You’ve likely heard many of the jokes before. There are three kinds of people in the world: those who can count and those who can’t. Or there are 10 kinds of people in the world: those who understand binary and those who don’t. Or maybe even there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divided the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t; which one are you?
When confronted with such stark dichotomies you might well respond that the real world is more nuanced and complex – it truth it’s not that simple. There are a number of valid approaches to solving most problems and even if some are clearly wrong there are likely a number that are all equally right. So with the approach I will talk about below I want to make clear that I am not trying to describe a ‘right’ method and a ‘wrong’ method for building a product development organization; instead I will be talking about my personal preferences and the kind of approach that most resonates with me. My passions lead me toward a particular way of thinking about product development; it’s a way of engaging that motivates and inspires me. Other people will think about these topics differently and may find equal satisfaction in their own perspectives. With that in mind, let me share first a picture and then an explanation of what I mean.
When I talk about developing or working in a product development organization, the “product” part actually comes at the end of a longer chain. Product development starts with people development: building a strong team and investing in them to ensure they are collaboratively doing their best work. Then people need to be offered the right process to follow; this is where Agile as a development methodology fits in. With the right people and a solid process – all supported by a strong foundation of purpose and principles – the team can create amazing products.
From my perspective – and as I stated above this is only my perspective – starting with people is crucial. A primary focus on building products can lead to viewing people as a fungible resource or a cost for product development. Focusing on creating a great team and investing in the members of that team will generate passionate people who can do amazing things; that’s been my experience anyway. I’ve also seen the toll it takes on people to drive them relentlessly in the service of hitting a product delivery deadline; such an approach rarely produces results that satisfy even in the short-term much less the long term. The bridge connecting a strong and valued team with outstanding product development is a process that facilitates great work. With nearly 15 years in the software development industry I’ve found Agile to be just such a process. Its focus on sustainable effort, collaborative development, and iterative growth helps solid teams deliver consistently excellent products and services. I also appreciate that Agile encourages self-organizing teams, which gives the specific individuals involved the flexibility to craft a process that works best for them and for the type of product or problem they are working on.
Another way to think about people, process and product is to talk about who, how and what. I find the who and how questions (as well as the why questions of purpose and principles) far more interesting than the what questions. Given a strong team to work with and an effective process to employ I can find lots of different products interesting to work on, while a poorly motivated team or an overly rigid process can take the joy out of working on even the most interesting product. I know not everyone thinks that way; some people find specific problems or products inherently fascinating and they don’t care who they work with as long as they get to work in a specific area (financial software or geophysics or microprocessors). But for me thinking about who to work with and how to work well together is more exciting than thinking about what specific problem to solve or product to build.
There are of course other ways to approach product development. I fully acknowledge that my perspective is shaped by my own interests and passions: I find it richly rewarding to invest deeply in people and to promote a collaborative processes while I find it challenging to sustain a simple focus on products. Other people are no doubt wired differently and would thrive in an environment that was product-driven. I’ve experienced professional success and growth when I am in roles that allow me to focus primarily on people and process, and in these circumstances the teams I’ve been part of have produced some amazing products. But I know this isn’t the only way to work because in truth it’s not that simple.
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