Product Talks #3 – Product Management in an Agile World

Product Talk #3 – “Product Management in an Agile World” – was a fascinating and lively session with two guest speakers who work in Agile product development environments, Erik Dą¶rnenburg from ThoughtWorks Inc & Jane Cockburn from the Audiological Products and Services team at Cochlear.

After an experience with Agile product development on a client project recently, the discussion confirmed my view that Agile can make life much easier for a Product Manager on a day-to-day basis and can produce a more customer-focused final product than the Waterfall method.

Erik & Jane shared how their “scrums“, informal yet disciplined, short but extremely frequent, project meetings allow the project team to:

  • understand what each team member has been working on
  • identify any barriers or ‘blockers’ that hinders their activity
  • describe what each team member will focus on

They explained that the direct communication amongst the project team members freed the Product Manager from being the main go-between person within the project team and reduced the need to document as many detailed meeting minutes and requirements, which can be very time-consuming for the Product Manager in the Waterfall method.

Jane described her role as Product Manager at Cochlear as very much focused on managing the relationships with her key stakeholders. I probably speak for many other Product Managers who work with the Waterfall method, but I would love to have the luxury of having more time to evangelise the products I work on with internal and external stakeholders in the lead-up to a product launch, like Jane appears to have. Broader support for the product can be nurtured in the necessary places for post-launch, whilst the project team focuses on the actual deliverables for launch.

Jane revealed that the due to the medical and regulated nature of the Cochlear products their development timeline can be up to 2 years. During this period user testing may be carried out in parallel with the insights from the test results applied to improve the product features before the product launches. She described how the Agile process enables greater customer collaboration with the product team in a few different ways, ensuring a more customer-centric development process.

Erik explained how the clients on his B2B software development projects may be invited to attend the “scrums” occasionally to give them the opportunity to be kept abreast of the more granular levels of detail of development, as well as providing contributions to how product design and technical problems may be resolved at this level.

Erik went on to describe that one of the key benefits of Agile is the tangible short term results achieved by being focused on getting through specific tasks and the sense of achievement that the project team experiences as they check off each deliverable.

For Product Managers, it appears to be a more effective way to keep the project team focused on the original intent of the product and the value that it delivers to the customer. Compare this to the Waterfall method where the duration of each stage can distance the development from the customer objectives. The short, regular development sprints give more flexibility to respond to changing the requirements and deal with any unforeseen technical bugs, resource changes during the course of a project e.g. a project team member is sick or goes on holidays.

One of the Product Talk attendees Toby Tester raised the question of the importantance of executive support when it comes to development teams in an organisation using the Agile approach. There was a general consensus amongst the group that although executive management may not have much to do with the day-to-day operations of the project, the organizations that have successfully employed the Agile method in their Product Management projects have full support from the top down.

With the powerful combination of the project team’s Agile behaviour and stakeholder support at all levels, the Product Manager is in a great position to launch customer-centric products with the resource available, in a much more efficient manner than the traditional approach.

Thanks to Erik and Jane for their sharing their time and experiences and to all who attended for the interesting conversations that followed.

Feel free to continue the conversation in the comments below…

We have a winner!

Congratulations to our lucky door prize winner, Fiona Lovell who picked up a copy of “The PDMA Handbook of New Product Development” worth AUD$160. This is a great practical reference book for Product Development with some excellent tools for planning, developing, launching a new product.

Next Product Talk

Join us for Product Talk #4 – “Balancing Commercial Initiatives with User Experience Concerns” – at 5.30pm on the 5th November, 2009. Our guest speaker will be Product Management guru and blogger from the USA, Roger Cauvin.
If you would like to attend our next free Product Talk or have any suggestions for other topics you’d like to discuss in this forum, please drop us an email at info@brainmates.com.au.