The art of maximising the amount of work not done

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This is a guest post from Alison Jones. Alison is a business and executive coach, content consultant and publisher. After a 23-year career in trade and scholarly publishing working with major publishers such as Oxford University Press and Macmillan, during which she pioneered digital publishing, she set up Alison Jones Business Services and the Practical Inspiration Publishing imprint in 2014.

Earlier this year I gave a talk on agile for publishers and was astonished by how few people in the room had experience of agile development or even knew what it was.

The OED defines agile as ‘a method of project management, used especially for software development, that is characterized by the division of tasks into short phases of work and frequent reassessment and adaptation of plans.’

According to the Agile Manifesto it’s a principles-led approach, the primary principle being ‘to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.’ It contrasts with traditional waterfall methodology, in which the product to be built is specified in its entirety up front and delivered in all its glory at the end of the process. By which time it may well prove to be not the right product after all, or too late to be useful, or might have been better if [insert any one of a number of different possibilities here].

And in case all this ‘frequent reassessment and adaptation of plans’ sounds too much like hard work, I present my favourite agile principle of them all: ‘Simplicity – the art of maximising the amount of work not done – is essential.’

For me, agile is about so much more than software development. It’s a state of mind as much as a methodology. I believe the principles that underlie it are the most appropriate and intelligent ones for the disrupted, fast-changing environment we find ourselves in in the 21st century, and they should inform the way we do strategy, especially innovation strategy, just as much as tech projects.

But most traditional publishers – by which I mean those whose processes and systems were developed in the print paradigm, and who still make the bulk of their revenues from print – are not well set up for agility. They talk in terms of ‘the finished book’, they see their authority and quality as unique selling points, compared to the undifferentiated mass of flakiness out there on the interweb. It’s hard for them to put their brand to anything unfinished, unpolished, containing known errors.

It’s more than a fixation on quality, though: publishing’s legacy processes are driven by economic imperatives. Traditional publishers are what innovation researchers Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble refer to in Beyond the Idea as ‘Performance Engines’ – optimized for efficiency, driven by finely tuned processes that are predictable and repeatable, focused on driving down costs. That’s been our guiding vision for the last few decades and it’s served us well.

The challenge is how publishers balance this approach – without which we can’t pay the bills – with the ability to innovate. Innovation is wildly inefficient. It’s the antithesis of predictable and repeatable, and it’s not optimized for anything, really. But we know that our existing performance engines will eventually run out of gas and leave us stranded. It’s already starting to happen. The challenge for every company that isn’t a startup these days is to create space for innovation alongside its day-to-day, bill-paying, optimized, efficient business so that it can create new products and processes that at some point in the future CAN be made predictable and repeatable, that it can convert into performance engines of the future.

The agile mindset implies a focus on what really works as opposed to what we or even our customers think will work, a commitment to testing and evaluating at every step, a willingness to pivot, a dash of humility seasoned with curiosity and optimism. Let’s do the work, but let’s only do the work that works.




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