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…
It’s amazing to me how often I talk with someone about a project they’re working on, and when asked “what’s your budget on this” they just look at me with a blank look. Let’s be real for a minute — everything we do in product design, development, and management has limits. We have limited resources. We have limited time. We have limited energy. But all too often we just assume that everything that we’re doing requires 100% of our effort, 100% of the time. But that’s simply not true. Some things are more important than others. Some things require more time and effort and energy than others. Some things that we do can slip through with a smaller amount of our attention than others. We instinctively do this, but we rarely actually plan it — and that’s to our detriment and to the detriment of our stakeholders. Laying out a clear understanding of the amount of effort that you’re expecting to spend on any given project or component can be an essential tool in any Product Manager’s belt.
We’ve all been there — that sudden call from one of your Sales team with a customer “on the hook” but they only need this one more thing to close the deal. Or maybe it’s an escalated issue from your biggest customer that lands in your mailbox with gigantic ALL CAPS AND EXCLAMATION MARKS!!!!!! Or worse yet, it’s your CEO who “stops by for a quick chat” about something that he overheard at an industry event last night. Regardless of where these things come from, they all have one thing in common — they’re urgent. They require your time now. They simply cannot be ignored.
Or can they? Or more accurately, should they be ignored? If you ask me, the answer is absolutely. Things that are “urgent” are thrust upon us by others with some expectation that we’ll drop everything and deal with them — not on our terms, but on the terms of someone else. Here’s why you should beware of the urgent and instead focus on what’s important…
I find it entertaining when people talk about how Agile and Lean and Kanban are all relatively new, untested, and revolutionary concepts. That’s because they’re none of those things — they’re simply descendants of ideas and concepts that have existed in manufacturing contexts for a half-century or more, just pitched in a different way, at a different time, to a different audience. What we talk about now is just an evolutionary adoption of principles of line production that were brought into being by W. E. Deming and his contemporaries at the end of World War II — the concepts of identifying and reducing waste, focusing on just-in-time stock-keeping, and narrowly focused on doing only the work needed to move a product to the next step of the line. Even the empowerment of individuals and teams owes a great bit of gratitude to the Toyota Production System and it’s focus on granting every line worker the power to stop the entire process if there was something wrong or something to improve upon. I think that it’s past time that we not only acknowledged this history but embraced it — and leveraged the long history of success in that domain over into our own work.
As Product Managers, we’re called on a lot to weigh in on questions, considerations, and issues related to our market, our customers, and our products. And we’re often pressured to provide opinions either with or without sufficient data to feel entirely comfortable about drawing conclusions that we know people will rely on and act on — regardless of how carefully we couch our words. It’s par for the course, to some extent, but the more prevalent such requests become, the more we might begin to lose sight of the hazards of engaging in such speculation, and start to leap to our own conclusions without doing our due diligence, even when we do have the time to do so. After all, if we’re truly experts on our market, customers, and products, then we have license to make such gut decisions and skimp on the data collection. WRONG. Part of our job, indeed our necessary role in the organization, is to push for truly data-guided and data-driven decisions — especially when the conclusion isn’t crystal clear (and often when it is). We need to be comfortable stopping the train, or at least slowing it a bit, to do some basic fact-checking before we make decisions that can literally affect the lives and livelihoods of our team members. We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to understand when we’re stepping out of our “known knowns” and into the territory of “known unknowns” (to blithely steal a classic from Donald Rumsfeld).