The digital age has set a rapid pace that’s forced businesses to evolve and go in search of new solutions to thrive.
In the face of more volatility, more complexity and a profound power shift from the producer to the consumer, organisations have struck upon the idea of the agile methodology as an antidote of the times.
To get a deeper understanding of agile and how it’s been used in product management, we sat down with four prominent tech industry leaders: Charles Weiser, Head of Customer Experience at Optus, Prabhath Perera, Software Engineer at ELMO, John McKim, VP of Product and Technology at A Cloud Guru, and Matt Neville, Software Engineer at Objective.
So, what is agile?
Agile is an approach to product development and management that delivers incremental upgrades. By doing this, the customer receives value from each release rather than waiting for a long delivery lead time as is standard under the traditionally linear methodology known as waterfall.
It’s easy to see why agile has taken the business world by storm in recent times. The world according to Weiser is relentless and there’s no slowing down: “It’s a nano-second world — and one that is changing at a pace never before seen. Here’s an example: customers will leave a website or mobile app if it takes three seconds or more to load. Seconds matter. Literally”.
Agile allows teams to adapt almost instantaneously to market or customer circumstances by testing, gathering feedback and learning at every step. It’s about working smarter rather than harder and delivering on things that are actually meaningful to end-users.
For Weiser, the days of betting everything on ‘big bang’ developments and releases are over.
Where does agile fit in product management?
The ability to deliver what customers want precisely and quickly has long eluded product management teams. For Perera, agile has enabled his team at ELMO to deliver the right features faster and continuously learn from valuable customer feedback by running 2-week sprints and “focusing on Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and/or the Minimal Marketable Product (MMP)”.
At A Cloud Guru, McKim believes agile is vital not only to allow for changes throughout the delivery of a project but to maintain a high level of transparency as it “helps build trust with stakeholders”.
Advantages of the agile methodology
What we’ve discovered from our conversations with our tech industry experts is that there’s a lot of compelling reasons to adopt the agile methodology.
McKim has shared several reasons why A Cloud Guru has embraced agile:
- Agile practices are created with the expectation that requirements and the environment will change.
- Agile encourages teams to be flexible enough to adapt to changes quickly.
- Agile helps the organisation maintain a high level of transparency with stakeholders.
Perera adds to this with three major advantages of using agile at ELMO:
- Speed of go-to-market time – Working on smaller iterations allows the team to deliver features much quicker.
- Reduced risk – Since projects are delivered in stages over sprints, customer feedback and reviews are undertaken from the very beginning of the project. As a result, failures happen sooner which allows the team to learn sooner.
- Stakeholder satisfaction – Stakeholders are also able to constantly review the progress of each project and provide feedback rather than waiting for the entire project to finish.
While it’s easy to believe in agile, Perera is quick to point out that agile isn’t a silver bullet for every project. Although the waterfall methodology appears outdated, it may still be worth considering for “projects with inter-dependencies and limited flexibility”.
Neville from Objective echoes this caveat. He says, “There are some cases where agile isn’t a good fit. For example, projects where the deliverable includes detailed design documentation, use-cases or functional specifications. Agile assumes these documents will change during deliveries and hence is less effective”.
Transitioning to an agile methodology
An agile approach requires the entire organisation to get on board, not just a particular division or team.
Neville from Objective sees agile working at its best from a ‘top-down’ approach. “If the development team works in an agile way but the executive team doesn’t, then delivering frequent incremental changes may be blocked”.
Choosing to go the agile route requires sweeping changes. In many cases, this includes transforming the team culture. Weiser has three tips for creating just the right team culture:
- Anchor to the voice of the customer – Bring customers in and have the organisation listen to their expectations clearly and openly. They will set the bar for you to meet.
- Start as a test and learn – Don’t rush into wholesale changes. Start small with a group of 20-30 people in 2-3 teams. Create an autonomous environment and set them tasks to solve for the customer where they have creative freedom. Success is in problem-solving but more importantly, empowering each team and forming a group of advocates to lead the expansion over time.
- Be open and transparent – The success of agile depends on open and transparent communication. Squad members lead this by sharing successes and failures with the entire company through showcases, so that everyone in the business can learn.
Best practices for an agile product team
What we’ve come to learn from our conversations about agile is that there are many ways to approach this methodology. Here are four best practices that are being used by our experts.
- Understand that agile is an approach, not a set of rules
Perera reminds us that agile is not a framework or process but “a set of values that empower the team to make agile decisions on how to do the work of software development”.
It is therefore important that a team is guided by the values of the agile mindset as outlined in the agile manifesto:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
- Put the customer first
For Neville, the customer plays the biggest role throughout the product development journey. By delivering iterations, “each release provides an opportunity to gather feedback which can alter the direction or requirements of further releases. This allows the Agile team to focus on the most important features to satisfy the customer”.
- Remain flexible
Another key ingredient of agile is flexibility. Neville emphasises that “agile shouldn’t be restrictive or prescriptive. It can allow the team to self-manage, working in a way that best helps them deliver business value to the customer”.
This is reinforced by McKim from A Cloud Guru. He says, “It’s easy for organisations to fall into the trap of implementing ‘agile’ rituals in a dogmatic way with no room for flexibility within teams. The problem with this is that each team is likely to have a different operating environment.
His advice: “Treat agile practices as guidelines rather than rules and allow teams to adapt them for their unique requirements.
- Test and learn
Everyone we spoke to emphasised the importance of testing and learning and gave us an inside look at their processes.
At A Cloud Guru, healthy and curious debates are encouraged to focus on solving problems together. Right from the outset, the team sits down to determine what results will be meaningful and what they’re looking to learn.
“We like to think big,” says McKim.
“Sometimes even the most ridiculous-sounding thought can spark an idea, so we don’t like to be too restrictive from the start. We encourage experiments and exploring new ideas without the fear of failure”. If things go wrong, the team doesn’t blame but embraces it as an opportunity to learn.
Neville believes Objective is a great home for agile specialists because there’s a strong support system in place for his team to “deliver change without worrying when things don’t go as we had planned”.
They are allowed time to focus on creating good quality products that are well thought out and well tested. This includes initiatives like “Innov8 Fridays during which I have the freedom to work on something of my choice that I think can help improve the way we work”.
At Optus, there is a priority for all squad members to learn and share developments from their respective crafts. This includes sharing new tech, new ways of working and insights from the global customer experience, tech and agile communities.
Weiser believes it’s important to be “relentless on sharing information and requiring learning goals for all agile team members”. Key learnings and knowledge are shared weekly or bi-weekly across stand up showcases by all product owners and squad members.
Agile has firmly cemented its place as the cornerstone of product development and management. But jumping on this trend without carefully considering best practices can do more harm than good. As our experts remind us, agile is a mindset, not a framework. And we all know that cultivating a new mindset takes time.
Are you ready to thrive in the world of agile? Explore job opportunities at tech companies that have successfully created an agile team culture.