Most Product Managers have, at one time or another, heard the apocyphal quote often attributed to Henry Ford, “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” And when we hear the line, we laugh because there’s no way that we would do such a thing — the “faster horse” is a fictional thing that we’d never actually spend out time and effort working on. We slap each other on the back, smile, and then go back to our office where all too often we return to working on the “faster horse” that we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking is innovative and fresh. It’s an unfortunate fact that much of what we do really is just delivering faster horses, giving our customers what they say they want (or worse, what sales tells us they say they want), and not digging deep enough to uncover the real need, problem, and desire that’s driving the request.
I’ll be attending my second formal training this year, getting my Certified Scrum Master certification to match the Certified Product Manager certification that I picked up earlier this year. After 15 years in the business, you might wonder why I’m just now getting around to being “certified”, and I hate to say it but the real reason is simple — the company I work for is paying for it. Otherwise, I’d happily chug away for another 15 years without any form of certification, because I firmly believe that the experience that I have in transforming companies into agile engines is far more valuable in the abstract than any specific certification that I might collect along the way. But, there are a few times when and where a certification might be worth pursuing…let’s talk about those today.
There’s more to being Agile than just blindly following the rules and processes of any specific methodology. One of the core components of effective Agile practice is internalizing the concept of continuous improvement. As I’ve touched on in other articles, Agile is a direct descendant of the concepts originating in the lean manufacturing movements of the late 1940s and early 1950s. And the single most important part of this ancestry is the focus on empowering and entrusting the people who do the work with setting their own destiny and with challenging each other to improve their practices on a regular basis.
One of the least glamorous parts of Agile development for most Product Managers is the process of backlog grooming. It can be a challenge to get teams to engage when they’re in the middle of a sprint, it can be difficult to convince stakeholders to refer to the backlog instead of the Product Manager for simple questions, but most of all it reminds us of the gigantic list of things that we’re not doing — which is a source of frustration for any Product Manager. However, maintaining a clean, healthy, and vibrant product backlog is essential to the success of not only an Agile product team, but to the organization as a whole. When backlogs are clear, prioritized, and public, people can freely and regularly review it, raising questions and concerns as they come up rather than waiting for a big bomb drop of feedback during some strategic planning session. If you’re a fan of my blog, you know that I strongly believe that it’s the little work in upkeep and transparency that transforms an organization from just “doing” Agile to “being” Agile — and the product backlog is the number one arrow in your quiver to make change happen.
I’m often asked what the key to being “agile” really is, and over the years I’ve managed to come up with a clear and concise answer: accepting uncertainty is the key to agility. It is perhaps the single most fundamental culture change that companies must go through when making a true transition to Agile development, and it’s often the biggest stumbling block that prevents them from fully becoming agile. You can see this in so many anti-patterns of Agile development: long-term, specific roadmaps; set dates and forced marches; iterations that are dictated, not created by and for the teams; and so many others. All of these behaviors stem from an organizational inability to accept that there are things that we don’t know about the work we’re trying to do, and that the best way to drive out that uncertainty is not by layering analysis and conjecture over it, but rather accepting it and moving forward, driving it out as we go along.
It’s become rather commonplace lately for people to dismiss “Agile” out of hand as an industry buzzword with no meaning or substance to it. And in some ways, the term has earned that reputation — mostly from people who use it regularly without really knowing what it means or how it changes an organization — or more accurately, how an organization must change to be Agile. And while there will always be those who abuse such terms, mostly out of ignorance rather than malice, it’s important to remember that “Agile” is a word with meaning, substance, and history behind it. There’s a good reason why the Agile Manifesto begins with the words, “We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.” These words ring true because they aren’t an end in and of themselves, they don’t attempt to prescribe or proscribe any specific approach, and they accept that there is fluidity in what we do and how we do it. Truly embracing “Agile” requires that we hold certain truths to be universal…
There’s a rather annoying trend that’s been showing up within both job postings and resumes that’s just crawled under my skin in a way similar to the “ninja” and “rockstar” appellations that developers have adopted. The description that I’m talking about is that of the “full stack” product manager. Now, i totally get where this comes from — in the world of development, there are clear distinctions between developers who focus on the backend systems, the middle tier of integration and business logic, and the actual customer-facing user experience. This is because the skillsets for each of these isn’t necessarily directly transferable to another area — especially with a junior developer who generally excels at one of the three areas, and isn’t quite as competent at the other two. Now, it’s entirely natural for a developer to grow in those lackluster areas over the course of their career, to the point where they might legitimately be called a “full stack” developer. But the same just isn’t true for Product Managers — primarily because we don’t really have anything close to a clearly defined “stack” that we can master. Let’s take a look at what this means for us…