Agile · Planning · Product management

Listening to the market – outside in

So a couple of weeks ago I started a ten-post blog series on Agile planning with the following rough outline:

  1. What’s so hard about Agile planning?
  2. The planning onion (or is it a flame?)
  3. Listening to the market – outside in
  4. Product roadmaps
  5. When worlds collide: functionality that impacts across products
  6. Sprint planning: how much is too much (or too little)?
  7. Incorporating new feedback between and within sprints
  8. Planning for today – would Kanban help?
  9. Context is crucial but planned work should be in small chunks
  10. Use the retrospective to improve future planning

So far I have written about the challenges of Agile planning (thanks to those of you who favorited my tweets about this topic or who commented on the blog itself) and about the planning onion that describes a model for planning within Agile.  Now I want to talk more about the outer layers of Agile planning.

The outer layers of the planning onion – corporate strategy and product portfolio planning – focus on the big picture of where a company wants to go and what vision it has for the way its products and services will be deployed.  In thinking about these planning layers from an Agile perspective, one of the most crucial areas of focus is on gathering solid market intelligence.  The folks at Pragmatic Marketing tout the vital importance of identifying and solving market problems that are pervasive, painful, and which clients will pay for someone to solve as central to successful corporate strategy.  This is why they call their framework for product development a “market-driven model for managing and marketing technology products” (check out their framework here:

Pragmatic Marketing is of course not the only firm championing the importance of listening to the market when creating strategy and defining a portfolio of product and service offerings.  I came across a blog post by Hutch Carpenter that stressed the need to listen to clients and prospects when developing products rather than simply building something that the company thinks the market will buy.  Entitled The Folly of Inside-Out Product Thinking, this post decried the tendency of some companies to assume they already know what prospects want or what will sell, leading them to ignore the vital role of customer validation both before and during development.  Here’s a key quote from this piece that captures the Agile priority of gaining true market intelligence: Customer-driven development “involves the customer at two key decision points in the product development process so we are focused on building what matters to them. First, we need to really understand what they need and why it matters. This requires that we are the customer too or we are immersed in their motivations and frustrations. And second, when we think we truly know what they need, we need to share what we plan to build with them for feedback and enhancements. We can do that through discussions, sharing mockups, or building product and iterating on it based on what they say and how they act.”  And you can find the whole thing here:

The central significance of listening to the market when developing products infuses the outer layers of the planning onion that I wrote about in my previous post.  Good Agile product planning begins by listening to the market and gaining actionable intelligence about the kinds of problems faced by the market sector you want to serve, the alternative solutions available, and the kinds of products and services that will thrill customers.  This broad window into the market and the corporate strategy that flows from it keep the inner layers of Agile planning from being simply reactive to the most recent signs of customer interest.  The firm where I work has been looking for increased opportunities to interact with customers and prospects, gathering and synthesizing the market intelligence we gain into a sharper corporate strategy and a clearer vision of our product and service portfolios.  We are learning exciting things that draw us closer to our target market and that will help us continue to evolve our product development organization.

At the same time, because of our history as a consulting firm sought out for our industry expertise, my company wrestles with some aspects of this outside-in approach.  Experts in our firm (both business and technology experts) have incredibly deep and broad knowledge about our market, our current and potential customers, and the wider trends impacting the companies we serve.  Even as we seek ways to listen to our clients about what they want and need, many of these same clients pay us to educate them on what they need to know about where our industry is headed.  In fact, part of our key competitive advantage as a firm comes from our unique combination of deep market knowledge and incredible technological prowess.  There are times when we really do know better than our clients about what they are going to need – although of course we have to be careful that our insight in some areas doesn’t fool us into thinking we don’t need to listen and learn in other areas.  Balancing our twin identities as both an insightful consulting company and an emerging technology company makes wrestling with the importance of an outside-in approach crucial.  Hopefully we keep these two poles in tension as we shape the outer two layers of our overall planning.

In any case, having a well-developed market perspective roots all Agile product planning in a context of overall vision for how the company wants to serve its customers.  This outside-in approach ensures that the more tactical elements of Agile planning are informed by valuable strategic intelligence from the people who will ultimately buy and use the products being built.  Such a context doesn’t eliminate the risks inherent in software development; nor does it solve all planning problems for the Agile development team.  Because of course in truth it’s not that simple.


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