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Best of Both Worlds - Agile Lite + Check-ins Yield Winning Products

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Apple, Bose and Fitbit - all are innovative companies with a clearly defined product development process; a framework that encompasses all the steps in taking a product from idea to market, as efficiently as possible. The result? It has allowed them to deliver ground-breaking products such as the iPhone, Noise Cancelling Headphones and Fitness Trackers.

Previously, product development revolved around a handful of time wasting review sessions, often called gate or phase reviews, an outdated practice that ultimately reduced velocity. An effective product development process is inherently Agile. We recommend companies have a small handful of check-ins, not formal reviews and that most of the work is done in an Agile/scrum style.The best companies employ product development processes that share the following basic principles:

  • Minimizing roadblocks (check-ins)
  • Clearly defined roles i.e. who does what, when, and during which step of the product development process
  • A clearly defined path for how product teams are formed, led and disbanded
  • A defined set of key deliverables e.g. backlogs, schedules and product launch plans

Small “a” Agile

Even an Agile product development process can get cluttered - implementing a full on scrum methodology following the 12 elements of the Agile Manifesto, is really a heavy weight process. To maximize velocity without bureaucracy, employ Agile with a small “a” - or an Agile lite approach. What does that mean? A lite Agile approach consists of three things:

  • Work should be broken up into short (two-week typical) sprints
  • Each sprint should have a plan to deliver value during the period of the sprint
  • There should be a demo at the end of each sprint; it provides a clear focus for the team and gets invaluable feedback from customers and users outside the company and functions inside the company

Lite Agile aligns with what’s most important to senior management, being: transparency, frequent updates, and a clear demonstration of results at the end of each sprint. Furthermore, the methodology is practical, implementable and scalable.

Check-ins

Realistically, there are points in a product development where you want to ensure the product effort is aligned with strategy, a second one that turns on the increased investment in development (so management knows what they are getting into), and a third at product or MVP launch (to ensure that the launch is ready and won’t upset customers. So typically, there are three major check-ins -- defined interactions between project teams and management -- when it comes to a best-in-class product development process. These check-ins occur any time the company invests a significant increase in costs or exposes itself to risk. Any other time, the process is managed by boundary conditions (we will get to that a bit later). The check-ins are as follows:

  • Concept check-in
  • Product check-in
  • Product release check-in

Concept check-in

Here management outlines major objectives and ensures that the project is aligned with current strategic priorities. From the get-go, management will ensure that the investment in the project is consistent with the product strategy and product portfolio. Ideally you would demonstrate product-market fit, too.

Product check-in

During this check-in, the product is defined, a rough product development schedule is created, a high-level design is introduced to demonstrate that product’s feasibility, and the budget to develop and launch is estimated. This check-in is best performed prior to investing major resources into the project.

Product release check-in

The point of no-return, here company’s assess their ability to launch the product. Three key areas of focus include product quality, product performance, feature completion, and customer support capability.

Too little or too much?

This framework helps guide the team in taking a product from idea to market at speed. Conforming to the guidelines too little or too much each comes with its drawbacks. Not following the product development process enough means teams are likely to get burned out by constantly repeating the same mistakes. Overly conforming to the framework will reduce the team's velocity.

By introducing a minimum viable process, teams can preserve velocity while minimizing mistakes. Teams learn through iterations and improve by learning from their mistakes. A well-managed framework will encourage and foster both innovation and creativity.

What about boundary conditions?

Boundary conditions are agreements (or a contract) between project and management teams, which allow companies to accelerate their product development process. This ultimately reduces unnecessary involvement (and politics) from management and gives project teams the ability and authority to go plan and execute their project.

To set a boundary conditions contact, project and management teams will negotiate up to five major dimensions. This occurs at the beginning of a new project and the dimensions are as follows:

  • Product cost
  • Features
  • Schedule
  • Quality
  • Reliability

So long as the project team stays within the boundary conditions, upper management allows them to carry on with planning and executing. If the project team perceives that it will ‘break’ boundaries, then it follows an escalation process known as a boundary review or out of bounds check. 

Boundary review

There are two main paths project teams can take to resolve their ‘boundary break’. The first is to send an email and propose a solution to the management team. If the management team agrees with the solution then no further involvement is required.

 

If management doesn’t agree with the presented solution, a meeting between the executives and the dev teams is held to discuss alternative solutions. The agreement that both parties come to following the meeting becomes the new boundary conditions. 

Defined roles

Companies launch many new products, however, despite getting off to a fast start many projects quickly get derailed. A key cause is when teams lack understanding when it comes to what each group is contributing to each phase of the project.

The function phase matrix helps identify team objectives, roles and responsibilities, and key deliverables. In essence, a single-page visual overview (table) that identifies dependencies between team members and deliverables. Thus, who is doing what, when.

The function phase matrix is incredibly useful during the beginning of a project. On its own though, it is limited, as it doesn’t include all functions and deliverables. Companies need to define their own functions, as well as roles/responsibilities.

The function phase matrix can be created in excel (or another spreadsheet tool). Rows represent key functions and columns represent product development phases.

About the Author:  John Carter is a widely respected expert on product development.  He is an inventor of Bose’s Noise Cancelling Headphones and designer of Apple’s New Product Process. As Founder of TCGen Inc., he has consulted for Abbott, Amazon, Apple, Cisco, HP, IBM, Mozilla, Roche, and 3M. He is the author of “Innovate Products Faster,” featuring more than 40 tools for accelerating product development speed and innovation.  John has an MS in Engineering from MIT.

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