Are Current Product Development Practices Slowing Innovation? Try an Agile Methodology.

 

Sonja Takatori

Sonja is a Senior Project Manager with deep experience in full life-cycle development utilizing Agile, Scrum, iterative, and waterfall methodologies while applying PMI techniques.

Updated Nov 4, 2020

Put yourself in the shoes of Eric, a CTO, as he finishes listening to his company's presentation on quarterly financial results, which showed revenue from new products at an all-time low. Inhaling deeply, he can't help but believe that his company is missing opportunities for introducing innovative products. Their current product development methodology just isn't producing results for their development team. 

He feels frustrated and knows things need to change quickly. 

If this sounds familiar, then it's essential to recognize that you're not alone. Even more important is knowing that positive change comes with exploring the issue from a system-based perspective on project methodologies. Agile is a popular methodology for good reason: it asks organizations to rethink how their systems operate. 

Why Agile Works

In my career as a Project Manager using various methodologies -- from waterfall to iterative to scrum -- for the full life-cycle development process, I've been up against similar challenges to innovation. While there might be no one method that perfectly fits your company, GenUI tailors Agile's specific tools and techniques to our clients with proven success. Since Agile is inherently collaborative, its methodologies provide an asset to those seeking to deliver the right product at the right time. 

In the spirit of W. Edwards Deming, we ask you to consider the ways an Agile methodology would benefit your product development cycle by exploring typical challenges and how using Agile’s specific tools and methods provides solutions.

"The aim of leadership should be to improve the performance of man and machine, to improve quality, to increase output, and simultaneously to bring pride of workmanship to people."

Edwards Deming

Success Through Collaboration

Sometimes a company's newly released products lack a "WOW!" factor. The issue then becomes systemic. The marketing team lacks ways to promote the products, and users find those products uninspiring due to a lack of genuine innovation. 

Organizing a technical team toward common goals encourages innovation through new ideas. One of the first practices I encourage is to manage ideas in an Agile product backlog where they can be broken down and prioritized. A product backlog harnesses your team's excitement to collaborate and evolves an idea from inception into a unique innovation that’s ready for market. 

Backlogs also prevent "New Idea Syndrome", which is when a current project gets dropped before completion in a rush to advance another new idea. The blocker arises when that next idea pops up. Its predecessor is paused before completion and that does perpetuate a cycle of innovation but one with severe delays in time to market.

At GenUI, we implemented a prioritized product backlog when working with USAFacts, a non-profit organization offering a non-partisan portrait of the US population, government finances, and our government's impact on society by translating publicly available data sources to a reader-friendly UI. This team-centered backlog helped us achieve a timely and successful release of the platform

A challenge with inefficient or overly complicated methodologies happens when released features are not what customers want - and then feel they aren't being heard. The issue is the lack of a consistent way to incorporate user feedback into product development. 

In Agile, Product Owners who represent customers and business stakeholders' voices consistently collaborate with the development team. They help the team prioritize and adapt to evolving business objectives and customer feedback by incorporating the feedback into the product backlog. Agile product backlogs are written as “user stories” to reinforce a user-focused design philosophy to the team. 

Agile teams know the importance of user research and meeting directly with end-users to see and hear first hand about their goals and desires. When GenUI partnered with Buddy Platform Ltd, a leader in IoT and cloud-based technology, our Vice President of Services Don Biszek found agile development methodologies crucial to delivering Buddy Platform’s product.  

“With consensus around the product vision and momentum, [Buddy Platform Ltd and GenUI] worked together to iterate on the product using agile development methodologies. We prioritized backend requirements and conducted user testing throughout development to ensure the changes aligned with user needs.”

Don Biszek, GenUI Vice President of Services

Adaptability as a Strategic Advantage

Maybe competitors routinely release new products and features, but your company can't respond quickly enough to stay competitive. This challenge is about timing and being slow to react to market changes. 

We've all been here, but it's essential to adapt if this becomes a habit. Agile projects regularly and nimbly adapt to change by focusing on delivering features that have the most significant business value first. Agile iterations allow small teams to break down a more extensive problem into bite-sized components and accomplish goals more quickly. Iterations provide more predictable cycles/cadences, so the team soon becomes more confident in putting their estimates in place, allowing for more predictable future iterations.

Improve Quality Control

Another challenge occurs when product releases arrive with bugs and are unreliable, leading to low customer satisfaction and higher expenses. Customer support calls increase in proportion with that satisfaction drop.  

Turn to these Agile techniques to improve product development: 

  • Paired programming: “Two developers can deliver code faster and with fewer errors.”
  • Automated testing
  • Test-driven development
  • Continuous integration 

Utilizing the Agile methodology-specific quality improvement tactics helps you focus on the customer.

Reduce Risk and Save Costs

Attempting to manage projects and control costs on schedule can be a headache. If time and time again, you see projects incur cost and schedule overruns, then consider going lean. 

Agile supports the lean philosophy of developing a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) first -- where we build and release a basic product, focused on the most valuable functions, that improves as time goes on with new features added in subsequent releases. Developing an MVP ensures a short time between project investment and product validation and reduces the risk of investing lots of time and money developing the wrong solution. 

Visibility and Transparency

When projects overrun, management teams are often the last to know. Having been part of many management teams, I know the pain of a late project beyond help or alternatives. In this situation, a lack of visibility and transparent communication ahead of time that project costs and schedules are out of control leads to lost opportunity. 

But a fundamental value of Agile methodology is transparency: for team members, executives, and other stakeholders. I believe the following Agile practices improve visibility and transparency.

    • Agile burndown charts show the amount of work remaining in an iteration. 
    • Velocity charts estimate how fast a team completes work, helping predict a possible date for a product release. 
    • Iteration backlogs visibly depict all of the work planned for the current iteration and which team member is working on which aspect.
    • Project demos regularly show progress and share information. While it may not be feasible for executives to attend all demos, the opportunity is there.

Often the wear-and-tear of inefficiency results in low employee morale around product development. Employee turnover consequently increases, and remaining team members must support too many projects at once. They are left unable to collaborate and learn from each other due to resource and time constraints.

An Agile development process breaks down walls and aligns teams with common objectives. Sometimes, regardless of which method you follow, groups like our partners at Connexion Telematics need more bandwidth regarding skilled people and efficient time-spend of current staff. Partnering with a best-in-class software product and development firm provides additional resources when timely delivery is crucial.

"The biggest successes of the project, in my mind, were the design of the products and the speed to market. We had no resources and we went to GenUI, an established company and team, and straight away they picked it up and ran with it."

Kate Thompson, Connexion Telematics project manager

Proven Success, Together

Stepping away from the functional silo model, hard deadlines on an entire project and trusting motivated people to do their jobs within a collaborative, organized, and efficient system like Agile, nurtures teamwork and employee engagement while producing results (such as getting products to market faster).

As a Harvard Business Review article demonstrates, John Deere adopted Agile methods to great results. You might not associate farm equipment production with proven software development practices, but John Deere also must deliver products to thrive.  By adopting Agile, John Deere “significantly compressed innovation project cycle times—in some cases by more than 75%. 

Agile practices help many types of businesses grow beyond their status quo. In 1-2 years, do you see your business’ product development cycle performing worse, the same, or better? 

We know that all but the latter option are unacceptable because continual improvement drives every organization’s goals. That’s why finding a collaborator to help you use Agile to bring products to market faster is worth the try.

Learning exactly how to apply Agile takes time. But embracing Agile and its team-forward nature by working with a partner who understands the benefits of transparency, collaboration, and adaptability is achievable on a short timeline.

Sonja Takatori, GenUI Senior Project Manager

GenUI leverages specific tools and techniques of Agile to support our partners. If you already struggle with bandwidth, then learning Agile practices before teaching them to your team isn’t feasible. I know from experience that learning exactly how to apply Agile takes time. But embracing Agile and its team-forward nature by working with a partner who understands the benefits of transparency, collaboration, and adaptability is achievable on a short timeline.

As an expert in these practices, GenUI offers a digital partnership to get clients to the finish line. Then, if you want to learn more about Agile, we’re here to keep working together and teach you. After all, much like with Agile, our best results happen through teamwork and iteration.