Agile Connection Publishes AIM Article on Agile Product Delivery

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This article originally appeared on AgileConnection on March 11, 2015.

Summary: Product development organizations that skip or rush through critical preplanning activities run the risk of failure. Organizations that use a more agile approach to product development ensure that the teams work on the right things, have the right amount of dialogue with their business partners, and produce the right amount of value to the product.

Traditional product development is dead. Tight deadlines and limited resources can place a lot of pressure on companies to evolve faster, innovate more quickly, and deliver on demand. In fact, many product teams will “leap before they look” by assembling a project team quickly and without the right amount of foresight or direction.

Though a sense of urgency can be productive for teams working under tight deadlines, product teams should take time to think through project features in much the same way as their counterparts on delivery teams. Using agile techniques—where the focus shifts from the product to the user—will ensure the best possible user experience with the product.

This process of thinking things through, also known as ideation, forms the critical preplanning stage when companies can answer important questions like “What is this feature for?” “How will our users react?” and “Does this product clearly meet the vision and strategy of our organization?”

A misalignment between product development teams and IT delivery teams is typically a symptom of an organization that hasn’t started its product development cycle correctly. Team misalignment becomes detrimental over time and can torpedo a product’s feature set. By using simple agile product development practices in conjunction with agile software development practices, organizations can mitigate the risk of failure and enhance their product delivery capabilities.

Here’s how to get off on the right foot for project success.

Apply Agile Principles for Product Delivery to Mitigate Risk

Collaborating with stakeholders is a benefit of using agile. Clear, concise communication with partners can be a key factor in reducing the risk of failure for product development projects. Remember the classic IT cartoon where a team has all the different interpretations of building a tire swing? The many interpretations of a simple end product show us that even when it is precise, clear, and distinct as possible, verbal communication alone is never precise, clear, and distinct enough.

Agile product teams can work well with IT project teams if they understand how to talk through product development challenges. Using conversations to simplify product requirements will align team focus with changing business needs. After all, if a team can position itself to handle changes, then it will be ready to pivot when customers or market forces change.

Align the Business and the Technology Teams to Understand Vision

Good collaboration isn’t enough. Good product delivery is a function of how well the business and IT understand the vision behind the product.

Product vision should be jointly created by product and delivery teams. Vision should drive the ideation, definition, and plan for delivery of the product. If the teams are aligned, then good execution will result. If user-centric vision is not present in both business and IT, then the teams may lose sight of the value and vision of the product and may encounter some pitfalls:

  • The organization might think the product is not as viable as initially thought
  • The organization might think it has to spend more money to get the results that it initially wanted
  • The organization might believe it does not have the required people or funding to build the product

Look at the Big Picture and Establish Goals

So your teams are aligned, and you’re talking. Everyone agrees that the agile approach to product development can afford to place more emphasis on responding to change rather than following a plan. The key next step is to determine how the product fits within the vision and to inspire the team.

The first order of business is to ask, “Why are we doing this project? What are the goals of this new product or process? Will the product increase productivity or profitability, or will it solidify or improve market share?” These questions and others should be addressed with business and IT to ensure not just that you’re talking, but also that everyone understands their role in building a better user experience.

The end result of having this dialogue needs to be clear enough to guide short-term decision-making on teamwork and should be re-evaluated on a regular basis.

Identify Valuable Features, Then Prioritize for Execution

Understanding the big picture and purpose of the project will allow a team to itemize those product features that fit the vision, delight the customers, and support the company. Teams that understand the vision and purpose of a product can prioritize the list of key requirements in their product backlog and use the product backlog to execute project work.

Good product backlogs are critical because they enable teams to deliver faster and adapt to change. This is a huge advantage because teams can apply focus on delivering what a customer really needs, which is often different from their original “ask.”

Execute and Learn from Your Customers

Once the project team has a correctly groomed product backlog, it can effectively begin its agile delivery cycles and produce value. Unfortunately, value has two sides. On one hand, value to the business is important and should be a primary focus. On the other hand, value suffers with one key and often overlooked stakeholder: the customer or end-user.

End-user value is critical. Agile product teams should seek feedback from the user community and transform that feedback into new stories within the product backlog. After all, who better to provide input on your product than the very people you depend on to use it?

Market studies or beta testing of the product can be helpful here because they give insight into market trends, how customer sentiment may affect the product, and how your competitors are addressing similar challenges. Your customers are intuitive, so ask for their input. They know what is working well and what needs improvement, and they are often surprisingly insightful when it comes to figuring out where to go next.

A Quick Yet Practical Example

When working with new agile product teams, I often demonstrate the power of effective communication with Lego bricks. The exercise is simple, yet powerful: Give a team a pile of Lego bricks and designate one member as the product owner. The product owner’s role is to clearly communicate the product vision verbally without letting the team see the instruction booklet. After several frustrating minutes the team will begin to understand how to organize itself, how to interpret product requirements, and how to build the product. The lesson? Even when it is precise, clear, and distinct as possible, verbal communication alone is never precise, clear, and distinct enough.