A little thought experiment for you:
Let’s imagine a client is building a digital product and wants to see what approach works best. They have two teams at their disposal and they will brief them to both build the same product, but with a variation on how they must complete it. Both teams possess the same resources, skill sets, abilities and knowledge, and both have one year to produce the best results. They will also have the same marketing channels and methods applied.
Team one, let’s call them Red Team.
They have been told they want a big launch in eight months’ time, followed by bi-monthly deployments. The product is to be kept under wraps until the big release. Testing is to be conducted totally in-house, alongside the client stakeholder.
The Blue team, are told to use continuous improvement principles (more on this later) and is expected to launch an MVP (Minimal Viable Product) build asap, followed by regular deployments. They are free to test with any users, internally or externally to the business.
My money would be firmly placed on the blue team.
Why? Because I have seen examples from other disciplines that show small incremental change yields better results. I’ve also seen (and been a part of) other agencies that have taken a long time to build a product, only to learn the hard way that they were on the wrong track. It’s painful (and expensive) only to find out that your market fit was wrong, or that users don’t understand how to use the product after you’ve laboured over it for twelve months.
Continuous Improvement in Sport
Probably one of the most high-profile examples I can think of is the ‘Marginal Gains’ principle the British Cycling team used, with excellent results, under Dave Brailsford.
“The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together”
Dave Brailsford, BBC interview, 2012
In the world of Olympic sport and small margins, every aspect becomes important, and Dave Brailsford the cycling team underwent a systematic approach to find marginal gains.
Everything from looking at how the cyclists washed their hands — because this meant less illness — to asking riders to wear electrically heated over shorts to maintain ideal muscle temperature while riding and using biofeedback sensors to monitor how each athlete responded to a particular workout.
Even the smallest things they spent considerable time on. They tried various types of massage gels to see which one led to the fastest muscle recovery. They determined the type of pillow and mattress that led to the best night’s sleep for each rider. They painted the inside of the team truck white, which helped them spot little bits of dust that would normally slip by unnoticed but could degrade the performance of the finely tuned bikes. And so on, constantly striving to improve performance, even by the slightest of margins. Small gains stack together to make a big difference.
Whilst not entirely the same principle as continuous improvement (i.e. continuous improvement doesn’t necessarily delve into consultants teaching developers how to wash their hands), the overall theme is the same. Small incremental changes to create better results, instead of one giant effort to meet a goal (which was the previous/standard Olympic approach).
The Spaghetti Marshmallow Challenge
Ever done this one? It’s great fun!
The rules are easy; in 18 minutes, each team can use 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of sellotape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow — to build the tallest structure with the marshmallow on the top.
If you’ve ever done this or witnessed it, you’ll soon learn that it requires essential skills primary students naturally have, and business school students have forgotten. It teaches valuable lessons on creativity and innovation.
And more importantly (for this blog post at least), It highlights how you have to fail fast and make small continuous improvements in order to win. Those who write a plan, spend ages following that plan and go for the ‘tada’ moment will likely lose this task.
Usually, continuous improvements, marginal gains or just the practice of failing and learning quickly trump ‘tada’ moments. And this is because you remove the element of surprise.
Surprise in the software world is not normally a good thing. Quite the opposite, it means we don’t know how users will react to the product or use a feature, or how the platform will work (especially under pressure). When you build something in isolation over a long period of time, the risk that a bad decision has been made grows over time, and you don’t realise it (or can’t) until users or the data points it out to you.
The red team will learn this and it means the risk factor for them is higher.
Continuous improvement principles or CIP often include the following principles:
- Improvements are based on many small changes rather than the radical changes that might arise from research and development
- Small improvements are less likely to require major capital investment than major process changes
- The ideas come from the talents of the existing workforce, as opposed to using research, consultants or equipment — any of which could be very expensive
- All employees should continually be seeking ways to improve their own performance
So for these reasons, I’d bet on the Blue team, and it’s why at Browser we are constantly looking at how we can make improvements, be it to our tooling, technology choices, implementation practices, or deployment methods. You name it, we know that whatever we are doing today can be improved, even if only by 1%.
And yes btw, our devs do wash their hands.
* Images in this article were generated by Midjourney AI.