2020 was full of surprises all over the world. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that no matter how good your plans, events outside your control can force you to change them. Whether your business was crushed or your product was suddenly found by an entirely new market of consumers — plans fell.
The degree and rate of change has been so enormous that roadmaps were burned, business strategies shifted, and even that stable force – your product vision – evolved rapidly too. If you were on your toes, you adjusted your plans early (Proactively Confronting COVID-19 Risk) but that probably needed continuous reassessment.
Not All Agile is Agile
Most software companies today claim to embrace some form of agile development methodology. Yet, it is clear from their planning processes that it is not truly in their DNA. One of the most obvious anti-patterns highlighting this is when they plan for a new product or new major release.
Major Release Anti-Pattern Example
Budgets are defined at the start of the fiscal calendar. Product Execs commit to deliver their Product X in a mere 12 months. It will revolutionize the market and dramatically expand their TAM. The budget committee falls in love, approves the budget, and the VP of Engineering starts hiring to add a few people to ramp-up her existing team capacity.
Product Management and Design work to provide detailed mock-ups, user personas, and the most epic of Epics possible. The lead architect can’t wait to get the latest tech stack in place.
All systems are go. In 6 months they expect to have a working framework to show to key customers and attract new ones. The scrum team is following all the rituals to make it happen. Getting the hard platform stuff done first before tackling the easy front-end.
After just 3 months, COVID-19 emerges. By 6 months the entire company is grappling with work-from-home compounding existing delays. The market is changing rapidly and limited interest is expressed by year end due to shifting budget priorities. Now the company must invest more in the following year to realize their original plan.
The failure described above happens repeatedly in software companies big and small. It doesn’t take a pandemic to make these big bets fail either. The failure is forgetting that there exists massive risk in developing new software products. Building assumptions into your plans that do not seek to adapt as they are validated is the starting point.
However, even if you don’t do a good job identifying, validating and removing risk as part of your strategy, Agile can help you be more successful in the face of uncertainty. The key is incremental development and delivery.
Good product teams can slice a product up into smaller chunks. Starting small and incrementally increasing the value of the offering for a wider target customer. With each delivery the team learns more and this feedback improves each next step in delivery.
Benefits of Incremental Delivery
Incremental delivery is good all the time, but even better when the world around you is changing rapidly. In the simplified diagram, we see the incremental delivery of the major project.
The benefits are straightforward:
- Multiple chances to deliver value to customers. Customers prefer needs met today rather than month from now. This nicely aligns with your business desire to make revenue now too.
- Adapt through Learning. Each time software is delivered to customers is another change to validate assumptions and find better opportunities than previously known.
- Prioritize Scope Better. Feedback from actual users rather than theoretical future users helps build a better product with more focused investment.
- Less Delay Risk. If you slip 10% on a 12 month project it has a much bigger delay impact than 10% on a 3 month project.
- Less Waste. After each release you can stop. The max amount of waste is all the work done up until a release. A 12 month development cycle has 12 months of potential waste built-up until value is realized.
- Business Agility. Not only can you limit waste but you can focus resources where the new business reality dictates.
By following an incremental delivery approach, the major release anti-pattern can be greatly mitigated. The product development organization can implement processes that encourage such an approach. The whole company needs to support it through their sales, marketing, and budgeting processes to maximize the leverage.
When planning for 2021, focus on how you can split up your releases into smaller units of delivered value. While we can plan for a better year than 2020, you have to be ready to be punched in the face at any time.