Agile & Lean Product Development

A Practical Approach to Agility and Product Management

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Why the Word “assign” should be Banned from Agile Teams

Words matter. Language matters. Single words can evoke a whole set of connotations and feelings. In the Agile space, the word “waterfall” certainly does that. Every language domain, such as an organization or field of practice, has these words or phrases that have a very specific meaning understood by everyone who’s part of that group. Sometimes they’re neutral, sometimes positive and sometimes they’re just taboo — words you better avoid due to the bad aftertaste or overwhelmingly negative connotations. In a different context or domain, the same word may be completely innocent and neutral — just ask hikers about waterfalls. (In one organization I worked for, you should never mention “productivity”; otherwise, you’d immediately be confronted with visceral reactions and backlash!)

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7 Great Books for Product Managers

There are an increasing number of books out there about various aspects of product management. Here are some of my favorites which will hopefully be useful for both aspiring as well as experienced Product Managers and entrepreneurs:

Marty Cagan’s INSPIRED: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love is a must-read. He covers everything from the structure of the organization, ideation and discovery to scaling the business. In this 2nd edition, he focuses not only on start-ups, but also on growth-stage and large companies.

 

The Lean Startup is a classic. Eric Ries, in this milestone book, makes the case for the discipline of entrepreneurial management (Vision), dives into the details of the build/measure/learn loop (Steer) and shows how to accelerate learning and scale the business (Accelerate). (Also, check out Eric’s 2nd book “The Startup Way”.)

 

Hooked: Nir Eyal takes his readers on a fascinating journey into the Hooked model and explains what it takes to use habits to create “sticky” and engaging applications that users come back to again and again. This book will be particularly intriguing to those of us interested in human behavior, psychology, and brain science.

 

The Lean Product Playbook was one of the first books I read when getting into Product Management. Dan Olsen does a great job of walking his readers step-by-step through the process of determining target customers, identifying underserved needs, defining the value prop, and, building and refining the MVP. Furthermore, he also gets into how to use metrics and analytics to optimize the product.

 

Running Lean: As the master and creator of the Lean Canvas, Ash Maurya shows how to not just create a product, but a viable and scalable business by documenting a plan, validating the riskiest parts, and testing the plan qualitatively and quantitatively. (Another great read of his is the follow-up book “Scaling Lean”.)

 

Somewhat surprisingly, there aren’t many books about product strategy. Roman Pichler’s Strategize: Product Strategy and Product Roadmap Practices for the Digital Age is a compact but comprehensive and very useful guide for strategy development and validation, product roadmapping and portfolio roadmaps.

 

In Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days, Jake Knapp & others from Google Ventures demonstrate how to use a single calendar week (!) to solve a significant problem with a small team and find and validate a solution. Brilliant and effective!

 

As it turns out, many very successful entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have one habit in common: they read a lot! I hope this list is inspiring you to keep reading and learning about the expanding field of Product Management.

What are some of your favorite product-related books?

Practical Tips for Distributed Agile Teams

Distributed Agile teams are here to stay – like it or not. According to CollabNet/VersionOne’s 12th State of Agile survey, 79% of respondents had at least some distributed teams practicing Agile. I myself was taught early on that Agile teams had to be co-located and should sit in the same area in order to facilitate high-bandwidth osmotic communication. And while that is still a very effective way of working, in today’s workplace we see more and more distributed Agile teams. 

For the sake of this post, I will focus on team members distributed geographically across the country or globe, less on people in adjacent buildings or on different floors. I will cover:

  • Why distributed teams are becoming more and more popular
  • Challenges of distributed teams
  • 10 tips to make them more successful

So let’s dive in!

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Measurement and Agile – Oil and Water?

The truth is that measuring things in software development is hard. As Edwards Deming clearly stated “The most important things cannot be measured.” We’ve all seen how metrics can be gamed and abused (velocity, anyone?) and many have heard of the “Law of Unintended Consequences” and experienced in practice how measurement led to unintended and counterproductive behaviors. So a lot of folks have jumped on the #NoEstimates bandwagon and we’re all better off not measuring anything at all, right?

I’m not sure it’s that easy. The reality is that we’re all living in the business world and we’re being asked to help answer certain, very valid questions, such as:

  •            What’s our customer satisfaction? How is it trending?
  •            How are our Agile teams doing? Are we getting better?
  •            How is our Agile / digital transformation progressing?
  •            Are we getting the value we were hoping for out of our transformation efforts, coaching, etc.?
  •            What ROI are we getting from the money we invest in our transformation?
  •            For consultants and coaches: Am I moving the needle and making an impact?
  •            Are we helping the organization deliver value faster?
  •            Where do we need to deploy our limited coaching resources?
  •            What bottlenecks in our value streams do we need to address?

While measurements are hard and there are certainly landmines to avoid, … Continue reading my full post here.

(Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

Why “Yes” Doesn’t Scale

Everyone loves a “can do” attitude. “Yes, we can!” has become – even when stripped of any political connotations – the rallying call of an entire generation, empowered, driven, and enthusiastic. For a young startup, this type of optimism is a prerequisite. Pessimists would probably never embark on a dangerous journey into uncharted waters, let alone survive the trials and tribulations that are an integral part of bringing a new product to market. But as startups grow, …

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The Evolution of Product Management

Product Management is a newer “function” and many companies don’t employ it from the beginning. Instead, it tends to emerge over time as companies start focusing on making their software products better. I’d like to describe a common pattern I’ve seen that shows how organizations often introduce Product and related functions in an Agile environment. Of course, not everyone will follow this pattern: the sequence may change or some may jump straight into later stages, but the main progressions is typically similar.

The starting point often looks like this:

“IT”/Technology is developing and operating software applications. Agile Product Owners (POs) exist, but they are typically part of the technology organization and often have less of a true Product background, but tend to have job titles like Business Analyst, etc.

As the organization doubles down on making the software products actual commercial products
and is ready to start emphasizing product as an actual craft and independent function of its own right, Product Management is introduced into the organization:

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Project Runway

Planning ahead in software development – just enough

Big Design Up Front (BDUF) is dead. There may not be too much agreement about any one thing in software development, but the industry has pretty much concluded that BDUF doesn’t work. 

As Agile practices and mindset took hold, up-front architecture was essentially looked down upon. And for good reason: in many cases, a system architecture can evolve and be adjusted over time as the system matures. We call this emergent design. (On the far side of the continuum of up-front planning, opposed to BDUF, lies “Just start coding”, which is still practiced quite a bit too, with varying degrees of success as it is more the extreme case, but may be sufficient in simple cases.) 

Another mantra circulating in Agile circles is to focus on and start with the easiest thing that can possibly work. This approach allows us to focus on solving the immediate problem at hand while ensuring we are not pursuing an overly complex solution. The theory is that – with the help of emergent design – the implementation can be adjusted down the line.

However, as organizations scaled their development teams and systems grew more complex, problems started to surface. It became problematic for several teams working on the same large solution to let design simply “emerge” in real-time, at the team level. After all, an application architecture is not fully malleable and might be resistant to change. And several teams working on the same application require coordination, agreement on architectural approach and at least some level of planning. A more intentional architecture was needed, without resorting back to the BDUF days. And therein lies the key, which is more art than science: finding the sweet spot between emergent design and intentional architecture (see Agile architecture). 

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Methods of Communication – How “Slack” is Filling a New Gap

Slack, the instant messaging application, is seemingly ubiquitous among software developers and teams of various sizes and make ups nowadays. In recent years, its use has spread like wildfire and if there’s still a team that’s not using it and hanging on to things like Google Hangouts or Skype for Business, sooner or later someone on the team will suggest trying out Slack and the rest will be history. The fact that Slack is easy and free to set up makes the barrier of entry low and once a team starts, there’s usually no looking back. I’ve seen Slack take very deep roots in a corporate environment where the company tried to insist on using the “corporate standard” application, but to no avail: the developers basically ignored all such requests and insisted on using Slack.

But this post is not about how great Slack is (although it is arguably pretty cool and a great example for habit-forming application). It is about something else: After using the application for a few months with a globally distributed team, I noticed how it created a new mode of communication. Let me explain: Methods of human communication live on a scale of immediacy. On the far ends of this spectrum are the instantaneous, real-time methods such as voice and video (zero delay) and the method with the longest delay known as postal mail with days to weeks of delay (nothing is really any slower, assuming messages in bottles are out of scope).

The methods in the middle are a little more recent and interesting: There we have instant messages, SMS, and similar methods. While not exactly immediate or real-time, the expectation is usually that responses are received within minutes or maybe an hour at the longest. What about email? In my experience senders usually expect to hear back anywhere within 2 hrs to 1 business day.

So where does Slack fit in? It’s basically an instant messaging application, right? On the surface, yes. That’s where it all starts and that is certainly Slack’s core. One thing that makes Slack really sticky is the fact that you can transition to a real-time method. Involved in an intense back and forth with a colleague and the topic of conversation gets too complex or typing is getting too tedious? Well, you can now transition into Slack voice calls, video, or screen sharing (assuming you’re using the paid version).

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