Scrum — Your False God of Innovation
October 15, 2013

Scrum — Your False God of Innovation

by Brian de Haaff

Scrum can get into you. And a growing number of product managers and engineering teams are fervent disciples. The problem is that it does not lead to breakthrough product vision or insights that will change your business or the world. Scrum is not a methodology for product management or for innovation for that matter. It’s a terrific way to incrementally develop products and keep engineering teams focused — and kudos for that. But, if your company is fully “agile immersed” or recently converted to “scrumdamentalism” — your place in history is now in jeopardy. And your job might be too.

I have spoken with more than 200 product and engineering leaders in the last six months while launching Aha! And I have asked them, “How do you innovate and build great product?” Ninety percent of them proudly answer, “agile with scrum teams.” (You may wonder about the other 10 percent — don’t worry — they sheepishly say “we are transitioning from waterfall to agile.”) This is not totally surprising as the benefits of a more iterative approach to software development have become well documented and repeatedly-hyped.

But here’s what is interesting, in nearly every case the product managers are missing something fundamental. Most know that something is not right but have not been able to really do anything about it. They keep trying to follow the formula, consult with the brightest agile gurus, and read the right blogs. But something is still amiss. Being a product manager should be the happiest job on earth — but too many who I speak with are unsettled.

The real issue is that most product managers don’t recognize that attending every daily standup and continually massaging the backlog distracts from setting a clear product vision, building a brilliant product roadmap, and leading the rest of the non-technical organization to greatness.

After a customer recently described the problems he and his team were having, I started jotting down different ways that I have heard product managers describe their struggles:

  • “We have MVP’d our way to an unsatisfying product.”

  • “Customers are complaining that we haven’t delivered anything new in a long time.”

  • “My engineers don’t understand why we need to build this.”

  • “Management asked me to explain how the next sprint will benefit the business.”

  • “Sales wants to know what we are doing to differentiate the product.”

Why are product managers struggling when they become immersed in scrum? It is fairly simple — many key product management tasks are completely unrelated to the product development efforts. For example, competitive research, market assessment, positioning and go-to-market readiness. But the biggest reason is that scrum encourages a head-down approach to bit building, with no regard for product strategy or a longer-term roadmap.

When product managers do not pick their head up and look out, their teams often build the wrong thing — and because they are “agile” they build it faster than ever before.

So, if you are a product manager or work with one, I suggest the following antidote to “death by scrum incrementalism.” Remember that the goal is to lead with conviction and to have confidence in where you are headed and why you are traveling there.

Goal first As a great product manager, you must establish a goal-first approach and a true north for your product based on the best information you have. Reaffirm your strategy and tweak it as necessary, but stay grounded in what you are trying to achieve. This is even more important if there are multiple teams involved in managing the product. Product needs to agree on the strategic imperatives (or themes) first, and then align the roadmap and requirements against them and make the necessary trade-offs as a group. If you do, your company and engineering team will follow. If you lose your direction or drag the team back and forth, the complaints will beat you down.

Share your vision Your product strategy and roadmap should not be a secret. Talk about it — a lot. And listen even more. Building great product is a collaborative process that works well if everyone agrees on the product vision and strategy. Why wait to involve engineering and other key thought leaders in your roadmap planning until you have set the product direction? Transparency builds trust and trust leads to great effort. Involve the team, customers, partners, and other trusted advisors early and often. This gives everyone the chance to contribute to the product vision and buy into where the product is headed.

Trust engineering I know that your engineering team is wicked smart and is trying to build what matters. So, trust yourself and your product vision. Clearly articulate to the team where you see it headed. Then step back and get out of the way. The team does not need you to pontificate about how they should build what you are asking for, or to participate in every technical debate.

If you are looking to smash your own “scrum blinders” and need a clearer way to see forward and create brilliant product roadmaps, Aha! is for you. Sign up for a free trial to see why the top software and Web companies are now using Aha! for product management.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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