In the past few years 'Agile' became a new Buzz word in the Market Research Industry. As in many other disciplines the principle of Agile, as originally defined for software development by Jeff Sutherland et al. in 2001, offers great new opportunities. With this article, I will try to explain why this presents one of the biggest opportunities for our market today.
As Head of Product at Nebu, the two core ingredients of my daily existence are Market Research and Scrum/Agile: both have been the main ingredients for me, and other industries as a whole since around 2006.
While I have been using Scrum over the past years to build products, it is only relatively recently that Market Research started to be applied in Agile way. In a recent post, Kevin Lonnie states that co-creation is a part of Agile Market Research. While I understand his need to translate the Agile trend towards existing methodologies, I think things are made unnecessary complex.
What does Agile mean for the rest of the world
Let me explain first what Agile projects really means. It does not mean short, fast, quick, small or anything like that. Agile is one very simple thing:
"Learn and adjust as you go"
As a pacifist, I like to use the example of a Bullet vs. a Guided missile. Both have the goal to hit a target. In order to shoot the first one, you need to think of everything up front and anticipate for movement of the target. Once it is on its way, there is nothing you can do about it. The second allows adjustment of the path. If the target moves, the path can be adjusted. The old traditional Waterfall project method is the bullet while Agile is the missile. This characteristic is the simple reason why Agile methods are so popular.
Agile in Market Research
While this all seems logic, the fundamental element of Agile is a massive conflict with Market Research, because Agile means accepting that you do not know (yet) everything when you start. It is exactly this that provides the best opportunity for Market Research.
In the real world, we see more and more companies applying the Agile principle on their projects. Effectively this means that they:
Set a goal (target)
Take a step
Deliver the step
Learn from the step made
In an IT product creation environment, these steps are typically of a length of two weeks. Every two weeks a piece of product is delivered. This can be used for testing with customers and can verify if the last step taken will contribute to the goal. The feedback on this testing can be used to define the content of the next step. New insights delivered by any of the stakeholderders can be translated towards the content of the next steps.
This way of working allows each step to be influenced by the results of the step before that. In other words, for each step you take, you apply the knowledge you gained the step before. Simple. But do think about the consequences of this approach. It means that you do not create annual marketing action plans or you do not create complete final product specifications before you start building. All you can do is set a goal and define your first step towards it. And I do not even mention planning or budgets here. This way of working, while totally logical, has a massive conflict with the traditional way of working.
Fitting Market Research in Agile projects
So, how should Market Research be implemented in this process? I cannot tell you what methodology you should use in an agile process. As each project and each iteration can require a different methodology. What I can tell you is that you should realize that the key element in an Agile process is learning and applying the new wisdom as soon as possible to the next steps. With this, you could say that Market Research is key to an Agile process. Each agile project is an opportunity for a researcher.
There are, however, a number of things you need to realize with Embedded Agile Market Research:
Research is distributed across the project
Research needs to be embedded in a project
Each iteration (step) of the project determines what will and can be researched next
Any methodology can be used, as long as it results in lessons learned that can be applied in the next iteration
Now, with the entire world going Agile, Market Research has the opportunity to provide the key ingredient of Agile to every project. The only thing that is different is moving from advice to participation, and with that contribute iteratively and continuously to projects: Continuous learning through continuous research.