When it comes to building a new product or enhancing an existing one, it’s all too common for organizations to leap before they look. Ever in the interest of making forward progress and always anxious to get the ball rolling, businesses rush to assemble project teams and secure resources as quickly as possible.
Though a sense of urgency is empowering when fulfilling deliverables, significant problems can result from not conducting the critical pre-planning stage where questions like “what is this for?” are answered. One of the most typical (and most detrimental) of these problems is a misalignment of the product development methods utilized by the business and the software development frameworks utilized by IT project teams. Linking agile product development practices with agile software development practices eliminates this issue and enhances the business’s product ideation, strategy, and delivery capabilities.
Here’s how to get off on the right foot for project success:
Apply an Agile Framework for Product Delivery to Mitigate Risk
Collaboration with stakeholders is inherent to the agile process and is a key factor in mitigating the risk of failure for product development projects.
A product management organization with an agile framework tends to integrate effectively with IT because the groups align their focus to agile principles of collaboration throughout the vision, ideation, development, and launch phases of a project. Additionally, the use of agile methods allows product management teams to connect quickly with customers, stakeholders, and working groups, enabling them to provide IT delivery teams with a consistent pipeline of business requirements through a Product Evaluation cycle. Live updates to these requirements and analysis of user feedback empower product and IT delivery teams to jointly optimize products in a more efficient manner.
Align the Business and the Technology Team in the Pre-Planning Phase
Collaboration isn’t enough. Good product delivery is a function of how well the business and IT understand the vision behind the product and execute on that vision. This vision should be jointly created by product and delivery teams, and it should include the ideation, definition, and plan for delivery of the product. Good execution will vary in process and scope from organization to organization, but it is dependent upon the creation of a comprehensive vision. The absence of this pre-planning phase in favor of immediate action can be risky and costly for the following reasons:
- The organization might discover that the initiative is not viable as envisioned;
- The organization might discover that it has to make a more significant investment to achieve desired results than it assumed
- The organization might discover it does not have the required resources to complete the tasks.
Find the Right Partners to Assist in the Pre-Planning Stage
Partnering with a technology consulting company experienced with fostering and maintaining the pre-planning process can be highly useful in addressing the potential issues posed above. External consultants are able to provide an objective, third-party perspective and are effective at engaging cross-functional teams including product development, IT, marketing, and executive stakeholders. The right consulting partners can aid in extending knowledge of agile product and software development principles throughout the organization, while ensuring that the development cycle matches the business’s goals. This helps outline a clear plan of action and keep teams on track once the project is underway.
The pre-planning/envisioning process we at Strive Consulting typically recommend for product development organizations is distilled into the following steps:
1. Look at the Big Picture and Establish Goals
Although an agile approach to product development places more emphasis on responding to change rather than following a plan, a series of well-defined long-term goals are essential to direct the project and inspire the team.
The first order of business then is to consider the big picture and establish the goal of the new product or process. Will it increase productivity or profitability? Will it solidify or improve market share? Is the purpose to deliver more value to a customer base? These questions and others should be addressed in a series of business prioritization activities that help source new ideas.
The established goals that result from this big picture analysis should be clear enough to guide short-term decision-making and should be re-evaluated on a regular basis. The purpose of this step is to develop the Project Portfolio–a list of initiatives that the organization should expect to complete in order to meet the goals.
2. Examine the Variables and Prioritize for Execution
Depending on the organization and/or the projects in question, there can be many variables that require consideration before the work can begin.
- Does the new newly proposed product require an original design or will it be similar to existing products?
- Can the organization effectively scope the estimated effort for the initiatives required and does it match the greater product roadmap (assuming a roadmap exists)?
- Does each initiative still bring value to the organization after more granular estimates come in from IT and User Experience (UX) groups?
- Does the organization have the resources available to complete the initiative?
- Are those resources dedicated to the effort and do they have the right skills to drive project success?
Answers to these questions can drive a stakeholder team to determine, based on value, when each project should start so that the most imperative needs of the business are supported. By answering these questions, the organization can create a list of prioritized, key requirements that the business will use to direct its IT partners. This prioritized list is referred to as the Product Backlog and is the most important output from this step in planning.
Developing a Product Backlog is an art unto itself. It can be the difference between a project with real momentum and drive and one that feels like a constant struggle for shared understanding.
The Product Backlog drives the efforts of team members by defining what needs to be accomplished and in what order. As a living document, it is able to shift as often and as radically as necessary, giving the organization the flexibility to meet changing requirements and deliver exactly what the business needs. This flexibility is a key to ensuring an effective solution, since the first draft of requirements are defined when the business knows the least about the actual end product. Above all, the Product Backlog must remain the single key document that clearly communicates between the business stakeholders and the IT project team as to what is desired and with what relative priority. The goal should always be for this document to contain all the information necessary to build the product.
3. Execute and Learn from Your Customers
Once the project team has a completely groomed Product Backlog, it can effectively begin its agile delivery cycles and produce value. Engaging all agile team members to refine the product design and deliver on that design allows for a more efficient path to delivering a mature product.
One key, though often-overlooked, stakeholder in this process is the customer or end user. User stories (the agile version of system or user requirements) are meant to help enable teams to define products that are valuable to the users. Successful agile teams should utilize their user stories to create good code, then solicit feedback from the user community and transform that feedback into new stories within the product backlog.
Try to create this closed loop if at all possible. Every agile team should try its level best to conduct market studies or beta testing of their application to determine how trends or customer sentiment may affect the new initiative, as well as explore how 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 are often surprisingly insightful when it comes to figuring out where to go next.
Regardless of what framework an organization chooses to use, taking the time to align the business team with the technology team in the pre-planning stage is imperative to success. Adopting the key agile principles of communication and collaboration during this pre-planning phase creates a more unified understanding between the business and IT project teams.
A more complete and accurate understanding of user needs will evolve throughout the course of the project, and agile’s emphasis on dynamic user feedback allows teams to capture and execute against those evolving needs. By applying agile processes and breaking down the project into small, manageable pre-planning steps, the organization has a better chance of translating its vision into an effective end product.
Jack Walser is the Director of Delivery Leadership here at Strive and he brings 20 years of experience in consulting, engineering and management. Jack holds a BA in Government from Notre Dame, as well as an MS in Systems Engineering and Technology Management from George Washington University. In addition to this, he is also earned his certification in being a Scrum Master, SAFe Agilist and Six Sigma Black Belt. Lastly, he has certifications in DevOps Essentials and Agile Estimating and Planning. To learn more about Jack and his expertise, view his LinkedIn Profile here.