first define your client’s goals, then imagine the brand idea they should stand for, then make an action plan (innovation, communication and internal change), and finally make sure they’ll live happily ever after. I’ve always known this neatness is artificial – but then, as the statistician George Box said, ‘all models are wrong, but some are useful’. For many years, it has to me felt useful.
But the eight weeks this term were very far from linear: cyclical, iterative, even (in a good way) chaotic. Ideas would be pounced on, enthused about, developed, dropped, and then reappear later. Occasionally, the clients’ needs would change. Every week, the three teams would learn something. Some weeks, they would make a huge creative leap forward. Other weeks, they would be seriously stuck. As one student said, ‘We were stuck on stage two… the philosophical thinking… for a very long time… Our ideas only flourished when we moved to stage three… actionable ideas.’ It felt as if moving to practical ideas sooner would make the thinking faster and better.
So as term moved on, I asked myself: can we make a more useful model?
At the same time, back at base at Wolff Olins, we’ve been facing new client pressures. What used to be a 12-month project is now 12 weeks. For clients we’ve been working with in China, this could even be 12 days – that’s their product development cycle. Our old linear method is just too slow.
And over the winter, we’ve started up a new business at Wolff Olins – a school of branding, called Kitchen. Doing a start-up has taught me an unforgettable lesson: get on with it. Don’t wait till the theory is perfect: try something and learn something today. Kitchen is now a live business – and whatever method we followed wasn’t linear.
So the student projects, our clients and Kitchen demand a different model. Maybe the alternative is in front of our noses: the agile software development process used by our tech clients.
‘Agile’ has been around for a decade or more. Its method is rapid prototyping – make something quickly and test it, rather than spending your time planning and designing. Its aim is ‘proof of concept’. Its rhythm is fast: ‘sprints’ of activity. Its management style is ‘lean’: self-organising teams that include the client, rather than formal hierarchies. And its philosophy is the opposite of the traditional top-down ‘waterfall’.
I’m not talking here about capital A agile, but small a: not the full, formal process of the Agile Movement, but agile thinking. Not the letter of the law, but its spirit.
You can sum it all up in a simple diagram.
So here’s a better way for the students and for us. Not linear but cyclical. Not just thinking but doing too. And there’s a central role for testing, for getting data, for assessing ideas against reality – in a word, for learning.
How would the method work? Imagine something like this: every week, we start with our best hypothesis for the brand idea – the bunch of things we want our client to stand for in people’s minds. We then quickly turn it into some kind of ‘product’, which could be in any of the four quadrants we use (presence, culture, capability and offer). We then test this product, with consumers or client people or external experts, and formulate what we learn from the testing. Finally, we improve the brand idea for the following week. And we repeat until the brand idea feels solid.
The method should be faster than the linear model. It should be more practical, because it forces us to give our ideas form – to break away from the lofty and abstract. It should be more persuasive, since it’s constantly building proof of concept. And it should also be more rigorous, since our ideas are put to the test every week. (In fact, the process is very similar to the scientific method, where the cycle is theory, experiment, data).
So this is how I’ll teach my student projects next year. At Wolff Olins, we’re already using it when clients ask us to do innovation work – we’ve even written a very neat manual on the process for one client. We now need to apply it to brand creation work. Or at least (in the spirit of agile), we need to try it out and learn from it.
There are some big implications. We’ll have to make the client into a full member of the team, not just a workshop participant. We’ll have to be clear what kinds of things we can ‘make’ every week – it won’t be a new piece of software every time. And we’ll have to learn to love data – and yet also not to be ruled by it, not to let it limit our imaginations.
Excitingly, though, this approach could create a new weekly rhythm for everything, speeding up the whole Wolff Olins machine. It’s a way to achieve what I suggested in my post last month, ‘What’s wrong with brand thinking’: to ricochet constantly between architect (‘think’) and handyperson (‘make’). And it’s a way to add a third role to that list, just as essential: the perpetual learner (‘test’).
– Robert Jones is head of New Thinking at Wolff Olins and visiting Professor & co-creator of Norwich Business School’s MSc Brand Leadership course. You can also follow him on Twitter!
This was a post originally written for the Wolff Olins blog.