5 Strategy Mistakes That Agile Product Teams Make
May 11, 2015

5 Strategy Mistakes That Agile Product Teams Make

If your product team lives by the Agile manifesto or lean startup principles, then this may be your mantra:

“Build the product; don’t fiddle with your plans for it.”

Your Agile shop is configured to ship small but valuable chunks of a product as quickly as possible. I’m surprised at how often people misinterpret this to mean that they must stop thinking and acting strategically.

If you follow this mindset by the book, you can discover — and respond to wrong assumptions —about your customer or unexpected market shifts. In this scenario, it is essential to have a long-term strategy for your product. Without one, you cannot deliver — no matter how “lean” your workflow is.

All gains, no pain?

The dexterity that Agile teams gain doesn’t come for free. Frequent course corrections can make such teams feel disoriented and deflated. The product managers who keep their crews pumped despite these uncertainties are masters of inspiration and focus.

They paint a picture of how their collective work will alleviate pain or spark opportunities. They are also able to keep the team focused on a sensible, concrete path to success. This involves frequently sharing progress towards these goals — and the best teams do this using product roadmaps.

Admittedly, roadmaps are not easy to produce or manage using Agile. There is a lot of room for error.

Are you using roadmaps to implement Agile? Take care to avoid these traps:

Crafting the product strategy and roadmap in isolation from the whole team A roadmap lies in the hands of its product manager. But bringing it to life takes an army of smart people — engineers, marketers, designers, et al. Left uninformed, teams will question the items on this roadmap, ask why they were included, and protest that “their” items were left off. Arm your team with strategic answers by shaping the roadmap with their insight.

Do you work in an organization where teams are assembled after the product strategy and roadmap have been created? If so, create space in your plan to field questions from collaborators. More importantly, allow a buffer for feedback that will warrant adjustments to your roadmap.

Responding too quickly to new client or market information Frequently, teams adopt Agile to quickly address new information. Fresh data may call for Agile teams to pause their work and absorb changes. Sometimes, however, the appropriate response is to take a step back and look at the big picture. The correct action might be to not implement the new feature at this time. If that is the case, you must make the right choice to pull back.

Good product managers are tuned into new market information. They are also considered approachable by their partners, customers, and bosses — all of whom bombard them with requests for changes. This is where product managers can evolve from good to great — by leading their product roadmaps with conviction.

The best product managers know how to captain through this sea of requests. They know when to peel their teammates away from building the product and when to let them stay on their path.

Discounting feedback from within the organization Do you synthesize data from your market or customers, but ignore data from within your organization? If so, this is the quickest way to lose your team’s support.

For instance, while in the throes of development, your engineers may hit an obstacle or be inspired by an idea. As the product owner, it falls on you to triage this information and adjust the roadmap as needed. Engineering input is just as essential as responding promptly to other stakeholders. Without their help, you cannot bring great products to life. Don’t discount their insight just to “keep moving.”

Getting lost in details of product features While at work on the roadmap, team members may be tempted to discuss the product’s functionality. Agile teams are used to this; they spend most of their time toiling on details, so it becomes their default state.

But beware of lengthy dialogues about features and product functionality. Such discussions distract from the purpose of creating or assessing your roadmap — to formulate a winning strategy.

Instead of getting bogged down by endless discussions, keep your team focused on questions such as:

  • Are we targeting the right segment of users?

  • Are we prioritizing the needs that truly matter?

  • Which assumptions are we making?

  • Which hypotheses do we plan to test?

  • What does the competitive landscape look like?

In other words, the collective frame of mind should be to critically assess your strategy before you leap into the details of implementing it.

Not building any momentum While designing roadmaps, Agile product teams tend to shy away from settling on timeframes. Admittedly, teams will wrestle with ambiguities in the early stages of product development. They can’t imagine what shape the product may take. They may hesitate to commit to a launch date.

You could accommodate these uncertainties in the first few phases of your roadmap by rallying the team behind a goal instead of a date. But I prefer to take the opposite approach.

After this initial uncertainty, the outlines of your product will become less blurry. At that juncture, you should consider taking a time-boxed approach where the phases of your roadmap are fixed in duration. Don’t shift the launch dates — adopt a bias to ship instead. This approach has a huge benefit for product managers — it prevents you from exhausting your team by forcing them to chase a moving deadline.

A Japanese proverb best summarizes the risk product managers must manage in the action-oriented, Agile world.

“Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.”

Agile techniques lead to incremental gains. But it is dangerous to separate these gains from your high-level product vision. Your vision serves as the north star for every action taken to enhance the product; if adding a feature will not help your product achieve its vision, then the value of that feature should be diminished.

On a regular basis, PMs must take a step back and review their product vision. This is the best way to ensure that the product and company are both headed in the right direction.

This is a guest post by Natasha Awasthi. If you are looking to be a great product manager or owner, create brilliant strategy, and build visual product roadmaps — start a free trial of Aha!

Natasha Awasthi is a New York-based product manager and writer. She artfully untangles messy problems by discovering unexpected patterns in behavior, processes, and technology. A self-proclaimed Jedi-in-training, she writes about channeling the force and embracing her creativity. She has written for Fast Company, L.A. Review of Books, Women2.0, General Assembly, and others.

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