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Business Agility in Southpark

Business Agility in Southpark

You may not believe me when I say we can learn a lot from the creators of the animated comedy show Southpark. Still, after looking into how the makers continue to evolve how they create each episode I think you'll agree it's pretty slick, displaying business agility traits throughout.

For those unfamiliar with Southpark on Comedy Central, it is an animated show with 4 main characters in school in the USA. Although animated it is not content for children or the fainthearted. The creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker push the boundaries. Nothing is off-limits if they can rip on it. Anything goes, be it religion, politics, media, sports, current affairs.

Whether you are a fan of the show or not, there is so much we can take from how these folks operate and the policies and practices that they leverage to keep them sustainable and fresh in the market. But where is the business agility I claim to be seeing? Let's jump in and see!

MVP to Market Leader
First off Southpark was born of an MVP. This short viral video was created by a 5-minute stop-motion cut-out animation technique called Jesus vs Frosty. This viral clip went viral fast, which led to investment from a studio executive for the pair to create another video that the executive could send to friends as a Christmas card. This then led to Jesus vs Santa. So, we have an MVP that has now been iterated on that is gaining momentum and giving real feedback to the creators. The original process could take months but the product, whilst raw gave great customer insights and feedback that allowed the team to get to where they are now on their 26th season of the Emmy-winning show.

Business Agility in Southpark
Business Agility in Southpark

Evolving Practices
As mentioned previously, each episode could take months in the early days. The team now has this down to 6 days. They work on a Tuesday to Thursday cadence where they will come together on a Tuesday to kick around some ideas and then start to develop the concept and script from there. Reducing their time to market to 6 days, allows the team to stay current and fresh. On a Friday, the episode goes to Comedy Central. Also, the 6-day turnaround eliminates writer's block for director Trey Parker and stops perfection from getting in the way of good enough. Parker has been quoted to say, "I always feel like I need an extra day with each show" but the deadline is an enabler to meeting the need to get past writer's block. They have only ever missed the 6-day deadline once due to a power outage.

Another quote from Trey Parker on the 6-day turnaround, "Every Thursday Matt and Anne have to talk me off a cliff where I'm saying this is a horrible show, I don't want people to see this. A specific example was one of the episodes where I said, do not let this go out I don't want to ruin the Southpark legacy. Anne said, just let it air. To this day that is one of the best received and highest viewed episodes which is the World of Warcraft episode."

Power in Simplicity
Although based on the stop motion style with evolution and leveraging technology, now the cross-functional teams in animation and the creative departments have multiple skills they draw upon. This allows the team to continue to create fresh and relative content that the market loves (they are on season 26 as I write this) and demand continues with over 30 billion minutes viewed for one season alone.

Business Agility in Southpark
Business Agility in Southpark

The creative team does not have separate actors for each voice. Parker and Stone do most of the male voices and they will often pair up and bounce off each other as they perform rather than do this separately, so it is more efficient and spontaneous. The animation team carries out multiple roles. They do not have a separate X person or sub-team. The animation team then comes together with Parker to review the episode and refine it (cut this line, tweak this, etc.) to get the product to the desired result that they are happy enough with to put to the customer (Comedy Central).

The team also brings in external help to keep the ideas fresh with regular retreats where the likes of Bill Haider (Saturday Night Live, Barry, Superbad, and so much more) create a comedy camp-type environment to create and evolve ideas for upcoming seasons.

Testing New Markets
The team has entered the market in different ways, but the brand has always stayed true. So far, we have seen movies such as Baseketball. We have seen a feature-length movie of Southpark. As well as this the team has created Team America where they leveraged puppets rather than animate.

One of the most recent new entries was to enter the musicals stage show market with the multi-Tony award-winning, The Book of Mormon. This team continues to push the boundaries whilst staying true to the brand by "ripping on anything they find funny". All the while Southpark continues and grows. The ability to test and enter new markets whilst further building the brand helps secure the future of the company showing great maturity. Who would have thought I'd be writing about maturity in a brand like Southpark!?!?!

Business Agility in Southpark
Business Agility in Southpark

Impediment to opportunity
The Team faces impediments regularly. An idea for a show may not turn out the way that they originally thought, and they will need to pivot fast. In one episode the team had an idea to use the character of Cartman as Dog the Bounty Hunter focussed on hippy culture, this had to be cut and Cartman was viewed as an exterminator. However, this idea was reused in a future episode of the show which is viewed as one of their classics.

Another example of this is the actor Isaac Hayes (the voice of Chef for many years) leaving the show at short notice. The team, rather than see this as a blocker decided to use the old voice content as a mash-up and create a whole episode where they killed the character of Chef. What many teams may have seen as a disaster, this team seized the opportunity.

Business Agility in Southpark
Business Agility in Southpark

In summary
There is so much to learn from the way the team operates in creating and evolving Southpark. From short turnaround time, collaboration, innovation, and building a sustained brand. Even if you are not a fan of the show there is a lot to admire in how these folks create and deliver in such an agile way. However, there is no rigid framework, no scaling framework in play. They have just evolved their practices over time in a way that has suited them and most importantly, their customer to meet their needs in a very fit-for-purpose manner.

Where else have you seen these types of execution over such a sustained period? Are there other products or companies that you are impressed with their business agility and dynamic approach? I'd love to hear about them.

If you'd like to learn more about business agility and how you can help evolve your teams, department, or organisation in pragmatic and practical ways then please get in touch. Again, I'd love to have a chat with you on these topics and how I may be able to help.