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.
A very common challenge faced by Product Managers of all experience levels is understanding and implementing some form of repeatable process around prioritization. Some people take a very light approach, making decisions based on their own experience, data, and beliefs about the direction of the product. Others take a much more rigorous approach, applying scorecards and “objective” measures across a plethora of different possible metrics. I’m here to tell you, there’s nothing wrong with either of those approaches, but it’s also become clear to me in my years as a Product Manager that there’s no “silver bullet” to ensure that your prioritization decisions will be right more often than they’re wrong, and placing too much value in systems and scores often just results in a false sense of security that the “process” was right, when digging in you’ll find that those “objective scores” are nothing more than a system to be gamed. There are, however, three things that I think every prioritization system needs to take into account. So, without further ado, let’s discuss value, difficulty, and instinct…
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 best things about my blog and other activities is to meet new and interesting people in the Product Management community. Today I’m happy to present the latest in my 10 Questions series, featuring none other than Stephen Cognetta. His latest project is an ambitious online Product Management interview course that was launched just last month. Stephen’s a really great guy, and a strong voice in Product Management; in his own words…
Stephen Cognetta is the founder and CEO of PMLesson, the best online PM course focused on practice-based learning. Stephen is passionate about mental health and has also founded HackMentalHealth, the world’s largest community of mental health + technology advocates. Stephen is a minimalist and owns under 115 items.
Without further ado, here’s his installment of 10 Questions with the Clever PM!
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.