From Project driven to UX-driven — an agile transformation within NRK.

NRK is defining the future of broadcasting — and moving from Marienlyst



At uppercase, we are currently working with one of Norway’s most iconic and loved brands, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (aka NRK). An institution who have kept Norwegian citizens enlightened for almost a century — influencing and creating childhood memories for all Norwegians. Our expert in business leadership and transformation, Tom J. Bang, is aiding NRK in their endeavour to complete an agile transformation, working closely with NRK’s head of production facilities and broadcast equipment, Are Andreassen. Completing it by changing the department responsible for developing, maintaining and supporting their physical broadcasting technology and production studios. Changing it from a project driven- to a UX-driven organisation — creating world class content for the Norwegian public.

Written by Tom J. Bang and Are Andreassen.

Television recording at NRK, 1982. Unknown photographer. Source.

NRK started as a radio show back in 1933 with one radio station. Today they are present in all common platforms and channels. They still produce most of the content they broadcast requiring a lot of equipment and technology. The people who have built and maintained their broadcasting technology the last 30 years are still there, in many cases getting close to retirement age. With the moving process (Marienlyst is sold to Ferd) and technology shift coming soon (IP, IT and software-based systems) they need to adapt their way of work — and become more integrated with how the rest of the organisation works.

For many years NRK has been on a journey to create a truly agile organisation — moving away from the traditional project driven organisation — and they have come far. Within software development the world has been on an agile journey since early 2000, but compared to the rest of the world NRK still has far to go, including leadership and broadcasting technology.

Why change a winning team?

So if NRK has been such a success for so many years, why change? What is the problem? Why change a winning team?

The world (and the audience) is changing with new technology and ways of consuming media content. This creates a new demand for anyone offering media content — and in the end the people responsible for creating the content — and making it available whenever we desire it. If you wanted information 100 years ago, you would have to get up early and go to the young boy on the corner selling copies of todays news paper. Today our iPhones will wake us up (or keep us awake) and serve an overflow of information while we are still in bed.

NRK is not prepared for this technology shift as a content producer. Media production is a different ball game today, and so with our help they need to adapt, adjust and learn the new ways to continue producing world class content. Being a master of what you know today, does not make you a master of tomorrow. Tomorrow means new technology and more flexibility in production setups. We need to create more room for developing new skills and incorporate a culture of continuous improvement. We need to get away from the big projects. We need to create a more sustainable way of work. We are not changing a winning team — we will be improving the existing one.

Today NRK is more organised around skills and run everything as projects. This has created some problems that need to be addressed. Critical domain knowledge is stuck within individuals (aka “høy trikkefaktor” in Norwegian). The average age is getting close to 60 years. Every day is a struggle and a fight to get hold of the right person. NRK experiences a lot of challenges delivering projects and handing over the responsibility to people who did not part take in the project — but are expected to fix anything that is broken. It is time for cross functional teams to take a shared responsibility for the whole life cycle of NRK’s technology and services — not only within a temporary development project. This is not a sustainable way to work with the challenges ahead. Knowledge needs to be shared in a different way in order to learn what will be the core competence in five-ten years. The gap between development and maintenance needs to be closed. The gap between developers and users need to be closed. A more UX-driven organisation will help with this transition.

What does it mean to be agile and UX-driven?

Being agile is being truly UX-driven. To be an agile organisation means focusing more on the effect of what you do and the value you create for your users (opposed to maximising our production capacity). In a sustainable way with room to continuously develop new skills and improve the way you work. It is a paradox because often when we bring up the subject of being agile at NRK, people immediately respond: “We have been agile for years. We are bending over backwards helping everyone asking for help! What more can we do?”. A common misunderstanding is that if you always strive to help everyone who cries out for help — simultaneously — you are being agile. If you put in a lot of extra hours, you are being agile. If you work without (bureaucratic) processes and documentation, you are being agile. Being agile is about creating the most value for your users — in a sustainable pace. Because we are not trying to “get shit done” as fast as possible. In a world where the demand always is greater than supply, we need to make sure we get the maximum effect out of our efforts. This always starts within deep understand of what the users need — the most.

Ok, so how do we get rid of the (big) projects?

It is not a question of getting rid of projects. It’s more a question of how we best get feedback and learn along the way. Learn and validate our understanding of how to really solve user needs. It is not a valid excuse to say “but, we don’t have time for more now. We have another project delivery — yesterday!”. And like any (project) addict, it starts by acknowledging that we have a problem because of the way we have been living (working) our lives. By breaking down projects into iterative deliverables we reduce risk and can deliver value to our users a weekly basis — and get faster feedback! This is also where we meet resistance. The people at NRK do a a lot of physical installations of hardware. They have a hard time understanding how we can do this in an iterative approach. And like anything new in life — it will be challenging in the beginning.

How to break down hardware into small deliverables

When developing and delivering new tools to new people it does not matter if we are working with bits or atoms. The users need time to try and absorb the new equipment before they are able to give you proper feedback if it does the job. It is not relevant how many times we experts have done it before — it is about your users experience. Hence UX-driven!

Breaking down projects into smaller deliverables is never easy, because something will have to be left out — for the time being. At NRK, IP and IT is replacing physical hardware and cables. How do you break down a production studio into small deliverables? Only sending video signals to a TV-show would be like going back to 1920-technology and silent movies. In this case we want to implement new technology to support new production studios. One way to approach it would be to use IP on audio signalling and traditional coax cables for video. Or why not start by only using IP on mics in the studio?

“That is going to be too expensive! We don’t have the time nor the money to build a studio several times!”. Using new, unproven, technology is always going to be more expensive and time consuming the first time. The desired effect will not come during the first iterations. It is like giving any master (of any trade) a set of new tools and expect them to deliver the same quality with the same speed and precision.

Technical depth — the invisible cost

Another problem that occurs with projects are the invisible costs created by unexpected problems that are impossible to plan for — especially when developing (or installing) something new (a copy of a TV-studio in another location, is still something new). A certainty in any project is that requirements will always change along the way and implementation time will always deviate from the plan (9 out of 10 times an increase). Then the question of delivery date comes up. If it is postponed, other projects will suffer. If it is not postponed, the quality and user experience will suffer. And when handed over to another team the time and cost of fixing bugs and improving the user experience will be multiplied! A bug that today takes one day to fix, will in six months probably take one week of working time (and then another few weeks lead time before anyone has the capacity to work on it). The illustration below is trying to highlight the hidden cost of technical depth. Technical depth is like the interest rate of a loan. Many organisations end up not being able to even pay the interest rates, because any improvement is multiplied in cost over time — especially when handed over to people who did not part take in the implementation.

This is exactly what NRK are experiencing now (not unlike other established organisations). The technical depth as a result of doing big projects and pushing everything to the limit for the last decade. It is critical for NRK to make the shift before they move, to get rid of legacy holding them back. During this transition they will have to handle both maintaining the existing and developing the new — without the audience noticing it.

In the long term the main challenge is performing the technology shift. But, in the short term, our biggest challenge is to make all work visible and priorities work in a way that allows our people to solve problems in sequence. In a sustainable way that allows for everyone to grow with the challenge.

As the person responsible for all equipment and facilities within the Broadcasting Technology Department at NRK, this is how Are Andreassen sees the challenge ahead:

“Being part of NRK for more than a decade I can truly say this is about cultural change. We have been doing what we do best for many years — some of us for almost 50 years — you can imagine that change is not easy. Not only how we work, but also how we think. This challenge is about mindset — and our ability to change our mindset.”