Introduction to product development methodologies
There are many methodologies for managing how products are built. While they are often thought of as software development methodologies, in reality, they are used more broadly. This is because the approach the development team uses impacts the entire product planning process and all groups that are involved. This guide describes the most commonly used product development methodologies and explains how they shape product management work.
Why methodology matters
Building products is a collaborative process involving many functional groups. Cross-functional teams need to work together systematically to deliver value efficiently and effectively. Using a common methodology helps drive success by providing a clear set of guidelines for how work will get done.
The methodology you use is typically set by your organization. It should be embraced by all groups involved in building and delivering products — such as engineering, IT, product management, and project management. While your role and responsibilities as a product manager will not be impacted materially by the methodology your company chooses, it may affect how you build the product roadmap. This guide explains some of the most commonly used methodologies and how each one applies to product management.
Common product development methodologies
Many of the methodologies described below are rooted in software development. This is because product managers are typically found at companies that create technology products. They may work on an external product that is sold or an internal product that supports the business. But many of these approaches are increasingly being used by companies that build physical products too. The list below features some of the most popular methodologies but is by no means exhaustive.
- Agile is a collection of software development methodologies that promotes an incremental and iterative approach to software delivery. This approach emerged as a way to help software teams respond faster to customer requirements, though it is increasingly applied to different types of work. Many companies are implementing agile principles across the entire organization to improve collaboration, adapt to change, and produce working results faster.
- Kanban is a workflow management method that emphasizes the continual delivery of value. Based on lean principles, kanban focuses on visualizing work to increase collaboration, limiting the amount of work in process, and continuously improving flow to reduce lead time. It is often used in conjunction with agile methods to increase productivity. Kanban was first developed by Toyota to improve manufacturing processes, but it is often used to optimize the delivery of knowledge-based work.
- Scaled Agile Framework®, also known as SAFe®, is a set of guidelines for implementing agile and lean principles at scale. This multi-level framework keeps teams aligned with customer needs and the greater vision of the business. It promotes regular planning and scheduled integration points so large numbers of agile teams can deliver in sync and on cadence.
- Scrum is an agile methodology that focuses on delivering work in time-boxed efforts called sprints. At the start of each sprint, the team sets a sprint goal, selects items from the product backlog, and agrees on the scope of work. At the end of the sprint, the team presents the completed work to business stakeholders for review. This approach makes it possible to integrate change throughout the project lifecycle while enabling teams to deliver working software on a regular cadence.
- Waterfall methods use a sequential approach to deliver projects in phases. This approach works well for projects where requirements can be clearly defined upfront and change is uncommon. This approach is rooted in industries such as manufacturing and construction where products are developed in a linear way. Emphasis is placed on delivering a fixed scope of work at the end of the project.
Comparing agile to waterfall and hybrid methodologies
It is important to align the way you set the product strategy and create roadmaps with the way your organization builds and delivers. Most software products use some sort of agile approach so that teams can respond to changing priorities and requirements during the development lifecycle. A waterfall approach can be effective for physical or hardware products where requirements are fixed and change is difficult to accommodate once a project begins. Hybrid products that include both software and hardware may require a blended methodology to coordinate design and delivery dependencies.
The table below compares how agile and waterfall methodologies change the way product managers carry out their core responsibilities:
|Define goals||Focus customer-centric goals on areas such as user growth and customer delight.||Measure business-centric goals using key performance indicators (KPIs) such as scope, schedule, and budget.|
|Set strategic themes||Themes guide the high-level work needed to accomplish overall product goals.||Tie initiatives to specific projects.|
|Build the product roadmap||Plan in quarterly, monthly, or bi-weekly cycles with the flexibility to adjust the roadmap.||Product plan annually with a long-term roadmap commitment to build specific features on a set timeline.|
|Understand customer needs||Continually explore to understand customer needs and validate solutions.||Capture customer needs upfront during a requirements-gathering phase.|
|Prioritize features||Regularly reprioritize to respond to changing customer, market, and business needs.||Establish one-time prioritization in a product-requirements document.|
|Define requirements||Constantly refine requirements as new information is discovered.||Hand off fully-defined in a product requirements document.|
|Release customer experiences||Deliver frequently — whenever there is enough customer value.||Deliver infrequently, with a fixed schedule where customer value is delivered at the end of the project.|
|Measure results||Measure progress towards strategic goals and adapt plans to accommodate changing conditions.||Success is based on the initial scope being delivered on time and within budget.|
The articles included in this guide explain the foundational principles of each methodology. You will learn how each approach works and how you can successfully apply it to your product management workflows.