We’ve Lost Our Way with Agile Development and It is High Time We Got It Back

Photo Courtesy of David Kovalenko on Unsplash

If you look at last year’s tech IPOs it is quite a snoozer of a list with largely napworthy performance. With the exception of Beyond Meat and Zoom, the rest could easily fall into the “who cares” category. Two ways to hail a private car as a taxi. Sure. A company that knows Africa and can deliver food and electronics there. OK, but that sounds derivative and hard. Getting sleepier. A platform that allows snooty people of limited means to buy used Gucci bags. Now I feel like I’ve taken a melatonin. Honestly the only thing that really captured my attention on this list was all the different ways to make fun of Peloton, so dripping with privilege and now so out of touch with the times, that their ads are good for many belly laugh parodies.

Chart courtesy of Quartz — an optimistic snapshot taken 12–31–19. I haven’t done all the lookups six months later in our current health & economic crisis, but suffice to say that it’s pretty certain this chart would be almost entirely mauve.

If you consider that this is the list of the top technology companies meant to be transforming the lives of people everywhere, we should be deeply disappointed. Sure, pundits can argue that the market has shifted to more acquisitions and the cleansing due diligence function public markets served for larger acquirers has faded as companies figured out how to better evaluate private companies. Nonetheless, this is still the list of who we laud as “Valedictorians” suggesting our “school system” is failing.

Here is where I may lose you, especially if you are a dyed-in-the-wool Agile supporter. Agile has been amazing for product and software development in terms of getting more hearts and minds involved and streamlining the clunkier aspects of waterfall. Probably the most negative aspect of waterfall development was that it was big bang. Some smart folks in product management did their homework and picked a compass heading for the product. They passed these requirements over to engineering in an imperfect transfer of information. They then went back to their day jobs of researching other things and supporting sales cycles. While it was in the oven, the product managers would occasionally flip on the oven light to ensure the engineers were still making cupcakes, but that’s metaphorically about the extent of the check-in.

As long as three years later, some monstrosity got delivered. Customer requirements and the product managers that collected them had moved on by then and what came out only approximately aligned with the specs that went in. In the end, no one was really accountable for the quality of the “thing” and its lackluster sales. This may be the most extreme timeline, but it should ring true for anyone who experienced waterfall. There was not much to like here beyond the fact the PMs did have the time to thoroughly research customer requirements. After they delivered their specs, they were often out in the field talking about both current and future products. Honest prospects and customers would hand their ass to them when necessary which became a relatively fast way for product managers to understand what customers really cared about. You could see this working when product management groups blew past their T&E budgets.

Enter Agile. Rather than big bang, let’s all kumbaya every week to make sure we are on the same page all the time. Engineers no longer have to interpret detailed specs; they have the PM sitting in every scrum meeting to hold their hand. PMs can now make endless tweaks to a solution and designers can hold up ridiculous stage gates to ensure nothing ever emerges unless it meets their personal view of perfect. Who is talking to customers about whether or not the design in flight will meet their needs? Almost no one because everyone is stuck in the sprint meetings. Doesn’t sales do that is what you often hear from companies stuck in this cycle. In the worst of these scenarios PMs are eliminated entirely because aren’t they just doing engineering management by breaking apart the stories, interpreting what technical approach should be taken, and absolving engineers from making decisions like Eng. managers of yore did?

This group grope produces an uncertain result on an uncertain timeline with way less checking and no double or triple checking with prospects as to whether or not they will buy it. Also, by the time it does come out, there is simply no time to run a beta. Everyone is exasperated with the overdue baby. Who is really doing product strategy? Really no one. The people likely capable of doing so are stuck in scrum meetings or gone entirely.

I would argue that what makes it through this gauntlet today are entire companies that are what we used to call features. They don’t solve complete business problems, but rather portions thereof. In the best case they are essentially like what a good friend of mine says of a popular movie: “Speed 2. It’s like Speed 1, but on a boat.” Some feature now on the Internet or in Africa or for poor wannabe upper-crusters. These solutions are way less ambitious and thus way less valuable.

The Agile machine has a lot to like in terms of how well people work together, but I would argue that what is coming out of the pipe in uninteresting, doesn’t track well with customer need, and is not as revolutionary or competitive as it should be. Companies just aren’t, as they say, skating to where the puck will be.

We won’t be able to solve this problem here, but let’s at least get started with a thought exercise.

· Can you easily name the people responsible for your product strategy?

· How often are they exposed to what it takes to sell their solutions?

· Are they accountable, as entrepreneurs should be, to the revenue their solutions generate?

· How often do they meet with customers or prospects?

· Are you confident you are building a complete solution or are you creating a fragile Feature as a Company?

You’ll know if you have a passing grade here, but you should probably already be walking to detention if your CEO is doing your product strategy, your product strategy is done by committee, or you don’t have PMs at all.

Let’s all hope that the classes of 2020 and 2021 look more like technology solving really meaty problems (not literally, as we now seem to be good there). If you think you are at risk of not making the cut, take a good, hard look at what mechanisms and personnel you have to ensure you are accountable for creating things of value that customers really need. The first step as the famous product strategist Steve Blank is fond of saying is to “get out of the building.”

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