Critical Agile Product Development Practices

Gimena Aguerreberry
September 16, 2021

Agility, or the ability to respond to change in your market, is often considered one of the most significant predictors of a company’s success. In fact, Agile projects enjoy a 60% greater chance of success compared to more traditional "waterfall" type projects.

But what is Agile? The concept of an Agile approach is something that gets thrown around a lot. But there can be a lot of confusion about what it actually entails. Is it something to do with walls full of colorful sticky notes? Is it fancy project management software? Or something you can only learn from specialized consultants?

What is Agile Product Development?

Agile development allows companies to develop products in a manner that responds effectively to change, risk, and uncertainty. This involves self-organizing teams that create fast prototypes in collaboration with each other and with customers.

These prototypes are then iterated through repeated cycles where customers interact with them and provide feedback that is then incorporated into the product. Often, organizations start with Agile software development, before applying Agile to other product development activities.

Agile first came to prominence through the Agile Manifesto, a document published in 2001 and written collaboratively by seventeen software development leaders. The Agile Manifesto proposed twelve Agile principles that express the spirit of Agile development.

Benefits of agile product management

Agile redefines the way product managers think about how to plan and build products. Traditionally, new customer experiences were planned, designed, implemented, and tested in a step-by-step way. This meant that new functionality was delivered sequentially.

Once requirements were defined and handed off to the development team, it was difficult to make any changes. The failure rate of large-scale and lengthy software development projects drove the need for a more fluid approach. Teams needed a way to adapt to customer feedback and other learnings.

Agile provides a more flexible approach than traditional software planning and development. Products are built in short increments, giving product managers the opportunity to adjust the plan along the way. Here are some of the key benefits of agile product management:

  • Learn from customers throughout the product life cycle

  • Continuously adjust the near-term roadmap to meet customer needs

  • Deliver value to customers in an incremental way

  • Respond quickly to new and changing requirements

  • Collaborate with engineering to quickly deliver work

Scrum: Most Widely Used Agile Framework to Regularly Shipping Releases

Scrum is a dominant Agile methodology that dictates the process flow. It’s used exclusively by 58 percent of organizations while another 18 percent of the companies combine it with other techniques.

First described in 1986 by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka in the New Product Development Game, it was formulated almost a decade after. In 1995, Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland, the authors of The Scrum Guide, presented it at the OOPSLA conference. The presentation was based on the knowledge they acquired as they applied the method during the previous few years.

While Scrum was introduced far before the Agile Manifesto, it relies on Agile principles and is consistent with the values stated in that document.

Scrum Roles and Accountabilities

Scrum is aimed at sustaining strong collaboration between people working on complex products, and details are being changed or added. It is based upon the systematic interactions between the three major roles with defined accountabilities: Scrum Master, Product Owner, and the Team.

  • The Scrum Master is a central figure within a project. His principal responsibility is to eliminate all the obstacles that might prevent the team from working efficiently.

  • Product Owner, usually a customer or other stakeholder, is actively involved throughout the project, conveying the global vision of the product and providing timely feedback on the job done after every Sprint.

  • Scrum Team is a cross-functional and self-organizing group of people that is responsible for the product implementation. It should consist of up to 7 team members to stay flexible and productive. Recently, the focus has been shifted from a self-organizing scrum team to self-managing, meaning it is up to a team to decide who does what, when, and how internally.

Sprints and Artifacts

A basic unit of work in Scrum – Sprint – is a short development cycle that is needed to produce a shippable product increment.

A Sprint usually is between 1 and 4 weeks long: More lengthy iterations lack the predictability and flexibility that are scrum’s fundamental benefits. Having no standard duration (as long as it is less than 4 weeks), all the Sprints within a project should have a fixed length. This makes it easier to plan and track progress.

Scrum relies on three main artifacts that are used to manage the requirements and track progress – Product backlog, Sprint backlog, Sprint burndown chart.

  • The Product Backlog is an ordered list of feature items that might be needed in the project’s final product. It is a single source of requirements. The product Backlog updates as new requirements, fixes, features, and details are being changed or added.

  • The Sprint Backlog is a list of tasks the team must complete to deliver an increment of functional software at the end of each Sprint. In other words, team members agree on which product items to deliver and define a plan on how to do so.

  • The Sprint Burndown Chart is an illustration of the work remaining in a Sprint. It helps both the team and the Scrum Master as it shows progress on a day-to-day basis and can predict whether the Sprint goal will be achieved on schedule.

Scrum Meetings

The process is formalized through a number of recurring meetings or events, like the Daily Scrum (Standup), the Sprint Planning, the Review, and Retrospective meetings (the Sprint Retrospective).

The Daily Scrum is a timeboxed meeting, during which a Development Team coordinates its work and sets a plan for the next 24 hours. The event lasts 15 minutes and should be held daily at the same place and time.

The work to be completed is planned at the Sprint Planning. Everyone involved in the Sprint (a Product Owner, a Scrum Master, and a Development Team) participates in this event. They answer two key questions: which work can be done and how this work will be done. The Sprint Planning lasts no longer than eight hours for a one-month Sprint. For shorter Sprints, the meeting usually takes less time.

At the end of each sprint, the team and the product owner meet at the Sprint Review. During this informal meeting, the team shows the work completed and answers questions about the product increment. All participants collaborate on what to do next to increase the product’s value. The Sprint Review is a four-hour timeboxed meeting for one-month Sprints.

The whole team goes to Retrospective Meetings to reflect on their work during the Sprint. Participants discuss what went well or wrong, find ways to improve, and plan how to implement these positive changes. The Sprint Retrospective is held after the Review and before the next Sprint Planning. The event’s duration is three hours for one-month Sprints.

When to Use Scrum

Scrum works well for long-term, complex projects that require stakeholder feedback, which may greatly affect project requirements. So, when the exact amount of work can’t be estimated, and the release date is not fixed, Scrum may be the best choice.

By setting customer needs and on-time/on-budget delivery as the highest priority, Scrum has gained the trust of 89 percent of Agile users. Thus, the list of companies using this approach is impressive. In fact, there is a public spreadsheet with such organizations, including Microsoft, IBM, Yahoo, and Google.

The latest research by the Scrum Alliance suggests that Scrum goes beyond IT. Companies working in the fields of finance, consulting, education, retail, media, and entertainment choose this approach to organize their work processes and enhance cooperation with customers. In 2016, the majority of State of Scrum Report respondents (98 percent) said they were going to use this framework to move forward.

Agile product management practices

Being a product manager in an agile environment requires flexibility. This is because less time is spent defining the product upfront, so product managers must continuously adapt the product roadmap and reprioritize what to build based on customer feedback.

Here is an overview of how the core product management responsibilities are carried out in an agile environment:

Set product strategy

Setting a clear strategy is crucial in an agile environment. Product managers are responsible for defining the product vision and long-term direction. This requires working closely with customers to understand their pain points, researching the market, and setting strategic product goals and initiatives that align with overall business objectives.

Understand customer needs

Agile methodologies focus on delivering value to customers quickly. This means product managers must stay close to customers to understand exactly what they want. One tenet of agile is gathering feedback early and often to ensure the product delivers the expected benefits to users.

Create the product roadmap

An agile roadmap sets a near-term plan for achieving the product strategy. It typically represents monthly or quarterly commitments and is adjusted regularly to accommodate change. Product managers build the roadmap around strategic themes of work that maintain the overall vision and deliver meaningful value to customers.

Prioritize features

Agile product management involves continuously prioritizing features for implementation — maintaining the product backlog, defining user stories, and deciding what to build and when. Product managers work closely with engineers to estimate features, define requirements, and collaborate on a release plan based on the team’s capacity.

Release customer experiences

Agile teams strive to frequently deliver new customer experiences. The cadence can vary from quarterly to monthly, weekly, or even daily. Regardless of the frequency, product managers are responsible for delivering a Complete Product Experience to customers. This involves working closely with engineering, IT, marketing, sales, and support to ensure organizational readiness.

Measure product success

Product success in an agile environment is measured by how customers interact with products and services and the impact on customer acquisition, growth, and retention. Measures of success include customer engagement (such as time in product and returning users), conversion rates, customer churn, and the frequency of feature updates.

It is important to understand that these are roles rather than job titles. This can create confusion about the differences between a product manager and a product owner. In reality, the product manager is the product owner. This is because the responsibilities of a product owner fundamentally cover the internal-facing work a product manager does — working closely with engineering to build new customer experiences.

Some organizations choose to break out product management work into two roles. In this situation, the product manager assumes an external focus, while the product owner details users' stories and participates in scrum rituals. Both roles are important to the overall success of a product and must work closely together to build products that customers love.

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"Critical Agile Product Development Practices" by Gimena Aguerreberry is licensed under CC BY SA. Source code examples are licensed under MIT.

Photo by Gilles Lambert.

Categorized under agile.