The Manager’s Guide to Agile Product Development

Manager Agile

There are many different ways to approach developing a software product, but the two primary methods boil down to either the waterfall methodology or the Agile methodology. The Agile methodology is considered by many to be the ideal software production method thanks to its flexibility, speed and quality of output.

In this article, we’re going to cover the basics of Agile software development and how to get the most out of it. Let’s begin!

What is Agile product development?

The Agile methodology is a software development process where cross-functional teams collaborate to build an application with evolving requirements. Agile prioritizes flexibility and adaptability in the face of rapid change.

Agile is an iterative process that allows software to be delivered incrementally instead of all at once and allows for change to the overall scope based on review of deliverables as they emerge.

The Agile product management methodology places a heavy emphasis on value (i.e. customer needs and company goals.) There are multiple review cycles, both internal and external, and systems in place to ensure that the overarching project goals are always being followed.

If Agile principles are applied properly, a development team can consistently release a high-quality product that is produced quickly and at minimal cost.

Agile methodology key concepts

Here are the basic concepts, philosophies and terminologies you need to know when working in Agile product development

Backlog

A backlog is a prioritized list of requirements that represents all work to be done in a project. This list is fluid, and its order changes based on current priorities, available resources, level of effort and a host of other factors.

Sprints

Agile project teams divide a project timeline into 1-4 week periods called sprints. Each sprint builds a set amount of deliverables, which is planned out in advance by the team as the sprint is being scheduled. The actual workload is planned out in between sprints to give teams the chance to incorporate feedback, but requirements do not change during the sprint itself.

Agile project roles

An Agile team has unique roles not seen in other project management methodologies. Chief among these are the Product Owner and the Scrum Master.

The Product Owner is the customer advocate on the team. It’s their job to ensure all backlog items and sprint workloads address the user story and adhere to the business needs. They are often called upon to provide feedback or perspective on the user’s behalf.

The Scrum Master is the team’s facilitator. It’s their job to remove any obstacles in front of the team. The Scrum Master also acts as middle man, keeping communication flowing between the organization/client, the Product Owner and the team itself.

User stories

A user story is a unit of work that describes a feature from an end-user’s perspective. They use simple, non-technical language to describe the intended goal or outcome. User stories are used as building blocks to create larger work units that are sometimes called “epics” or “initiatives.”

Cross-functional teams

Independent, cross-functional teams are central to how Agile teams operate. Every team has the complete set of skills necessary to bring a feature to completion. A team largely manages itself, with members establishing their own assignments and work schedules. Any questions are brought to the scrum master or product owner.

Stand-ups

A stand-up is a daily meeting conducted by each team. During these meetings, each team member will share whatever work they have scheduled the day and whatever they were able to accomplish yesterday. This is also their opportunity to share any difficulties they encountered and bring it to the scrum master’s attention.

Customer input

User stories are just part of the formula that makes Agile such a customer-centric methodology. The other part is its emphasis on frequent customer or stakeholder review cycles. Every iteration ends with a customer review to give the team ample opportunity to course-correct. The product owner can act on the customer’s behalf if they’re not available.

Advantages of Agile software development

Manager and Employee

The Agile project management methodology holds several advantages over its counterparts.

Focus on Value

In Agile, product features are defined through a combination of user stories and business needs. By focusing on the needs of actual users, an Agile team is able to provide real value even in the early stages of the project’s life cycle. And because each sprint ends in a review session or beta test, feedback can easily be incorporated into the next sprint in order to increase value even further.

More Receptive to Change

Because work is divided into numerous short sprints, an Agile team is more able to deal with changes to the project plan–no matter what direction that change comes from. In fact, refining and re-prioritizing is built into the Agile process.

Transparency

The Agile methodology allows for transparency at all levels. Daily standups allow team members and product managers visibility into work progress and any urgent issues. Regular customer review cycles allow customers and stakeholders to watch and influence the project’s progress as it’s being built.

Predictable Schedule and Costs

Because work units are in sprints with a fixed duration, It’s easy for clients to understand how much money is being spent on a specific feature or on the project as a whole. This allows the customer to effectively prioritize which features to build and whether or not they can afford additional work.

Fast Delivery

In Agile, every sprint should result in a usable feature or functionality. This means that the product can be delivered relatively quickly and beta users can be brought in for testing earlier.

Reduced Risk of Failure

Since every sprint ends in a review cycle, there is a drastically lower risk of failure as customers and stakeholders provide input on what works and what doesn’t. The relatively fast pace of each sprint also means that any corrections or fixes will happen rapidly. Problems or design issues can be caught early on and addressed, which increases the project’s chances of success.

Disadvantages of Agile software development

Agile Meeting

As beneficial as the Agile methodology is, it’s not perfect. It does have some drawbacks you will have to compensate for:

Lack of documentation

The relatively fast pace and fluid nature of Agile development work doesn’t leave much time for documentation. This makes it difficult to onboard new team members and take up work that previous Agile teams have built.

Projects deviate from plan

Agile projects tend to fall off the rails pretty quickly. Part of this is due to the shifting nature of priorities; but it’s also because of how early and often customers get to influence the team’s output. These suggestions and fixes pull the team away from the original plan and can lead them down an entirely different direction.

Bigger time commitment

Daily standups and regular review cycles require lots of commitment from both your developers and the customers. The Product Owner can speak for the customer if necessary, but the developers must participate in the standups in person for Agile to work effectively.

Poor resource planning

Because Agile projects can easily get pulled off track, it’s far more challenging to do long-term, resource planning for complex projects. Any predictions further out than a few months will likely be inaccurate–especially if the customer is heavily involved in the review process.

Fragmented output

The incremental nature of Agile software development means that teams work on different components at different times. This can result in a product that feels disjointed or fragmented, instead of one cohesive product.

What are some Agile product management best practices?

There are a few common practices you should follow if you want to get the best results from your Agile project management process.

Have a dedicated Product Owner

Many Agile teams have a senior team member who also doubles as a Product Owner, but it’s easy for them to lose perspective over the course of doing double duty. A dedicated Product Owner will be able to build, share and maintain their vision for the project while serving as a guidepost for the rest of the team.

Learn to play Planning Poker

Planning Poker is a simple yet effective planning activity. Each team member has a set of cards with numbers on them. When a task is put forth for review, each person chooses a card with a number that best represents the number of hours they think that task will take. Every person on the team then shows their number and justifies their choice. The team then reaches a consensus on how many estimated hours of work the task deserves.

Don’t ignore the standups

There are times when the standups will be considered inconvenient and wasteful–especially during crunch time–but it is actually what will help your team’s productivity the most. This regular communication will both keep the entire team up-to-date and serve as an opportunity for struggling team members to ask for help.

Conduct sprint postmortems

Meet with the team after a sprint concludes to discuss what happened. What went wrong? What went right? What should be changed to improve things in the future? Conduct these post mortems on a regular basis so you can gradually improve your team’s process over time.

Cross-train your team

An Agile team is already cross-functional, but is still at risk if only one person can do an important skill. Cross-train your team members on essential skills so that all your bases are covered if one of you becomes unavailable or leaves the team.

Working with Agile as a Customer

Agile with Customer

Are you involved in an Agile software development project as a customer? If so, the best thing you can do is to make yourself available whenever it’s required.

It sounds simple, yet it’s one of the most important factors in maintaining a project timeline. Unresponsive customers and long review cycles kill project momentum. Untimely feedback can throw a wrench in the works if the feedback directly contradicts the work of a running sprint.

When you’re a responsive customer, you’re often rewarded with timely project deliverables and a better quality product.

Would you like to know more about Agile software development and how you can work with an Agile team? Reach out, and we’ll be happy to discuss it in depth!


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