Agile Poses the Boss-Level PM Challenge

While there might not be a single correct formula for fitting product management into an Agile setting, there's one inescapable rule: Prepare to have your PM skills put to the test.

Recently, I was speaking with Barry Paquet of Quantum Whisper, a small firm that has a tool designed to help PMs with these Agile-related challenges. To the right, you'll see one of the slides from Barry's presentation. The message is pretty self-evident: if your company is going to take the "voice of the customer" part of Agile seriously, PM must keep a lot of plates spinning. Feedback loops in Agile development don't run themselves—someone has to be on top of the collection, analysis, validation, communication, and review. With Agile, these activities are happening nearly constantly.

While any PM who has a passion for building good products should welcome this change, it also can be a little scary. In my own research and advisory work on Agile adoption in tech industry companies, I've heard some PMs express no small anxiety about this new model. In part, they're worried that the company might not support or even understand this process fully. However, they also experience some dark nights of the soul about whether the have the skills and experiences needed to play that sort of role. Here are a few common concerns:

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Razorfish shows clients how Agile services work

A disproportionate amount of the discussion about Agile in the technology industry centers on product development. However, services are an inevitable part of the Agile story. Here are a few examples:

  • Consulting teams have to adapt to rapid iterations of new core technology. In other words, the professional services arm has to keep pace with the product development team.
  • Services are a source of value that gets folded into the product. For this process of productization to work at all, the consulting and development teams need to speak the same language, share common expectations about development processes and deliverables, and work at a similar pace.
  • Agile consulting teams have to work with customers who aren't conversant with Agile. You might be excited about working at an Agile pace, but your client may have no idea what you're talking about.

That last scenario is a common source of frustration for clients. In place of dense project plans, clients often get a sketchier picture of how the project will proceed. Of course, both client and customer know that, the more complex and detailed the project plan is, the less likely it is to accurately predict what's going to happen. As mythical as the project plans can be, there's something reassuring to clients about having them. At the very least, they provide leverage when the consultants don't deliver.

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Brütal Agile

One of the great things about researching Agile is, given the scope of both its applicability and effects, you'll never run out of interesting topics. Agile product management, Agile used outside development, contract details in Agile projects, Agile channel management, the effect of Agile on requirements—researchers like myself and Dave West, writing about Agile directly, will have plenty to do for years to come. So, too, will others, like Mary Gerush, exploring the effects of Agile on requirements and other aspects of development.

As Agile goes mainstream, video game developers like Bioware have taken the Agile plunge. This corner of the technology market is very interesting because of the high level of challenge. In some cases, video game developers face extreme versions of common problems, such as an unforgiving standard of product quality. (Ship a crappy product, and your dreams of making obscene wealth will be replaced with the nightmare of watching your game vanish from retail channels.) Other challenges are unique to the video game industry, such as managing all the creative talent—artists, musicians, and actors—critical to product success.  (But heck, if you get to meet John Cleese, Claudia Black, or Gary Oldman, the work can't be all bad.)

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