From Project to Product: A Practical Guide (Part Two)

In today’s digital age, when disruptive innovation is the norm and when “big no longer beats the small” but “fast beats the slow,” it’s critical that organizations are always experimenting, innovating, and adapting to the ever-changing competitive ecosystem. Agile and DevOps, when bolstered by a strong product function, are table stakes for the organizational capability to experiment and adapt. In this blog series, we demystify the product function and offer actionable advice to businesses undertaking a product-led transformation.

Having led Agile and DevOps transformations across large enterprises, we are uncovering better ways of developing products. Through this work we’ve created a Product Development Manifesto which encompasses four key principles:

  1. Organizing around value streams and products over organizing around functions and departments
  2. Funding persistent teams over funding projects
  3. Empowering teams over directing teams
  4. Investing in product management over investing in a Project Management Office (PMO)

Let’s take a closer look at how the above manifesto can help organizations to move to a product-centric model.

1. Organizing around value streams and products

To stay competitive, organizations must be able to quickly adapt to changing environments and deliver innovative solutions and services at breakneck speed. Thus, they must organize in a manner that minimizes hand-offs between different functions and departments and eliminates bottlenecks and wait queues. Therefore, work must be aligned to value streams and delivered by multidisciplinary teams that encompass the skills and functions required to build, deliver and operate the product or services, end to end. A sample product-centric, multi-disciplinary team will typically be comprised of roles including design (UX), front-end developers, back-end developers, test automation, a product owner, and DevOps/APIs.

2. Funding persistent teams

The project model relies on a slow and cumbersome annual planning cycle where different departments try to forecast their entire book of work for the next twelve months. This approach to funding projects stands as an obstacle to adaptability because despite approved budget, projects go through stage gates adding to overall lead time. The project teams are assembled for the duration of the project and then dismantled when the work is handed over to either run or operations groups. This fosters a “throw it over the wall” mentality and results in a lack of accountability and ownership of the product. When team members move on to start other projects, who really owns the application code?

These issues call for a better budgeting model. A leaner portfolio management process funds multidisciplinary product teams instead of projects. This process also reviews the product roadmap and progress to revise investment decisions on short, quarterly cycles, instead of an annual cycle. These characteristics improve the lead time for delivery and make the team accountable.

3. Empowering teams

It is incumbent upon the leaders to cultivate a culture of empowerment. Leaders should remove bureaucracy, move the decision-making rights into the teams, and change the focus from resource utilization to value delivery. People closest to the work are best positioned to make the right decisions fast. Let’s give teams the objectives they need to deliver on and then trust them to figure it out. This can motivate the teams to truly own their piece of the puzzle in delivering business outcomes. To quote Benjamin Parker (Uncle Ben from Spiderman), “With great power comes great responsibility.” Hence, teams must take responsibility and demonstrate mature delivery practices for leaders to continue trusting them and empowering them. Empowerment must be a direct function of and directly proportional to the team’s maturity.

4.  Investing in product management

Once you decide to organize around value streams, products, and long-living, empowered teams, the need for a heavy-handed PMO is greatly reduced. At scale, there is still some need for orchestration and integration across teams or even value streams, but that should be minimalist and lean. To be successful in the product model you need great product managers. Having a strong product management function is necessary to enable the product-centric model. Product managers are:

  • Aligned to key a strategic theme and accountable for value delivery to customers and achieving the business outcomes by creating and maintaining product roadmaps
  • Responsible for stakeholder management and bridging the gap between business and technology teams
  • Required to understand the customers and have strong business/domain acumen so that they can help make right prioritization and feature decisions for the teams

The product management function is the cornerstone of the new model and organizations should have a product leader, such as a Chief Product Officer or Group Product Manager, with direct line to the executive management.

Moving towards a product model is critical to unlocking the benefits of digital transformation initiatives. Many organizations have painfully learned that their investments in Agile and DevOps alone have not resulted in either faster business value delivery or better outcomes because value streams are not optimized. Adding product-centricity into the mix is essential for optimizing value streams and unlocking the promise of Agile and DevOps. In today’s continuously evolving market, it’s imperative that organizations move from a project to product model so that they not only avoid being “Blockbustered” by the next innovative and disruptive startup, but also lay the foundation for a sustainable operational model.

Click here to read part one in the series.