Nick Dunn

What Kirsty and Phil can teach us about agile delivery

6th September 2022

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 22 years you’ll have watched way too much Location Location Location. In each episode of its 36-series-and-counting, Kirsty Allsopp and Phil Spencer guide two sets of house hunters through the buying process. It's addictive viewing, tapping into our British obsession with property ownership, snooping inside other people’s homes and wanting to know exactly how much they paid for it.

The show hasn’t really changed in over twenty years, and I’ve been thinking why I find it so appealing. The answer I think, other than the sexual tension between Kirsty and Phil, is because the format grinds through a series of familiar patterns that are engrained in my day-to-day: a team interrogates a set of requirements against a stakeholder’s budget, then diligently delivers a working solution.

Hear me out.

At the start of each programme we’re introduced to the househunters. The single graduate looking for a city centre apartment. The young family resigned to a do-er up-er in the suburbs. The DINKY outdoorsy couple wanting to explore the countryside on their Halfords mountain bikes. The empty nesters downsizing to the coast. And every other stereotype in between.

If Kirsty and Phil are the team, then the househunters are our stakeholders. They own the budget. Usually fixed, but sometimes with sensible headroom for that “special something”. More importantly they have an exacting list of requirements, usually accompanied by unrealistically high expectations.

This is the most fascinating part of the format — watching how the househunter’s initial must-have requirements of four bedrooms, a south-facing kitchen/diner and original period features gradually unravel with a series of decisions, discoveries and compromises ultimately leading them to question their own values.

The best episodes are where househunters have painfully conflicting requirements. Maybe one partner in a couple wants the reliability of an off-the-shelf new build; the other won’t settle for anything less than bespoke Georgian period charm.

Kirsty and Phil fill the role of product managers marshalling our stakeholders through the process. Their role is to qualify the requirements and align the stakeholders to what they need, not what they say they want. Or both. Or neither. But they do this with a healthy blend of experience, hunches and iteration.

Kirsty and Phil get three or four opportunities to show the househunters properties that match the original requirements, gauge reaction and iterate. The first property, much like a first sprint, is the leveller. The eye-opener. This is what your money gets you in your desired location. And so begins the tussle around what compromises must be made to move forward: find more money, adjust the Minimum Viable Property requirements or widen the search area.

Over the following iterations the househunters are shown alternative properties which in turn whittle down options to The One. And if Kirsty and Phil and their army of researchers have done their jobs properly the hunters will fall in love, put in an offer and deploy to production.

But if it was that easy each time it’d be boring. Team Kirsty and Phil draw on years of experience, and know that convergence via iteration isn’t always possible. Not within the confines of 60 minutes of mid-week telly anyway. So they’ll take a punt based on intuition, and from time to time will throw in a wildcard early doors. This promotes divergent thinking. The househunters are delighted because their search veers towards a different direction and a new array of options become available that they had never considered before.

It's also important to note that Kirsty and Phil aren’t infallible. They’re often wrong. They might present the perfect property which on paper ticks every box… but the househunters just don’t like it. They don’t get the feels. The head says yes but the heart says no. How many times have we settled on a solution that we think is so damned perfect, but when it’s tested with users it falls flat on its face? Maybe you don’t understand your users as well as you thought you did. Back to the drawing board. More research needed.

When things aren’t going quite right the team will hold a retrospective and adjust the process as they go. They will regroup, have an open and honest conversation about their values, what they’re trying to achieve, and often they end up trying something entirely different: changing search areas entirely, or maybe using letter drops and social media to find new potential properties away from the open market.

When they find The One, the househunters always wants to go to production immediately. We must be in by Christmas! Before the baby comes! And like deploying software at scale, making an offer on a property is only the start of a long and arduous process of service assessments, production readiness and dependency management, where the team has to build new relationships with additional third parties and stakeholders for the first time: solicitors, removal firms, penetration testers.

But of course, like good agile delivery, this process can be de-risked by engaging these stakeholders early in the process. Get your finances in order first. Find your solicitor. Stage a quick spike with a mortgage broker to get the agreement in principle sorted before you start the search.

Finally, although Kirsty and Phil are engaged to solve a tightly scoped problem — find a new property for the househunters — their value as subject matter experts, dare I say as external consultants, is much broader. They act as lifestyle coaches, even marriage councillors and couples therapists throughout the process.

Their role is to always be thinking strategically, guiding the househunters two or three life stages ahead, such as buying a property large enough to start a family, when that’s not even on their radar yet. The result is often much more than a new property; it can yield an entire (cough, Digital) Transformation Transformation Transformation.


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