Scott Sehlhorst on Agile and ProdBOK
Scott, thanks for joining me today.
Let’s begin by talking about the growth of Agile and its impact on product managers. A recent study showed that the majority of organizations are implementing “blended” methodologies (e.g. blending Waterfall and Agile together). What has the impact of this trend been on product managers?
(Scott Sehlhorst) I’ve found there are really two main aspects of the impact.
The first is a “circle the wagons” moment. A blended organization is in the middle of transition – having some teams operating with Waterfall processes while others are trying to move or have completely moved to an Agile cadence of delivery. For teams that operate independently, this is largely a non-event. Each team uses their own process. But in large companies, teams don’t operate independently. Companies are looking for opportunities to solve problems for their customers that span product silos. Teams want opportunities to leverage and coordinate the work that other teams are doing. Product managers in these blended environments need to understand how they can – and can’t – rely on other teams, by understanding the different mechanics of delivery that come with different processes. The mindset that comes to mind first is “how do I protect my team from the weaknesses of that other team’s approach.”
The second aspect is one of figuring out how to contribute strategically to the improvement of the company, by leveraging the work being done by teams using the different processes. A product manager on an Agile team will try and figure out how to inform Waterfall teams and contribute to their development, based on the changes to which the Agile team is adapting. A waterfall team’s product manager will try and find ways to realize the benefits of executing against an established plan, while leveraging the contributions from the Agile teams.
For an individual product manager, this means understanding the nuances of both development processes, their strengths and their weaknesses. The best product managers will be able to contribute to the evolution of the organization – gaining both the benefits of Agile adaptation to changing requirements, and the leverage of contributions from multiple teams solving related problems and developing products in a coordinated fashion.
Is there a particular Agile method that you think has generated the most traction?
(Scott Sehlhorst) My experiences, confirmed by the research I’ve seen, indicate that Scrum has been the market leader in the last couple of years. In early 2013, I’m seeing signs of teams taking the “next” step and exploring Scrumban (a Kanban-infused approach to Scrum), and also some signs of flow – continuous development. Conceptually, as Scrum moved from large releases to smaller iterations as the units of delivery, flow is moving to discrete deliverables as the units of delivery. Development of individual capabilities or features is easier this way, while coordination of development is more difficult.
Flow provides the most benefit, but requires the most discipline from a software engineering point of view. It also has the greatest organizational complications, particularly around coordination and communication. We’ll see how it shakes out in the industry – some big thinkers are pushing on it, and at the end of the day, I expect to see teams that succeed wildly, and some that crash and burn trying to make it work.
What types of challenges do you think the growth of Agile and blended approaches has presented to product managers/owners?
(Scott Sehlhorst) In addition to the organizational complexities I mentioned above, working in an Agile way presents a change in how product managers manage their work. Instead of being primarily in a sequenced do this, then that mindset, product managers need to manage their activities with more parallelism; making incremental improvements across all aspects of their work. This provides the benefit of historically-sequential activities informing the historically-prior activities, making the overall work product better.
A product manager needs to be more cognizant of the interdependencies of their work products for this to gel. For example, getting insights into the feasibility and cost of delivering a capability will better inform the prioritization of that work; as will getting feedback from customers about the value they place on having that capability. It almost seems backwards – finding out how well received, and how difficult to build something is, before deciding when to build it. All product managers do this to some extent, by forming hypotheses in advance, and validating them later. An Agile product manager will be refining those hypotheses with data along the way.
Scott, why did you choose to contribute to the ProdBOK effort?
(Scott Sehlhorst) As a consumer, I want better products and services. Better product managers create products and services that serve the needs of their customers. I believe it’s a critically important role. One of the challenges we face is that product management is not well understood by companies. If we’re able to develop a body of knowledge that helps bring some standardization to the field, I expect that it’ll both help individuals get better at product management, and help companies better apply the practice of product management – thus improving their products and services, and ultimately, my experiences as a customer.
Any final thoughts?
(Scott Sehlhorst) There are several trends that are driving opportunity for products to differentiate and succeed in the market.
Companies are finally starting to get traction with developing insights through statistical analysis of the reams of data that are becoming available, and that trend is showing no end in sight with Moore’s law firmly exhibiting itself in the costs of computation, storage, and transmission of information. The challenge is in understanding how insights gained in one domain or problem space can be applied to others.
As we move from an economy of scarcity to one of surplus, the user’s experience becomes a more relevant factor in selecting products. It’s no longer enough to just solve “the” problem – you have to have a product that solves the problems well, and takes into account the emotional impact for the users. While this may sound fluffy, there are countless examples of products which appear identical on a checklist or a Harvey Ball chart but perform very differently in the market. This overlap of the worlds of user experience and product management will be particularly interesting.
Another big trend, although it may only be particularly relevant in the technology space, is the changes in where and when people do computing – and the resultant changes in the definition of what “computing” is. Mobile devices, form factors, operating systems, and contexts of use are overtaking the (recently) traditional desktop computing paradigm.
People no longer want applications that run on a computer, they want solutions that apply wherever it makes sense. In a way, this is an area where the intersection of Moore’s law impacting what’s possible with the increasing importance of differentiating through providing a better experience, is perhaps the most visceral. What appears to be fickle consumer behavior may just be rapidly evolving market needs intersecting slowly evolving product offerings.
We do live in interesting times!
Greg Geracie is a recognized thought leader in the field of product management and the President of Actuation Consulting, a global provider of product management consulting, training, and advisory services to some of the world’s most well-known organizations. Greg is also the author of the global best seller Take Charge Product Management. He is also an adjunct professor at DePaul University’s College of Computing and Digital Media where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on high-tech and digital product management.