What is Hyper Island and Do They Teach Agile? #agile


It may be better for someone to go into the Hyper Island experience without pre-conceived notions.  If you think you might have the opportunity to go to Hyper Island, maybe don’t read this post.

Discovering Hyper Island

The Future of Advertising, Fast CompanyOne day earlier this year, when I was reading articles trying to figure out how to get inside the Gated Creative Community and trying to sort the “Future of Advertising” for myself, I stumbled upon this article in Fast Company by Danielle Sacks (@daniellesacks) about her attendance of a Hyper Island Master Class. These three-day seminars are currently all the rage, evidently, for former adworld muckity-mucks trying to catch up with digital – or anyone in advertising, really, trying to survive the “Digital Age.”

The first thing I wondered is if Hyper Island had a connection to “Agile.”  And by that I mean whether or not is it an offshoot of the community of 17 that coalesced at SnowBird in 2011, which by now has evolved into a very broad network. Googling I could find surprisingly little info about such a possible connection other than the school’s own website.  Really surprising since Scrum co-founder Jeff Sutherland and Crystal creator Alistair Cockburn frequent Scandanavia and Hyper Island is based in Sweden.

Finally I ran across this blog, Better Taste Than Sorry, and a link to Webesteem Magazine and discovered the principles of Hyper Island as written by one of the school’s founders, Jonathan Briggs.  I’ve cut and pasted it at the bottom of this post.

I realize we were lucky with the Master Class I just attended; our “Tailored” Master Class group had Professor Briggs as a presenter.  Of course he has the “gotten to ‘done‘” being one of the school’s founders.  But what is more interesting than the fact of this accomplishment was his canny ability to adapt to us, to see what it was that the group assembled needed to hear about to progress along the path of learning.

Literally on an Island

Hyper Island

Hyper Island

To be clear, the Hyper Island I’m talking about in this post is the Master Class version of Hyper Island. The actual school is in Sweden, in a renovated prison, on an island in the Baltic Sea, a training college (for lack of a clearer word) for people wanting to direct their careers into digital.  I haven’t found out how the Master Class for Hyper Island was conceived, or when it started.  I did find out the first Master Class was held in the US in October 16, 2009.  So I’m only two years behind. 😛

Reviews of Hyper Island

Big Spaceship

Big Spaceship's Company Site

Further, I haven’t found too much in the way of reviews of Hyper Island.  I’ve heard people say things like “Oh, Big Spaceship hires all their people from Hyper Island.  They get the best.”  And so on. (By the way, that Big Spaceship hires Hyper Islanders is unconfirmed except for a few interns turning up here and there in search).

I found AgencySpy’s post on Hyper Island, a bit of a fizzled attempt to draw out those who had been in the class for the inside, anonymous, brutal scoop.  Only 20 people posted and it was more of the “Yah, Bob” variety.  By the way, AgencySpy, with its anonymous posters, is the type of web object that causes people to be afraid to fail.  Very afraid.  So if you visit the link, you’ll see that all AgencySpy succeeded in getting was mean critiques of the icky anonymous ilk of a Hyper Island video.  This actually synchs in with some conversation we had in class about “real” and “virtual.”  But more about another time.  In the meantime, no real reviews appeared of Hyper Island itself, or the master class.

The Hyper Island Network

But in searching for reviews, I did see a bit of what Hyper Island’s Network consists of and have captured a few links here.  I found threads to Leo Burnett in Australia, LBi in England, Crispin invited to present at Hyper Island, Draft FCB in Chicago and so on.  I found blogs by people who have presented at the company.  I found Cloudania.

Cloudania is an attempt by a graduating class of Hyper Island to stay in touch, to keep the band together.  They’ve scattered to their disparate countries, as you can see on this map, but are trying to keep their network intact.

Wanting to Do, Not Review

With so many connections, with such a network, you would think more would be written about Hyper Island. Maybe it is and I haven’t found it.  But to observe our case, we left our Master Class enthusiastic and invigorated, inspired.  Wanting to do something, not so much wanting to review something.  I don’t even really want to write this post, actually.  As one strategist observed to me, “There’s a sparkle in people’s eyes and a lightness in their step that wasn’t there last week, that’s for sure.”  We are not worrying about reviewing Hyper Island; that’s the last thing on most people’s mind. The main thing on people’s mind is how to get to the next (light) step.

How Does Hyper Island Work?

The major element I observed about the Master Class I took was that they operate within what Alistair Cockburn might call a “Reflective Improvement Framework.”  A reflective improvement framework has reflection and improvement ceremonies built into the very process itself.  It is sort of the ultimate level of that dry (but useful) chart developed by Carnegie Mellon, CMMI (capability maturity model integration) because the “way to do” (to avoid saying “process”) is continuously refined.

What this means for Hyper Island is encapsulated in the principles the school posts on its website:

– Active participation and learning by experiencing, doing and reflecting.
– Trial and error. Mistakes are often the strongest learning experience.
– Working and developing as an individual in teams.
– Using interactive media as a tool for implementing change and improvement.
– Guidance to self insight and group dynamics.
– Real clients, real needs, real learning.

The master class I was in ran like this:  reflect alone, reflect in pairs, reflect in small groups, reflect in medium groups, reflect together as a large group. “Guidance to self insight and group dynamics” actually strikes me as being a bit Crystal as an approach.

No Timed Agenda

I’m not going to thoroughly go through the blow-by-blow of the class, but thought to give you some highlights.  One thing is the Hyper Islanders don’t want to give you a timed agenda. They want to remain open to changing “the plan.” In that sense, could mark them immediately as “being Agile,” as the manifesto reads:

Responding to change over following a plan

So what’s below is my own encapsulation.  I am naming the days as I interpreted them, not communicating any sort of goal or agenda articulated by Hyper Island.

DAY 1 – starting the move from self-consciousness to group-consciousness – or “networked” consciouness; bring people to a point where they *realize* they must change and that it won’t be easy

Stinky Fish Image from Willyobiker's Norman Ridge Newsletter, Calhoun County, West VirginiaThe first day starts off with everyone having 60 seconds to present who they are and what they expected to gain from Hyper Island.  And, of course, we went through the famous “Stinky Fish” exercise.  Stinky Fish, we are told, comes from the wharf where fisherman clean their fish catches together.  If a fish is no good, its thrown under the shared table and slowly starts to stink. So everyone knows it’s there.  In the same way, our “stinky fish” is something that bothers us, but that has remained out of sight.  But we know its there.  So as not to breach the confidence of my classmates (ahhhhh why no Hyper Island reviews?), I’ll just refer you to Danielle Sacks article (link available at the top of this page).

It takes a long time to get through all the personal presentations, our class is so large. They start to blur, one into another. The next step in moving from the individual to the collective is for individuals in the audience to call out ideas about what makes for a conducive learning environment.  The idea is that this will set the rules for the group, marked on a giant 3M sticky easel sheet and stuck up on the wall throughout all the sessions.  Very similar to the “Working Agreement” I’ve seen used on Scrum teams.

The course includes guest speakers throughout, and in some ways the talks are one-way, despite projecting a Twitter feed.  But it sets the ground, gives us something to think about and respond to.

The one I want to focus on is the talk by Mark Comerford, @markmedia, which focused on moving beyond “digital” to “network.”  Although, of course, I know about “networks,” this caused a bit of an “a-ha” for me because of how he framed up networks, how networks are really at the root of anything spreading at all.  And at the same time, introducing this idea to our class got people primed to work as a network when we would later break out into smaller bite-sizes of our overall group.  Made me think of “swarming” on a problem and the “hives” I’ve heard some agencies have developed (not the allergic kind).

DAY 2 – learning to be part of the team, recognize where you are as an agency, start thinking about where you want to go

The second day lead with a reflection.  We were invited to go off alone and reflect, then team up with two others to share or reflections, then into three medium-sized groups, facilitated, to draw out important reflections, and finally into one large group to share our insights.  Again, working from the individual and spreading, like a network, until ideas had permeated the entire group.

The Water Project

The Water Project

We had presentations, but a second exercise, after a Jonathan Briggs presentation, was for us to come up with an app, based on using a specific social technology, to let people know about a charity for clean water.  The “aha” for me in this case was who gets to be included in coming up with ideas?  We had divided up into ten or so teams of 5-7 people each.  Within the team, it was interesting to see the dynamic of who the team allowed to contribute to the ideation.

In my group there were two very strong-minded digital people who kind of shut up the traditional people by brushing off their ideas.  I caught this in the moment, because my awareness has been developed by previous agile trainings, and did my best to see if I could goad my team mates into allowing non-digitals to speak.  What was interesting is that not only would they not, but quickly before we presented they came up with additional ideas that had not been aired with the team and wrote them on the board.  The urge to perform well was a powerful motivator.

DAY 3 – learning to trust the team, but bring it back to the individual; start the movement for grassroots action because that’s at the base of the network (Arab Spring, flash mobs)

I shared my Day 2 “aha” above with my reflection “triad” on the next day.  Interestingly, for the reflection session itself, we at first seemed to gravitate not towards triads or dyads, but foursomes.  The previous day we’d been in dyads.

I think this gravitation to foursomes is because people might group one-to-one, but then to draw in the third person was difficult, rather like the last one getting picked for the volley ball team in high school.  Far easier to merge two pairs, socially.  However, far harder for everyone in a foursome to get a chance to speak.

My “aha” from the previous day that was lingering was “People want Change, just not your change.”  And in saying that someone in my group said “but they might sign up for our change.”  (Made me think of this keynote at the Agile Roots 2010 – We Don’t Want Your Stupid Process – by Jeff Patton.)

This time we had a chance to brainstorm again, but this time using real clients at our agency.  Our teams were larger, 7 people.  On my team I had a traditional (and actually kinda famous) copywriter, a traditional strategist, a guy who once was a Flash expert but has since spread his wings into other languages, a digital PM and me.  Oh – when I say “traditional” I mean people who do not have digital in their backgrounds as much.  In this case, the traditional people started to dominate the ideation, even figure out who would present.

Again: who gets to be the one with the ideas?  Who gets to be… “We?”

Should Agilists Attend a Hyper Island Master Class?

People who are working with marketing directly or are Certified Scrum Product Owners on a Scrum team definitely will benefit.  Anyone seeking to learn how to collaborate would benefit and I think that Hyper Islanders would observe what is happening in the group, adapt their presentation, and let the group form what the class ends up being.

More importantly, there is no real adaptation of Scrum to the creative process, that I’m aware of anyway.  Most Scrum classes focus on software development  As a result, Hyper Island may be the best class to take if you want to practice within the Marketing environment.

You will still need to look at how the ceremonies and artifacts of the particular mechanism you use fits with what you do.  Inspect and adapt, not slavishly adhere.  One thing to keep in mind, though.  We backslide so easily.  You can free your mind, but you might find your mind wants to get back to what it perceives as its “safe place.”  As Mark Comerford said:

Change is disruptive
Disruption is friction
Friction is painful
The change will hurt
It *will* f__ you up.

So it may be a good idea to try a framework, adhere very closely to every step, learn it thoroughly. Then? Inspect and Adapt. Make sure you have an impartial team observer, a coach, or a facilitator, to catch you if you backslide.

Start Where You Are

2011-09-14 18.11.26One thing Hyper Island did not do is overthrow our “government.”  The class was very gentle about the way we “do” now.  We didn’t have any lectures about getting over command-and-control-ism.   Briefs are therefore still on the table as an artifact to work from.  The clear mandate? Inspect and Adapt.  However, you should know that an approach of “inspect and adapt” may be hazardous to your command-and-control.  🙂

Core education principles for Hyper Island

Source: Webesteem Magazine via Better Taste Than Sorry

  1. Make the learners responsible for their own learning. Learn in groups. Provide resources, support, encouragement and “scaffolding” for learners.
  2. Build learning around a series of large realistic projects in which groups construct solutions to sizeable problems.
  3. Bring in industry, academic and international experts to stimulate the learners. Use experts from a wide range of disciplines including some from outside the core curriculum areas (such as architects, town planners and industrial designers) to illustrate how things are done elsewhere.
  4. Make technology transparent. Immerse the students in a technology rich environment. Teach general IT principles and expect students to master tools and techniques on their own but with the support of structured assignments.
  5. Encourage the formation of a learning network in which students help each other and become confident experts and colleagues. Help develop problem solving strategies and research techniques. Encourage contact between students from different year groups and between students and lecturers on an ongoing basis.
  6. Develop critical skills by promoting criticism and review of each other’s work. Explore quality, ethical, business and social values through discussion of the impact of projects on individuals, communities and industries.
  7. Give students the main responsibility for the marketing, promotion and reputation of the School. Build confident, effective communicators through regular presentations and feedback.
  8. Link studying at the School to a period of professional practice in industry. Maintain the learner network during this Internship and after graduation.
  9. Set high standards for written, examination and creative work and provide feedback, enabling students to learn from mistakes and to improve work. Establish clear learning objectives for each module or project and develop clear criteria for all assessment.
  10. Review and evolve the education to reflect changing industry, technology and business needs. Involve students, graduates and lectures in the development of the course.

Updated on 9/21 for redundancies, grammatical errors, etc.

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