Agile · Change Management · Communication · Development velocity · Innovation · Product management

How new ideas impact the sprint team

Over my last few posts (back in the fall) I talked about understanding and improving the velocity or productivity of a project team.  The idea of achieving a sustainable and rapid development pace can be complicated by many factors but hopefully the ideas I wrote about in the past few entries have been useful in elaborating my own perspective on the Agile principle of sustainable development.  With these posts on sustainable development velocity I am wrapping up my set of blog entries on what I called the topic of Agility and shifting my focus – for a little while anyway – to talking about Agile planning.  As something like a bridge between these two arcs, I wanted to write about a topic that comes up frequently for the teams I work with.  It is an issue that impacts both velocity and planning, and it concerns how a team responds to new ideas for features and enhancements.  In my experience the product owner plays a key role in helping the team handle these new ideas.

Ideas for what a development team might focus on for a given sprint can come from all kinds of places.  Some come from exploring and implementing new technologies that can improve performance and enhance user experience.  Some come from the sales and marketing team reflecting on what might make the product ‘easier to sell’ in the marketplace.  Some come from interactions with current clients and prospects, observing the problems they encounter in their daily work and dreaming up solutions to address pervasive and painful issues in the target market.  And some come from observing competitors and conducting win/loss analyses.  Any one of these can be a source for good ideas, and the Agile process is designed to be flexible and responsive when good ideas emerge.  But the fact is often the ideas that come to the development team – and especially those ideas that come from folks with limited connection to the whole development process – are not particularly good.  The ideas might be unformed, shaped by anecdotal evidence or opinion rather than true market insight.  If the team needs to respond to these ideas mid-sprint this can adversely impact their development velocity and impede their ability to plan effectively.

How should the product owner respond when folks want to offer new ideas for the team to work on?  Way back in March when I was writing about the top ten responsibilities of a strong product owner, I posted a piece on how the product owner must protect the team from ‘seagull’ managers who swoop in, dump stuff of questionable value on the team, and fly off again (see this link to read the original post: http://bit.ly/166n18u).  Here I want to share a similar metaphor that I first heard from Marty Cagan (who in turn attributes the image to Todd Jackson of Facebook) who contrasts ‘funnels’ with ‘umbrellas’ in an article he wrote: http://bit.ly/114KXlJ.

Some people view the role of the product owner as that of a funnel, collecting diverse ideas from multiple sources and funneling them to the development team to implement.  In this approach, all ideas are given equal weight and are slotted for development as soon as they fit – with little or no attempt to evaluate the merit or priority of each idea that flows to the team.  By contrast, in the umbrella model the product owner views her role as shielding the team from these kinds of disruptions.  Rather than allowing outside ideas to derail the team’s velocity mid-sprint and distract from the team’s planned and prioritized user stories, the effective product owner serves as an umbrella protecting the team.  That way the team can focus on getting its work done and the product owner can determine which if any ideas ought to be honed enough to bring to the team in future sprints.

For this model to work effectively, two important things must be kept in mind:

  1. Strong product management is crucial.  Unless the product manager (and the wider product development organization) shares the view that the product owner should function as an umbrella, the product owner will soon be regarded as an annoyance or even a hindrance to getting development work done.  If people across the company believe that every idea ought to be worked on as soon as possible then the product owner will be resented or marginalized as the development team gets pulled in different directions every time a new idea emerges.  For the product owner to shield the team from these disruptions, she needs the support and even the organizational cover provided by a strong product manager affirming the importance of vetting all ideas for true market impact before they get prioritized.
  2. A good Agile process promotes pivoting while avoiding the problem of churning. Serving as a protective umbrella for the team does not at all mean that the product owner blocks out all new ideas.  Part of the differentiating strength of Agile is the value it places on iterative planning and intelligent pivoting – when market research and sprint-by-sprint planning reveal that the product direction needs to shift then the team can adjust on the fly to pursue the best opportunities.  Protecting the team from churning through every new idea that someone mentions actually promotes the overall ability of the development team to pivot in the right ways.
    1. As sort of a sub-point here, one thing we find in my current company is that our quarterly ‘hack weeks’ (in which the ‘umbrella’ comes down a bit and the business and technology teams collaborate to explore new potential ideas) provide a great outlet for initial investigation of ideas and approaches that might be further developed later on.  I’ve written about the value of these innovation exercises before (check out the post here: http://wp.me/p2BePD-2q) and we regularly learn valuable things from spending time playing with new technologies and tools.

As with so many things about Agile development, serving as an effective umbrella for the sprint team requires balance, forcing the product owner to block out distractions without shutting out good – and even disruptive – ideas.  Steady development velocity is difficult to achieve and impossible to sustain if the team is continually interrupted by fresh distractions that keep folks churning through one disconnected idea after another.  Good planning fueled by market intelligence and open to new insights allows the team to find a rapid and sustainable rhythm protected from unhelpful interferences.  A strong product owner can play a helpful role as an umbrella supporting the teams’ efforts at both planning and responsiveness.  That’s a challenging balance to strike because, in truth, it’s not that simple.

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