No one wants to think about crushed canaries

20th November 2017

After almost 18 years at the coal face of digital project delivery, I took the decision to try something different and join the team at Rokker. The decision was based in part on something that’s been gnawing away at me for a very long time – there must be a better model for servicing clients.


That’s not an easy nut to crack though, that traditional approach to achieving high quality digital outcomes has been around for at least the last 20 years – and there’s no denying that sometimes the results can be good. However, no one ever talks about the cost of this approach….in my below analogy that cost is crushed canaries (read on…it will make more sense…honest).


Rokker do things in a different way, an iterative but rapid approach to concepts. Getting to 80% of the truth as quickly as possible and making informed strategic decisions based on that. This means re-wiring my brain and being the office newbie…but I’m on board with that…big time.


I have recounted below where I feel the traditional approach to clients is struggling and how I believe it’s possible to try something different. It’s a pretty fundamental subject, so you will forgive me if it’s a little wordy… some of those words do include Magic, Canaries and Michael Caine….so hopefully that takes the ‘edge off’?


Any company, freelancer and especially Project Manager that operates in the digital sphere, will tell you that clients expect ‘magic’. Usually referring to magic as meaning the near impossible. But all any client really wants is Magical results. That’s exactly what they pay for and what any provider should strive to deliver.


The method of getting to those Magical results is the key to this, and that process really isn’t Magic. I speak with some authority on this having Project Managed J.K Rowling’s website for 7 years in a former life. That website was a truly Magical experience for users…getting to that point though had nothing to do with Magic and I still have the ear lashing scars of family bemoaning me working on many an evening and weekends to prove that!


An analogy I like to use is one of magicians of the late 19th century, perfectly demonstrated in a 2006 film, The Prestige. It’s actually a pretty good film, so SPOLIER ALERT now if you do intend to watch it…..


I won’t give the Grand Reveal away, but suffice to say the film tackles as its core theme the concept of amazing, unbelievable acts being produced by rational (costly) methods. In one memorable scene Michael Caine’s character demonstrates the ‘disappearing / reappearing canary’ trick. This involves a collapsible cage with a chirping yellow canary inside. The magician would give the usual abracadabra style mutterings and then, with tremendous force, would flatten the cage with his hands. After a suitable gap the magician pulls the cage up again into its upright (un-flattened) form and low and behold the canary is there again, chirping away and completely unharmed. Simple – but actually awesome at the same time. How is that possible… magic right?


Well, as the scene goes on to explain, there is nothing but a grim sleight of hand at play here. The truth of this trick (in the film, but I suspect in much ‘real’ magic of those times too) is that 2 canaries are part of the illusion. The first one gets brutally crushed as the cage is collapsed flat… completely squashed.


Then as the cage is pulled back up the magician skilfully adds a fresh identical yellow canary. Thus, the illusion of true magic is presented to the audience… and given the actual obvious nature of the brutal reality, why wouldn’t they choose to believe the magical explanation. No-one wants to think about crushed canaries.


So, wheeling this back around to the world of Digital and client expectations (smooth, right?); we are left with clients that demand (and they should always demand) magical results but don’t always want to recognise that the process to achieve that can be ‘painful’….and actually (under many traditional models) virtually impossible.


Put another way; the chances of finding a silver bullet solution at the beginning of a project that ‘just works’ and gliding that through one long development process, resulting in a quality (Magical) solution at the end, are really very low. The actual result often becomes a weakened and unplanned for compromise, with impact on time, quality and budget.


This isn’t the clients fault….and it’s not really the servicing company, developers or Project Managers fault either, who very often will be working extremely hard and long hours to force a result that isn’t ever possible.


It’s the model of approach that has the inbuilt weakness and is one more example of the unintended frailty of a waterfall style system across a whole project. People (many clients and agency’s) have been trained to believe that locking down a defined concept/budget/timeline at the very beginning of project is how a development is ‘controlled’. Any other approach feels too fluid and risky.


Ironically the reality (as born out through my personal experiences) is that this approach is usually far more high risk and will very likely end up costing everyone more, be this in budget, time, stress or lost opportunity.


I was once told “don’t come to me with a problem, give me a solution” … which is top level, grade A management lingo… but also great advice. In this case I truly believe there is a solution and it’s something Rokker hold as its core belief – continuous, iterative improvement.


Nothing definitive is ever truly known at the start of a process and it should be a journey of iterative stages that evolve a project to completion. Even then, once ‘completion’ has been achieved a commitment to continually review things and improve as required should be strived for. This ethos is based on the Japanese business approach of Kaizen, an approach that has been applied very successfully across a whole range of business types globally.


Rokker have understood that the realities of commercial business mean this methodology must be tweaked to offer a genuinely better option to clients and providers, than the traditional approaches. Rokker believe the solution is to undertake a rapid and iterative strategic review, right at the beginning of a process that covers all sides of the organisation, from leadership to communication, from products to market, and everything in between that touches the output. This has the aspiration of getting to 80% of the truth as quickly as possible, allowing informed decisions to be made at a series of iteration points across the business.


No canaries need to suffer and no ‘hey presto’ breathe holding. Clients feel included in the iteration process and ultimately the end delivery is more robust for it.


So….let’s stop the needless yellow canary cull and do things a different way…’s going to be magical!


James Sarre

Head of Delivery