Lean Media: How to focus creativity, streamline production, and create media that audiences love by Ian Lamont
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Normally, I wait until I finish most of the book to start a review. However, in this case there are some things that I must call out immediately after reading 39 pages of this book. Which, I almost put down this book after page 38, but since this was a review copy I felt obligated to continue. In Chapter 2, the author calls out a number of customer/advertiser behaviors that had negative impact on the media landscape, including sites like Craigslist which killed the classified section of news papers and saying that “some [customers] had gone as far as installing ad blockers.” This I found deeply problematic, because it starts with the premise that we, as consumers, should accept every ad thrown at us. The book never reflects as to why a customer would want to use an adblocker.
This is due to the fact that in chapter 3, the author explicitly explains he’s eliminating the Five Why’s methodology from the Lean Media tool kit. Let’s take a look at an example I saw on twitter the other day about the importance of the Five Why’s in this case.
Site: “You’re using an ad blocker, please Whitelist us”
Site: Hidden ad plays music and sound at full volume
User: Blacklists site
Here’s a way to use Five Why’s (you only need one) in this case.
Site: Why did you black list our site?
User: Because there was an obtrusive ad that I was unable to control, it started to use my speakers without my permission and since I couldn’t find it, I wasn’t able to mute it. My only recourse was to blacklist your site for violating my trust.
This single ad now has likely cost the repeated visits of this user and has reduced trust in sites that ask for users to whitelist their site. There is a clear lack of trust.
Ok, maybe that’s not a fair example. Let’s look at someone of the rationale the author users to throw it out as it reduces creativity. Paraphrasing here, some creative people are tyrannical and that seems to work for great creative processes. Well, given that many of these tyrannical personalities have been outed as sexual harassers lately and the Five Whys might have identified this as a risk, maybe that’s not a good answer. His other answer was to look at the Doom creative process and showed that tension was part of the reason why that game was great. Sure, it might work as a one off, like Doom, but the problem is that you want to build a long lasting company. If you allow that sort of toxicity in a company long term you risk driving off creative talent that are being overruled by those voices. Furthermore, this approach has been thoroughly debunked in the Agile software development community (which is an incredibly creative space in general and has just as many egos as game development (which is fundamentally software development)). There are frequent “Retrospectives” where the team asks what they can do better and the leaders are expected to go and fix the problems, which typically requires Root Cause analysis, where Five Why’s is a key tool to doing so.
As someone that has read a large amount on the topic of Six Sigma, Lean, Agile, DevOps, and Creativity, I find a book that purports to be about Lean and Creative material content development that ignores the Five Why’s to be deeply problematic because it is ignoring Root Cause analysis because personalities that clash are important. In “Creativity Inc.” the history of Pixar, by Edwin Catmull one of the founders, the explicitly call out reigning in the egos was a key part of their success and that they use Lean and the Five Whys as part of their creative process. I propose that if a media giant like Pixar can figure out the best way to use Five Why’s in their methodology, then every media company can and should use it as well.
The remainder of Chapter three is problematic for two reasons. First the author argues that Data driven media companies are doomed to fail, which is an argument that warrants farther investigation. However, the example, Zynga, wasn’t done in by missing the mark with their data, what happened was that Facebook essentially killed Zynga by blocking most of the Mafia War links, the games themselves were going strong until Facebook interceded on behalf of other Facebook users. Second, since the author argues against being exclusively data driven and that there are these qualitative features that are unique to media ventures, but clearly the Five Why’s, an interview approach, can answer some of the questions. For example, the author poses the question, why did you leave after being on the site for 10 seconds. That’s literally the point of the Five Why’s and A/B testing, which are both qualitative and quantitative ways to answer that question.
Another point that is frustrating to me as a reader is that the author seems to be confusing “Media ventures” and “Creative Media” because many of the points the Author makes fall into media ventures, which are the firms, which could definitely benefit from all lean methodologies. Then turns around and argues that they are so unique, because creativity and basically argues that design is so purpose driven that it doesn’t count as creativity. This is patently false and books like Design Driven Innovation and Creative Confidence both call out some really great creative qualitative tools that are used in both lean and the even more data centric Six Sigma. The building on this point, one of the major areas of “creative” media the author talks about is newspaper articles and book editing. The latter is certainly not a creative process, it is a process though and that can be improved by lean.
Another problematic aspect of this book, is the general tone of the writing. There seems have been some past issue between the author and the operations side of the media business that he puts into this framework book. Maybe it was intended to come across as humorous or an in joke between fellow creators, but if I’m a creator and I want my media company to adopt Lean Media as a way of doing better media development, I’d want to feel comfortable giving this book to a member of that team as a rationale why we should change our management practices. Based on the tone of this book, I’d be unwilling to do that. These are cases where the author is 100% correct in what he is saying. For example, he’s arguing that a way to reduce waste (more on waste later), is to have smaller teams, because it improves the creative functions and those sales VPs are idiots. That might be 100% correct, however the tone misses the mark. Agile and DevOps make the exact same argument, but in a less antagonistic tone, which is significantly more effective in making the case to the creatives, the head creative (the pigs), and the operations team (the chickens) than the Lean Media approach. It does it through an old joke about a pig and a chicken wanting to open a restaurant called ham and eggs. The pig wants to have full control since he’s committed (Ham) while the chicken is only involved (eggs). This is a significant tonal shift that allows for the exact same conversation in a less confrontational way which allows this book to be shared between the main target audience and the media executives that may have to buy off on the management and cultural change.
After finally finishing the book, the real value of the book kicks in around page 70 where the author really starts to talk about how to analyze audience feedback. This is where the book stands out compared to just about every other high level Lean book I’ve read. The book provides much more explicit direction, but not tools, about who should be included, and generally how to use the feedback provided by various audience members. The book does parse out the different groups of people that you should try to get feedback from based on the phase and maturity of the media that you are developing and uses a few great examples of that towards the end.
I think this is clearly the strongest part of the authors Lean experience, but is still mostly intuition/experienced based rather than using some of the common tools already in use in the Lean space for dealing with feedback. One common tool I’ve used to analyze, group and include/discard feedback is called the KJ Analysis or Affinity Diagram, this would have been incredibly powerful to include in this discussion. It would have taken the book from a high level framework to a much more powerful tool than it is. It’s isn’t like the author is avoiding this either. He provides one or two tools throughout the book, with the Lean Media Project Planner being the most powerful and obviously useful of the tools.
I think based on the Author’s experience, adding tools to the second half of the book, providing more examples and showing how to use the Five Why’s to analyze the root cause of a failing project (which may indicate that the project needs to pivot) would be really powerful. I would recommend that the author shortens the first half of the book, and expands the second half. The second half is where the framework becomes more powerful.
I also have doubts about how much the author really understands of Lean and waste because the impression that I’ve gathered from reading this book is that waste reduction is primarily focused on the size of the team, not reducing defects, overwork, over processing, or any of those common waste types (for a translation from manufacturing to office waste reduction which applies more to media, I would recommend reading the Lean Office and Service Simplified). Complicating this, the author uses “lean team” to literally mean a team with only a few people in it, which is different than a team that embodies Lean practices.
I hope that the author takes this feedback to heart and makes improvements to the book like he says he intends to at the end. The back half was a fantastic dive into audience identification and how to use audience feedback. The first half where the author looked at the fundamentals of Lean is flawed and less than useful.