Why Agile Software Development Is Not Enough and Agile Product Management is the Answer

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“Hi, I’m Tirrell.  Thanks a lot for taking the time to chat with me about what you need and how I might be able to help.  So tell me, what is the problem you’re trying to solve?””We want to be more agile”
“Ok, but what does that mean?”
“We want to release software faster and still keep high quality.  We want to improve the productivity of our developers”
“Thanks.  For a second, let’s take a step back from the developers, and talk about the organization… what business goals with ‘going agile’ help you achieve?”
“I never thought of that….”

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Software development does not exist in a vacuum

In most organizations, software development is a supporting function for the rest of the business.  The reason the software teams get so much attention when it comes to “measuring productivity” or “becoming more agile” is because software is typically looked at as a cost center.  This means when executive leadership are trying to figure out how to do “more with less”, they look at the areas where the largest amount of money is being spent.  Since engineers and technologists are not cheap, IT and software development is the first place they look to try to improve cost structure or gain efficiencies.

However, the effectiveness, quality, and productivity of a team is more a result of upstream processes and the overall environment than process magic.  In other words, there is no process, agile or otherwise, that will fix problems with your development teams that originate elsewhere in the organization.  While there are actions we can take to improve the teams’ performance, the outcomes will be localized to the extent our problem solving is localized.  System-wide improvements require system-wide changes.

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The most neglected piece of the puzzle is effective product management skills

Technologists are an interesting sort; we are fiercely independent, yet we take pride in our work and genuinely want to help solve business problems.  However, most of the issues that manifest in the development teams manifest upstream of the teams.  The product managers are directly upstream of the development teams, so  this places product management squarely in my sights when I am diagnosing development problems in an organization.

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Product managers typically suffer from common issues

  • Lack of training.  Most product managers that I have interacted with have had little to no training as product managers.  They may have come from marketing or customer support or occasionally engineering.  While they may be strong in some areas (product design, spec writing, etc), the core skills I would expect from a strong product manager (customer development, business case development, hypothesis driven execution, outcome-oriented thinking) are missing.

    The Fix.  
    Understand where the skill deficit is by comparing your product owners against the Product Owner Core Skills Matrix.  Engage in self-paced just in time practical training, such as “How to Build Your Backlog From Scratch.”
  • Unclear role.  While the title product manager (or product owner) suggests some amount of business or product ownership, product managers often function as glorified business analysts.  Rather than having any ownership of real business outcomes, product managers are put in place to run interference on behalf of the business (document requirements).  This leads to frustrated teams, frustrated stakeholders, and unempowered product managers.The Fix.  Rather than rely on the boilerplate you copied from monster.com, take a fresh look at the role, responsibilities, and expectations of your product managers.  Here is a template to help you.
  • Business objective blindness.  While product managers are supposed to represent the business and their needs, product managers are often kept out of key conversations and don’t have the visibility into the organizations overall strategies, goals, and objectives.  This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to tie product management decisions to overall business objectives.  If product management decisions are not tied to business objectives, what’s the point of having product managers?The Fix.  Invite your product managers to strategic leadership meetings.  This way they can be aligned with the broader business goals.  This means less hand-holding when it comes to articulating problems to be solved, and greater stakeholder satisfaction.

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The goal is overall business agility

Your process  that takes an idea from concept to cash is only as strong as its weakest part.  The weakest link is most often not your technology teams, but its the easiest to attack because the costs are visible and the outputs are sub-optimal.  The purpose of agility is to improve business outcomes, and your product managers connect business outcomes to product development process and the software development teams.

As an idea is formulated, improved, developed, released, and monetized, make sure you take a look at the complete cycle.  Where are the bottlenecks?  Where are the miscues?  Where are there opportunities to improve?  The software development aspect is a small part of the end to end value chain.  Make sure you look at your business cases, how you prove ROI, how to run product marketing experiments, and how to engage in effective customer development.

Until Next Time,

Stay Agile, My Friends

Tirrell Payton is the principal at Payton Consulting, a San Diego-based boutique consulting firm that helps companies improve their technology capability to match their business ambitions.

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