Agile Product Management Examined

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Product development is much more than software alone.

Tag cloud on product managementA tag cloud on product management shows much more than the average product owner of a Scrum team may recognize. Product development is broader than just software development or executing changes to the IT infrastructure. Think of a new car, iPhone, or solar panel.

Recently I had the opportunity to present views on product management to the Capgemini Agile Community of Practice in a webinar. Why not share the ideas with you?

New product development described

According to the Wikipedia lemma:

In business and engineering, new product development covers the complete process of bringing a new product to market.
New product development is described in the literature as the transformation of a market opportunity into a product available for sale.
The product can be tangible (something physical which one can touch) or intangible (like a service, experience, or belief).
A good understanding of customer needs and wants, of the competitive environment and of the nature of the market represents the top required factor for the success of a new product. Cost, time, and quality are the main variables that drive customer needs. Aiming at these three variables, companies develop continuous practices and strategies to better satisfy customer requirements and to increase their own market share by a regular development of new products.There are many uncertainties and challenges which companies must face throughout the process. The use of best practices and the elimination of barriers to communication are the main concerns for the management of the process.

Notice the difference between product development and:

  • Deploy bug fixes
  • Steal features of another application and embed it in yours, like Facebook does with SnapChat and Instagram
  • Implement feature requests in build 1.18.346.

Six Myths of Product Development

Harvard Business Review five years ago identified six myths on product development, which are still recognizable in 2017:

  1. High utilization of resources will improve performance. Possibly fired-up is confused with burn-out. Passion, purpose fuel performance, a sense of autonomy and mastery support performance, but simply increasing the number of resources or utilization of available resources cause negative stress.
  2. Processing work in large batches improves the economics of the development process. That’s where Lean principles kick in. Limit work in progress and batch sizes.
  3. Our development plan is great; we just need to stick to it. You would think that the principle “planning is useful, plans are worthless once these hit reality” would be adhered to by more people nowadays.
  4. The sooner the project is started, the sooner it will be finished. I never was in that kind of project. Starting a project too soon may ignore risks, weaken the foundation, etc.
  5. The more features we put into a product, the more customers will like it. Which customer actually asked for iTunes becoming a media player, music library, podcast subscription machine, web shop, a lifeline to your iPhone/iPad? Who submitted the feature list for a $600 smart watch?
  6. We will be more successful if we get it right the first time. If quality expectations are made explicit, the team is mature, etc. this could be possible. In reality, failures belong to life. Thomas Edison “invented” the light bulb after thousands of failed experiments.

When speed is of essence…

The selling point of Agile methods (e.g. Jeff Sutherland’s book Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time also applies to product development in general. What five things make Zara and H&M successful?

  • Constant level of new products
  • Clear strategy on discounting
  • Focusing on core customers
  • Consistency in price architecture
  • Communicating your brand’s identity.

Other examples

  • Amazon Prime: Mastery of order fulfillment for customers. Guaranteed two-day delivery on all products that are Prime-eligible
  • Jimmy John’s: Freaky fast. The company even faced some lawsuits for being too fast in their gourmet sandwich business, including safety measures
  • General Electronics:
    • A new product announcement of GE appliances was held every 90 days
    • The GE90, the world’s most powerful commercial jet engine, was built and designed in half the normal time it takes to build a jet
    • GE team developed breakthrough ultrasound innovation in less than a year.

…is a full blown SAFe or Spotify implementation beneficial?

What’s needed:

  • Shorten the lead time to implement
  • Will multiple feature or component teams work on a single product help?
  • Is a program increment after 90 days using SAFe soon enough?
  • Continuous integration/continuous delivery
  • Collect feedback from customers ASAP
  • Practice Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup.

The intended coverage of current agile frameworks

Scrum is a framework for developing and sustaining complex products. Scrum is a process framework that has been used to manage complex product since the early 1990s. Scrum is not a process or a technique for building products; rather, it is a framework within which you can employ various processes and techniques. Scrum makes clear the relative efficacy of your product management and development practices so that you can improve.

The product owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product and the work of the development team. How this is done may vary widely across organizations, scrum teams, and individuals. The product owner is the sole person responsible for managing the product backlog. §The product owner is one person, not a committee. The product owner may represent the desires of a committee in the product backlog, but those wanting to change a product backlog item’s priority must address the product owner.

In the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) responsibilities of Product Management in an Agile Release Train are:

  • Understand customer needs and validate solutions
  • Understand and support portfolio work
  • Develop and communicate the program vision and roadmap
  • Manage and prioritize the flow of work
  • Participate in PI planning
  • Define releases and program increments
  • Work with systems architect/engineering to understand Enabler work
  • Participate in demos and Inspect and Adapt
  • Build an effective product manager/product owner team.

Five strategies to agile product development

To shorten the time to market, Insurance Innovation Reporter identified five strategies. I added examples to illustrate the importance.

Explore a greenfield strategy:

  • Moving from airbed & breakfast during a conference to earn some money to Airbnb
  • Moving from a DVD rental site to enabler of binge-watching a.k.a. Netflix.

Lead the way, be a trailblazer:

  • The alcohol-free beer Buckler was introduced in 1988 by Heineken, and quickly dethroned Clausthaler. Jokes on Buckler by the Dutch comedian Youp van ‘t Hek however in 1989 caused too much reputation damage. Buckler was withdrawn from the market. Quite surprisingly Heineken introduced an alcohol-free beer in March 2017 (!), after all large beer brands had introduced Radler sub-brands.

Never stop experimenting.

  • Think of Thomas Edison again. It doesn’t matter whether he tried over a thousand or ten thousand failed experiments (try to find the correct answer on Google), only the last one did he get right. The light bulb’s history.
  • One small team cannot run parallel experiments to solve complex problems (fast enough). The consciousness of an overarching problem, call it an (unknown) common enemy is needed. Examples are the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, and the X-15 models to test rocket boosters in the midst of President Kennedy’s assignment to bring a man to the moon and return safely.

Invest in an open distribution platform.

  • The Payment Services Directive (PSD2) led to open APIs for financial data.
  • Moving from products to platforms e.g. AliExpress, Uber, Airbnb, Salesforce,

Ensure trusted partners have agile platforms.

  • What’s your place in the value chain?
  • Supply chain logistics—economies of scale versus Lean, and experiments. Examples are Toyota Production System, Ahold Delhaize, Lidl, and Aldi.
  • Maybe closer to the home of an IT department:
    • Continuous integration, automated testing versus shippable software after a sprint
    • Agile development in a fixed time, fixed scope, fixed costs, and fixed quality contract.

Wrap up

  • Product development is much more than software alone
  • Our current agile frameworks are still focused on software instead of products
  • Strategies for Agile product development are good practices



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