In the late 90s, I was excited by the new ways of thinking that Agile software development proposed. It changed the way I thought, and it was like waking into a new world. Twenty years on, and I feel that not much has changed. Has the Agile revolution stalled?
I have asked several colleagues and customers the simple question of "Have we made any significant steps in our thinking since Agile was introduced?" and to date nobody has said yes. Sure, we have refined many things, have some fantastic new tooling and new buzzwords have appeared, but have we made any more significant steps? Well, you could say we have now got our head around scaling Agile, but I think that’s pretty contentious, and there are very mixed feelings on how effective the various scaled Agile approaches are. You could also say we have improved our deployment processes and there is some truth in that. However, all this feels like small potatoes compared to our first bold steps.
What we have done is change what we understand, the software delivery life cycle. Within that bubble, we have made lots of change, but that’s as far as we have gone, and I think we have been a little selfish with the business we claim to serve. We have demanded a simple solution for us in the form of the Product Owner. We have demanded a single point of access to the business who can quite conveniently make all the calls we need. All too often the Product Owner is conscripted from somewhere within the business with limited ability to do the job. They usually have good domain knowledge but a good understanding of product development is usually not there. We know that feedback cycles are important and validation of the product under development is critical, and yet we are quite happy with heaping this all on the poor Product Owner. Our domain boundary ends at the Product Owner.
Let’s look outside of our typical world into the work of professional product management. It all started as part of marketing (product is one of the 4 ‘P’s of marketing) but has grown into its own profession because it’s so vast in scope and impactful on the business. Ask any Product Manager if they personally are the right people to give feedback and they would all say no! It has to be put in front of real users, in fact it’s considered a ‘schoolboy mistake’ to rely on their personal opinion. There are a raft of tools and tactics a Product Manager can use to guide the product under development. It’s a massive undertaking requiring significant levels of skill and experience. But we still demand that the Product Owner act as the all-seeing Oracle, often with no idea of how to do anything apart from giving his or her personal view. That’s both not fair to the conscripted Product Owner and I would suggest often, not very effective. So why are we not challenging the way we work and looking for something better than this convenient but, sadly, often inefficient solution?
We need Product Manager skills within our Product Owner. Someone who will fall in love with the problem we are trying to solve, not the solution. Someone who understands how to work with tools to reduce the risk that customers will not value the product and ensure it fits well within the corporate model as well as simply looking at technical feasibility and UX design. Someone who demands cheap early prototypes before investing in production ready code that does something nobody wants.
I think we have become complacent in our little bubble with the Product Owner as our window on the world. I have always considered myself as a thought leader in the Agile community but when I stepped into the world of professional Product management I felt like a dinosaur.
It’s time we took the next step and started to ensure what we are doing is right for the business and not just ask our single point of contact to make all the calls. We need to take the Product Owner role and make it into a Product Manager role. We need to support this critical gateway out of the team into the real world and make this more than just a convenient decision point.
I certainly don’t intend to be working in another 20 years, but when I do decide to retire or as my eight year old son puts it ‘give up’, I certainly don’t want my industry to still be here. Its time to take the next step!