What really is agile research and is it all it’s cooked up to be?

There is much said nowadays about research being ‘agile’. In fact, there was a great virtue made of it at the recent MRS conference in London. We ask ourselves in this paper if it really is the new or just the latest buzz word, what truly agile research should deliver and how it can be most valuable to today’s businesses.

Daily updates equal agility?

Agility is the new mantra for commercial organisations in today’s world. It sits at the heart of how businesses operate nowadays. The relentless advancement of technology, increasing globalisation and the need for transparency has placed the onus on businesses to be truly agile and responsive. It was no surprise then to hear the praises sung at the MRS conferences of truly agile research. There were plaudits for daily updates with the scope for client input of new questions. So, is that really it? Is this what research agility really means? We think it’s far more than that.

A reprise of (agility) best practise

Outstanding research has always had at its core the ability of the project team to be responsive to client or business issues not to mention consumer response of course. It’s all about the mindset with which the project is carried out and the calibre of the project team.

In terms of specific actions, it could be a matter of taking a concept and rewriting it on a flipchart to show consumers if the original idea fails to connect. Reworking a guide mid-project is also perfectly possible or even having the discussions as to the value of continuing with a struggling project.

The aim is getting the most out of research and best return on the project investment. The most astute researchers are adaptable and highly capable of teasing out the issues regardless of changes in stimulus or project direction. That’s nothing new and it should sit at the heart of any project rather than being an in-vogue label. In my mind, it always has.

Pearl Zhu in ‘Digital Agility: The Rocky Road from Doing Agile to Being Agile’ wrote ‘Agile is not prescriptive and which techniques are appropriate will depend on the context. Being agile is not just a set of activities, but being agile is the state of mind, the ongoing capability, and the cultural adaptability.’

New world agility

Research in our modern age offers digital platforms which are more agile by dint of multiple user or viewer access. These facilitate the posing of direct questions or monitoring of participant behaviour. In itself, this is incredibly useful for team engagement by creating proximity to the project and allowing hypotheses to develop as the research progresses. It also means there is a potential direct interface between consumer and business insights that are held within the team.

However agile platforms have implications for the management of insight within the business. They mean a greater need to ensure a consolidated view point as well as mitigate against subjective take-out from the data. There is a very human tendency to connect with data that supports a hypothesis or business need. It’s only natural. Therein lies the value of insight practitioners as objective raconteurs.

Assessing the value of agile research

Finally, it’s a good discipline to question to what extent the value of dynamic and agile insight practises can be realised. This means looking at both ‘inwards and outwards’. Insight work, particularly developmental, is becoming increasingly complex and lengthy in terms of its structure and sources of inspiration. From semiotics, ethnographical approaches to expert interviews today’s insight projects are akin to a jigsaw puzzle. Often the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

If agility sits at the heart of the project, it may require developmental workshops where emerging insights are shared and discussed throughout the course of the work. Careful consideration should be given to implications for the next stage via properly facilitated debate, not a quick email to canvas for questions. And the value here is in the time taken for discussion and the role of an independent facilitator.

The internal environment is also critical. It takes a bold move, for example, to stop a project in its tracks if stakeholders are relying on more considered and independent ‘results’. True flexibility works best when departments can be responsive to emerging themes. It also requires an organisation whose core values allow employees to be empowered and engaged. A flatter team structure is in place where all employees can play a role rather than be restricted by the traditional hierarchical pyramid.

In short, we’d encourage insight buyers to really question the value of agile approaches, particularly if they carry a higher price tag. The best researchers will always prioritise an open and honest dialogue to get the best out of the research. But importantly they will have the sensitivity to know how to communicate and position it.