Strategic research within Agile environments, is it possible?

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I recently had a great email exchange with a fellow UXer, Ron, a Senior User Experience Researcher at CA Technologies, about fitting Strategic research into Agile work environments. It was an insightful discussion for both of us and one that I thought would be great to share. Would love to know your thoughts on the discussion too.

Hi Chris,

I came across a few of your articles today about customer and user research within Agile methodology. And I wanted to run a thought past you to see what you think.

It makes perfect sense to me to build various research activities into Agile sprint cycles. But I wonder about larger strategic research meant to guide the long-term vision and roadmap as well as potential new product ideas. What do you think about the idea of ongoing customer and user research, together with a Product Manager, Sales, and other stakeholders, outside of Agile sprints?

In my mind, I think it’s necessary to have continual strategic research happening to inform the longer-term vision, test bigger ideas, and things of that nature with the idea that it’s what keeps Agile sprints going after a release is over.

Thoughts? Or do you think strategic research can come out of research built into sprints? I’d appreciate any insight in this area.

Hope all is well, Ron

Team Agile Lego

Hi Ron,

Strategic research within Agile environments can be challenging. My belief is that there needs to be a focus on tactical research while considering more strategic needs. Sometimes the strategic questions can be considered within the more regular tactical work. Commonly teams focus on the tactical work without enough emphasis on the strategic. The big challenge as I see it, is resourcing the research appropriately. Generally the most effective research is done with core team members involvement (product managers, interaction designers, engineers etc.). This is because the research is owned and fully understood by the right people. With strategic research the right people tend to be more senior and within an organization. The big challenge with involving the right people is accessing their time, especially if they are focused on short-term needs.

In my experience the key to strategic research is to design the project in a way that works within the origination – agile and sprints are part of the organizational culture.

I don’t think it matters so much whether the research is in or outside of sprints in terms of the research itself – remember agile is just a means of organizing work and teams. I suggest that the organizational culture would dictate whether the research should be completed within sprints. In organizations where the agile culture is strong and stand-ups are the primary means of communicating I would suggest completing the research within sprints. This would be achieved by chunking down the research activities into achievable activities for a series of sprints.

I know at times I have seen agile as a barrier to strategic research however I don’t believe this needs to be the case; we do however need to work within the structure.

Hope this helps.

Regards, Chris

Hey Chris,

Thanks for your thoughtful response!

One thing your response brought to my mind is that I’m thinking in context of where I work now. CA Technologies has an extensive product portfolio. There are Agile teams working on core products as well as new products. When you’re looking at product strategy that could span multiple strategic products or could be a new product idea, I think strategy may be best outside of sprints because of the need for insights from fairly holistic ethnographic research that can guide product strategy.

One example: I’m a member of a strategic research and design team that spans, potentially, the entire CA product portfolio. My UX friend is focused on a single new product. He’s swamped. Product Management keeps wanting him to assist with strategic research but he barely has time for tactical research to inform designs needed in the sprints. That’s our dynamic.

But I could see a company with a portfolio of 1, 2, or even 6 products where the UX team could be embedded in the Agile teams but still be able to include strategic research in their wheelhouse.

I like the flexibility and awareness of the organization in your response. That’s just what I needed, I think, to help round-out my own thinking.

And…I’m not sure if you’ve authored on this topic of strategic research but I venture to say teams would benefit from a well-informed article on the topic.

Be well, Ron

Hi Ron,

I would agree that research impacting multiple products should be conducted outside sprints with multiple teams. A key success factor becomes the ability to engage all of the relevant teams to gain buy-in.

While there is a natural tension between tactical and strategic research (and design for that matter) there are benefits for organisations and individuals to work across both.

For individuals working purely on tactical projects they can gain a myopic view of the product and become bored, even envious of those working on the (“sexier”) longer term vision. And those working on the long term view of the product should have their work grounded in, but not constrained by, the daily reality of the product.

Organisations benefit from products which balance immediate and long terms requirements.

Thanks for the discussion. Chris

Hi Chris,

Yep. I definitely agree. If strategic research is too far removed from the product teams then there’s less buy-in and more potential resent for the reason you mentioned. So there has to be balance there.

Again, thanks for the discourse on this subject! It helped me fine-tune my thinking.

Be well, Ron

Big thanks to Ron P for agreeing to publish this discussion.

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