• The premise of agile is to integrate continuous improvement of usable chunks of a project through an iterative approach
  • Opportunities to apply agile practices exist in product management even when product development operates within waterfall methodologies
  • Operationalizing agile practices will turn product management leaders into agile change agents and promote further adoption within product development

As a product manager, do you ever feel like you’re a sprinter in a 4 × 100 relay who’s about to complete your leg, but the next athlete isn’t there to take the baton from you? While you’re putting in the effort to gather customer and market feedback, prepare business cases, prioritize requirements and update roadmaps at a feverish pace, you may be working with a product development team that’s not ready to work at that speed. For example, your product development team may be in the middle of an active development cycle and not have the time to focus on future development.

people in office innovating

SiriusDecisions research shows that almost 60% of companies are using waterfall product development practices only or a blend of waterfall and agile practices. One of the biggest challenges for product managers using agile is how to coordinate effectively with non-agile or blended agile/waterfall product development teams. Many product managers are frustrated — they want to deliver relevant offerings to their customers quickly, but they regularly hit a wall with the serial workings of product development. And although you strongly believe in agile’s ability to dynamically adapt your product to customers’ wants and needs, your product development team may still have doubts or may fear the transition.

Remember that the premise behind agile is to avoid boiling the ocean by integrating continuous improvement of usable chunks of a project through an iterative approach. Getting product development to fully adopt agile is a reasonable long-term goal. However, product managers can use agile practices in other ways and gain their benefits while collaborating with their non-agile/blended product development team — and allow the team to start seeing the positive impact of agile. Here are three product management activities through which you can leverage the benefits of agile practices:

  • Concept testing. Create an agile project for your mockup and prototype development, with a goal of having a validated concept that can be used to communicate a final set of requirements to product development. Define some key user stories spread across two or three sprints for which you, your user experience designers and even technical product managers make up the sprint team. During each sprint execution, your team will implement the assigned user stories, identify a few customers that can participate in the end-of-sprint demo (ideally the same customers for each demo), and prepare the demo script. The end of each demo is a milestone; you’ll collect feedback and adjust your remaining user stories or add new ones as needed for the rest of your sprints. When your agile project is complete, you’ll have iteratively homed in on the right product ideas and requirements. During your presentation to product development, you’ll be able to show how quickly your product ideas evolved into final requirements through real customer validation.
  • Business case development. Use agile practices to transform business cases into living documents that can be approved in phases, with each phase representing a core set of features. Start with the information required to gain approval to move forward with concept development and testing. Set up and manage discovery sessions to identify and review requirements along with their development costs for each phase. Sections of the business case can become user stories to be assigned to different groups, and you can set up reviews of the business case with sales, marketing, finance and product development once the stories assigned to your sprint have been completed. The evolution will lead to a higher-quality, complete formal business case that was generated collaboratively across your organization, and ultimately result in a higher probability of approval.
  • Beta testing. Similar to concept testing, the process behind beta testing can be treated as an agile project. Catalog issues identified by your target customers and prioritize them in a “fix list” to drive product development updates. These fixes can be rolled out to the beta testing team, shown as an end-of-sprint demo and evaluated by the testing team. Ensure the issues scheduled with product development fall within the boundaries of your requirements, and limit the number of sprints to two or three. Place minor issues identified in the backlog while you proceed to release readiness and launch activities.

Organizations looking to implement agile more broadly should use product managers with agile experience that can act as advocates and change agents. Product managers can apply the three strategies above to gain more agile experience and start discussions with their product development team on the advantages of agile and ways of introducing agile that make sense. This can help organizations operationalize agile practices more quickly and improve product management’s effectiveness in collaborating with product development.

Happy sprinting!