Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Agile and Spaghetti Sauce

I recently discovered TED. I have no idea how it's not hit my radar until now, but I can't listen to and watch the talks fast enough. I was watching Malcolm Gladwell talk about a personal hero of his, Howard Moskowitz, and the role he had in discovering the value of providing calculated varieties of a product versus trying to find the one, "perfect" product that will meet the needs of the majority of the market. With Seth Godin's work and The Long Tail we tend to take this idea for granted today, but Malcolm does a wonderful job of taking us back in time to a point where this paradigm was uncommon and even revolutionary.

One of the many anecdotes that impressed me was when Mr. Moskowitz concocted nearly endless varieties of spaghetti sauce using variations on sauce thickness, amounts of various spices, introducing bits of vegetable chunks, etc. and then fed 10 bowls of various varieties to a number of subjects. When he worked through the data of people's preferences he found they fell into three groups: plain, spicy, and chunky. He concluded this latter category represented the preferences of about a third of the population--and there was no sauce on the shelves with chunks of juicy vegetables at that time. Prego went on to release such a product and make a fortune, but the lesson I want to focus on is one observation Malcolm makes in his narrative: no one had mentioned they would like a chunky spaghetti sauce in any prior focus groups. The lesson Malcolm draws from this is that people don't really know what they want until you give it to them.

This conclusion is reinforced in protracted software development projects that follow a rigid waterfall approach. The requirements analyst asks the business users what they want and their answers are often within an implicit and many times unconscious context or menu of what they've already got in an existing system or think would be possible based upon a limited understanding of possible system features. In other words, they say they want a good tasting sauce.

In Agile or more iterative, prototype-rich methodologies, the user would be presented with rough drawings of user interfaces, story boards, and HTML and/or PowerPoint mock-ups, over and over again throughout the very initial stages of the process. In other words, the developers spend a fair amount of time up front cooking up a ton of varieties and keeping the business users taste-testing. Now the possibilities are open and we're getting several quick cycles of real-time, visceral feedback. Now we can get from the 40-50% approval ratings Malcolm mentioned are the usual result of a homogenized solution to the 75%+ delight ratings of people who get what they didn't know they really wanted.

Tom Peters mentions how Ritz Carlton aims to "fulfill the unexpressed wishes of its guests" in a few of his books. The Japanese have a common practice of insisting on finding seven viable solutions to a problem or challenge before they select their approach.

It is incumbent upon those of us in the IT solutions field to translate what is really a collection of abstract ideas in the beginning of a project into tangible value and options in the minds and senses of end users as quickly as we can.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You have made some great points here. Strictly focusing on the marketing point- it is true that people don't often know what they want or what is even possible until they experience it. I heard yesterday there is a $6 candy bar that just came out- chocolate and bacon flavor. I am pretty sure the public was not clamoring for this. Although, with my wife being pregnant, it did get me to thinking that a combination Ben and Jerry's and pickles might be a good product.

The jump you made to agile is right on. I love to see light bulbs going off with the business all the time when they start to see what is possible.

Great post.