In this post we explore the question; is the Covid-19 crisis the seismic shift that Product needs?
The world of work has supposedly gone Agile. Companies are now churning out software products and technology solutions at a rate that they might have considered impossible a few years ago. Development teams, for decades hindered by bad process and siloed organisational design are now working holistically within the enabling constraints of frameworks such as Scrum — with some success.
But here’s the stark reality. We’re not done yet. Not even close.
Inside most organisations, if you zoom out, take a view of the end-to-end product life-cycle, you will see the same old sequential approach to Product — projects moving sequentially from phase to phase; discovery, feasibility testing, product design, development, pilot release, production release. Indeed, if you lightly scrutinise most Scrum teams, you will observe the micro-sequential process widely known as Scrummerfall, characterised by individuals working almost entirely alone, work dutifully being passed along relay style; dev, test, deploy to staging, deploy to production.
This is a whole 34 years since Takeuchi and Nonaka’s essay ‘The New New Product Development Game’ was first published in the Harvard Business Review. A seminal text that eventually sparked a whole industry, and, supposedly, a new and adaptive approach to product.
‘In today’s fast-paced, fiercely competitive world of commercial new product development, speed and flexibility are essential. Companies are increasingly realizing that the old, sequential approach to developing new products simply won’t get the job done. Instead, companies in Japan and the United States are using a holistic method — as in rugby, the ball gets passed within the team as it moves as a unit up the field.’
How can this be?
During a recent The Product Experience podcast ‘Breaking into Product’, Shaun Russell, a seasoned Product Manager and Product Coach, described the modern Product Manager as ‘a person that guides a product through its life-cycle,’ and, notably, ‘In an environment which is highly uncertain; so the answer isn’t a given — it could be one of many things. There may not even be an answer.’ He points out that a Product Manager who doesn’t embrace uncertainty is not a Product Manager at all — they are a Project Manager. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with that, but it has nothing to do with The New New Product Development Game. It has nothing to do with modern Product Management. In Product, a project delivered ‘on time and on budget’ quite often turns out to be fools gold.
Now, the idea of general market uncertainty and the ability to adapt to change isn’t new; these concepts have got to be slides one and two of every Agile Transformation Consultant’s sales deck. And so it’s curious; businesses are happy to let go of their money in pursuit of speed and flexibility, but what they are unable to do is relinquish certainty and control, or even recognize that it is a problem. How can this be?
Perhaps we are hooked on this idea of knowing, of certainty, and business case realisation? Maybe this need for certainty is so deeply ingrained in all of us that it will take a seismic shift in our attitudes, how we approach the world of work, our culture, for us to truly move forward and start playing The New New Product Development game as intended?
Reflecting and Learning
2020 was the year that it hit us all hard — the fact that we are not fully in-control of our lives. That we cannot see into the future. Many of us have been deeply and profoundly terrified by this truth — myself included.
But we have all learned something; if we dance with the unknown, reflect, learn, and take action, we are able to do incredible things. Many businesses that have nothing to do with ‘Product’ in this sense, have done this incredibly well. Literally evolving overnight; creating new and innovative ways to reach their customers, add value, and stay alive. During this time of lockdown, I’ve enjoyed peeking through the coffee shop windows of my local high-street and seeing small groups of baristas and business owners huddled together, the odds against them, generating ideas and using the latest information to figure out their next best move — staying afloat, and, in some cases, coming out on top.
Collectively we are going through an experience that proves to us definitively that detailed long-term plans do not serve us. We know that working together, staying sharp, and adapting to change wins the day. We’ve experienced that uncertainty can create leaps in terms of our thinking, innovation, and cultural norms. Now, we understand that we can take a path previously unimagined and come to a better place — we should continue to seek this path.
This is now our shared experience and inherent truth. Irrefutable. So, let’s dance with uncertainty, let’s continue to reflect, listen, learn, and adapt. Let’s create and experiment.
Finally, let’s stop dressing up our old ways of working and do Product. If the local chippy can do it, then so can we.
Breaking into Product. Shaun Russell. 2020. The Product Experience podcast.Web.
The New New Product Development Game. Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka. 1986. HBR.