In this Brave New World Speed and Agility are King and Queen
What is Continuous Improvement and why do I need it?
Over the past decade, the paradigm around delivering digital products and services has shifted away from standalone, static development projects to cycles based on continuous improvement with smaller, iterative changes applied across shorter release cycles (a great move in my opinion). There are many influences on this, including agile development and the decline of waterfall, SaaS and cloud technologies, the growth of product management as a discipline and the need to be highly responsive to consumers. In this brave new world speed and agility are king and Queen.
Continuous improvement is a term that is often used but is actually put into practice far less than it should. A formal programme of continuous improvement requires discipline and persistence to make it work. It needs to have the right foundations in place to ensure there is the necessary buy-in, and that development cycles run smoothly. In this post, we’re going to explore some of the approaches that help implement a successful continuous improvement programme (CIP).
How does a CIP work?
A CIP is the formalisation of a continuous improvement approach to your software development. Sometimes referred to as continuous development, it involves repeating a four-stage cycle through measurement and analysis, development, testing and deployment, with tangible improvements made over time. Generally, these development cycles will be rapid, with regular release cycles and smaller, iterative changes along the way. There are multiple benefits to adopting this approach, including the ability to improve your product shaped on real-world customer feedback and a lower cost of development.
Arguably, continuous improvement is more than just a process. It’s an entire approach, and to many out there, it’s a mindset. Perhaps even a philosophy. Setting up a continuous improvement programme is easier said than done. Here are our top tips on how to best implement a CIP, these originated from our own observations and experiences of continuous improvement, as well as those of our clients.
Align all your stakeholders
For continuous improvement to work, you need buy-in from all your stakeholders. That includes not only your development team and the individual roles within it, but also your client team. For internal development teams, this might be your internal stakeholders in digital or marketing, while for digital agencies, this might be your client partner. This also works the other way around, as digital marketing teams are sometimes the ones pushing for continuous improvement and need their IT colleagues’ cooperation.
Aligning all your stakeholders and committing to continuous improvement plans needs honest conversations about what is involved. While conceptually everyone will tend to agree that a proposal is a good idea, it may involve different ways of working and even a change in mindset. Ensuring everybody understands the kind of commitment that is required, such as adhering to various processes, will ensure consensus and commitment are real, smoothing the path to implementation.
Don’t expect immediate success
CIPs sound straightforward in theory, but they’re harder to put into practice than it seems. It may take some time to get to the stage where everything is working in the way you want it to, and you can certainly expect a few bumps in the road. With so many dependencies on different stakeholders, processes and systems, CIPs are realistically not going to happen overnight. For example, your development cycles might not be as rapid as you would like, and there will be lessons learned along the way. Anticipate a journey, and build that into the expectations of everyone involved.
Have robust DevOps and methodologies
CIPs involve repeating a cycle of developing, testing, deploying and measuring. This means having robust and dependable development methodologies, with the team sticking to processes around testing, for example. It also means having good DevOps that allows you to continually add and deploy iterative changes at regular intervals, and support strong reporting to analyse their impact through analytics and feedback. When there’s a deviation from this cycle or when your development cycles are a bit stop-start, it becomes much harder to carry out continuous improvement, both on a practical level and in applying that persistent mindset.
Leverage automation to support your processes
With the need to have highly dependable and repeatable processes for continuous improvement, automation can play a key role in ensuring things go smoothly. There are particularly notable opportunities around using automated testing, automating parts of the deployment process and even supporting the workflow to get feedback from some users.
Consider a design system
A Design System which includes design guidelines, resources and standards, including pattern libraries, code snippets and reusable components, can help support continuous improvement by establishing one source of truth for approved, user-focused elements that can speed up development, but also ensure that high-quality code and on-brand designs are being used.
A Design System needs active management with some governance to ensure it keeps its value and needs to be updated with new elements that reflect continuous improvement. This is generally solved by ensuring that updating the Design System is part of the development cycle.
This point alone will make life far easier for everyone in your team, bringing order and clarity for both managers and the development team to scale the product or service.
Allow for a culture of experimentation
Continuous improvement generally involves smaller iterative improvements which you monitor to gauge customers’ reactions. Leaving room for some innovation and experimentation will help move your product forward and evolve; it can even take you in surprising directions. Allowing for a culture of experimentation is key. This means not only encouraging the team to try new things and execute their ideas but also ensuring that all stakeholders accept that failures can be positive as you can learn something from them.
Double down on user research, analytics and feedback
Data is the oil that feeds the engine of any continuous improvement initiative. This comes in the form of analytics around user adoption and engagement, qualitative feedback and output from user research and testing. It both informs and validates the improvements you need to make, while also reinforcing the empathetic and customer-first mindset that drives continuous improvement. For example, when you get direct, qualitative feedback from a customer, it can have more impact on a digital team (and your stakeholders) than just numbers.
Doubling down on user research, analytics and feedback requires ensuring the appropriate activities are built into your planning, with time set aside for analysis and determining the changes that need to be made. Diarised review meetings, for example, are often important. You also need to ensure your feedback and analytics systems are robust and don’t present barriers. It should be straightforward for customers to submit feedback and for the team to view the numbers.
Finally, your approach needs to take into account the right series of measures and feedback areas. This should cover everything from visits, usage and customer ratings, to performance and user experience.
Make Improving the CIP part of the CIP
We know it all sounds a bit “meta” but improving the continuous improvement process should also be part of continuous improvement! In going through your cycle of making changes, it’s good to consider whether you’re applying the right measures, or if you could do things differently to better support continuous improvement processes. This helps reinforce the mindset that things can keep on getting better and better. A way to facilitate this is to record progress made on your continuous improvement journey in your client and/or management reporting, generating recognition for the efforts made on your CIP.
Committing to continuous improvement
Continuous improvement needs commitment, but it’s worth pursuing. It requires a plethora of good practices around measurement, DevOps, automation and putting feedback at the centre of your development that have benefits in their own right. It’s also about having the right mindset. Once continuous improvement becomes the way your team works, the results over time can be impressive, and you can steadily build the success of your digital product.
Good luck on the journey!