Agile Product Management

A Literature Review

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Agile is a development mindset used worldwide by thousands of teams to create software. Agile focuses on developing software hyper-focused on user testing and continuous improvement. Agile is often associated with Product Management, which focuses on building and managing teams to produce impactful products. There is, however, a large volume of controversy as to whether or not it is the most effective form of planning for product management.

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© Bridger Tower

The purpose of this literature review is to examine what research, study, and writing have been performed on the relationship between product management and Agile development. To this end, thirteen writings will be reviewed to empower the reader in furthering their study of the topic. In a broad sense, the subject of interest can be summarized in the following question: is Agile an effective planning methodology for digital product management?

The impact of Agile on product teams will be considered and further understood. This review will be of importance to those in product management and development. By analyzing contemporary literature, peer-reviewed articles, and academic studies, the reader will be educated on the positive and negative effects of Agile planning as a method of product development success.

This literature review will follow a set course in topical exploration. First, the history and definitions of Agile development and product management will be stated. Secondly, the frameworks of modern Agile in product management will be explained. Thirdly, a critical analysis of the results of Agile will be produced from authorities who disagree on the planning method’s effectiveness and its necessity in product development. To close, the reader will come to understand the meaning of Agile and its relevance to product management. As well, conclusions will be drawn on the reality of Agile planning as the most impactful form of planning for product growth and improvement.

Readers will come to understand the need for further development in the study of product management and the Agile framework. It will be stated that an Agile framework is the most effective form of management for digital products in some circumstances. In other cases, further exploration and innovation are needed to produce the most effective development framework for product management.

History and Definition

What is Agile Development?

In 2001, a group of seventeen software engineers and developers retreated to Snowbird Resort to relax, ski, and learn from one another. After a discussion on how the process of software development could be simplified and made better. They produced the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. The Manifesto laid out twelve principles that have guided thousands of developers and engineers worldwide in building today’s most used software applications. These principles explain the mechanics of Agile, the reasons behind its requirements, and how to become a practicing Agile developer (Fowler & Highsmith, 2001).

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© https://agilemanifesto.org/

Prior to this creation of Agile, most software engineer teams used a planning approach entitled “Waterfall.” Waterfall is a development practice where the complete design and development of the new software is created before allowing users to access it. Unfortunately, this linear process caused the software to be built without validation. Late “bugs” in the software could also cause months of setbacks or possibly ruin the entire project (Nice, 2017).

The difficulties that accompanied Waterfall inspired the Snowbird 17 to create that Manifesto for Agile Software Development. Today, Agile has become standard practice for managing and planning all types of software projects around the globe, replacing Waterfall and its outdated practices.

How does Agile development work? An article by Ebert, Abrahamsson, and Oza (2012) clearly explains the customer-centric focus of Agile. Instead of shipping or distributing the software to customers only after the design and development, Agile produces a “lean” product. This lean product means that the software lacks excess features or unnecessary complexity. These lean products, also called MVPs or Minimum Viable Products, are produced quickly by software teams and shipped to their respective customers. The customers then become the software testers, allowing for less waste and a steady accumulation of users. The focus of Agile is creating value for customers and developing software with a solid product-market fit, or in other words, a product needed and wanted by the public.

What is Product Management?

As software progressed and digital products became more popular and valuable, a dedicated product team became necessary to align the business goals with the development plan. Product Management was created to fill that gap between software engineers and business leaders.

A product manager, or PM, leads the product team; her responsibilities lie in connecting business goals with product development. In his highly-acclaimed book Inspired, Marty Cagan (2018) speaks about the critical roles of a product manager; these are also the critical components of product management. The five fundamental areas in product management are product knowledge, customer understanding, data analysis, market/industry awareness, and knowledge of business goals. By obtaining a deep and clear understanding of these areas, the PM can nurture the product to grow sustainably and profitably. The PM also facilitates the complete product lifecycle, which is how a product moves from ideation to creation to consumer. This product lifecycle is a large part of the marketing strategies of today’s largest companies. Businesses like Apple, Facebook, and Google rely heavily on product managers to create digital products that billions of people will use every day.

Besides being a large part of marketing, product management falls under a more extensive umbrella of project management. In the research journal entitled Project Management in Product Development: Leadership Skills and Management Techniques to Deliver Great Products, author George Ellis (2015) explains how a branch of project management transformed itself into today’s field of product management. Project management was and is used heavily in the business world to run projects big and small. Over its relatively short lifetime, there has been much research on the topic of project management. There are hundreds of books on how to run a team well and best practices for managing a project.

Once software became such a large part of our human existence, project management naturally found its way into the world of product development. As a result, many of the early principles practiced in product management came from project management. Since, product management has developed into a discipline of its own.

Frameworks of Agile

In today’s product development ecosystem, many product managers have turned to the practice of Agile in managing their product teams. In their paper Agile Management in Product Development, de Borba et al. explore this newfound relationship. They explain how Agile can be accessed using multiple frameworks: Scrum, Lean, and Kanban. These frameworks will be further explored in the coming sections.

It is also worth mentioning that newer, hybrid models combine Agile with more traditional management forms like Waterfall. These hybrid models have seen success in modern development; however, there is a lack of defined practice. For this reason, these models will not be analyzed in this review. Further research is needed on these models.

To begin the study of Agile as an effective practice for Product Management, one must first understand Scrum, Lean, and Kanban frameworks and their practice.

Scrum

Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber created Scrum. These two men were a part of the original Snowbird 17, who produced the Agile Manifesto in 2001. Sutherland and Schwaber wanted to produce a framework that could be implemented in day-to-day work to apply Agile principles. The main focus of Scrum is that most of the work done in software development is unpredictable. It takes time, knowledge, and research to uncover a digital product’s necessary features and abilities. Scrum effectively balances business problems/goals with software requirements, making it a solid agile framework candidate for product managers. The practice of Scrum focuses on having a living, breathing product that is ever-changing based on the needs of the users. Within the Scrum framework, Sprints are short bursts of dedicated, focused work to create new features and pieces of software. Case studies show that Scrum Sprints are effective in smaller, shorter projects. However, effectiveness begins to erode when Scrum is applied to products at scale with greater complexity (Vlaanderen et al., 2011).

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© scrum.org

Lean

Another practice of Agile is named Lean. A team inside Toyota created Lean to assist in creating new models of cars. Since, Lean has found its way to digital products and product management. Lean product development solutions focus on increasing the value of the software or product by reducing overall waste. In an article entitled Lean Solutions to Software Product Management, Maglyas et al. (2012) explain the five principles of Lean development: value, value stream, flow, pull, and perfection. In practice, these principles work together to produce digital products for companies large and small. In addition, Lean has proven itself as a viable framework of agile principles.

Kanban

Kanban is another major player in the world of Agile development. Kanban was created inside of Toyota as a spin-off of Lean. Kanban comes from a Japanese word meaning “visual board” or “sign.” The central part of the Kanban system is the Kanban Board — it is the visualization for the work being done on the project. Toyota’s original boards were mounted on physical boards, whereas today’s boards are most often digital. In a case study by Sjøberg et al. (2012), Kanban was measured compared to Scrum. As a result, Kanban proved highly effective in managing products as a team. Product bugs were even reduced by 10% as compared to Scrum.

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Image of the Original Kanban Boards at Toyota © Toyota

As has been noted, the Agile way of creating software and technology has found its way into product management in the form of Scrum, Kanban, Lean and other frameworks. What follows, then, is the answer to the question proposed by this literature review — is Agile an effective planning methodology for effective digital product management? To discover this answer, one must analyze the results of 20+ years of Agile application in product-driven companies.

Results of Agile in Product Management

Opposing Findings

One of the prominent pieces of literature on product management and Agile development is a book entitled Agile Project Management: Creating Innovative Projects by Jim Highsmith (2004). Within Highsmith, explore the power of Agile to develop innovative and highly successful products. Emphasis is placed on Agile as a framework for software and digital products, specifically as software is much more “flexible” than hardware or physical products. This finding is similar to that of de Bora et al. (2019), who found obvious issues in applying Agile to physical product management. All in all, Highsmith (2004) concludes that highly effective Agile products will come from people and businesses with an Agile mindset — those being willing to fail and iterate often. Becoming Agile, according to Highsmith, will produce innovative products that will amass satisfied users and, in return, become highly profitable.

The results, however, are not always positive for Agile and PM. An informative research study was conducted by Fogelström et al. (2009) entitled The Impact of Agile Principles on Market-Driven Software Product Development. This study examined Extreme Programing (XP), Scrum, Lean Software Development, and more to measure their effectiveness amongst top product companies. After studying results from interviews, observations, and empirical studies, Fogelström and associates explained their findings. It became evident that there was a “misalignment” between Market-Driven Product Development (a product development style that focuses on the consumer’s required features) and agile development — especially in the early stages of development. This finding is significant because an essential part of effective product management is satisfying the consumer and their needs. The article’s final claim does not suggest the need to abandon the agile framework but rather to find a way to work in harmony with the customer’s needs.

In contrast, another study by Lévárdy & Browning (2009) in the same year as Fogelström et al. (2009) studies the effects of an “adaptive” approach to Agile product development management. Adaptive processes present a group of next steps in software development based on feedback and testing. These options are then tested to see what path is the most reliable. This model was adequate for larger companies with excess means to test each option. However, this model does not account for smaller software companies without the resources to complete such “options” testing. This issue results in a significant gap in determining Agile as an end-all-be-all effective means for product management.

Further, the previously mentioned Kanban framework does offer extraordinary evidence for its effectiveness in PM. In the aforementioned case study by Sjøberg and associates (2012), Kanban cut the product preproduction time in half compared to the older practice of Scrum. The Kanban framework has a more recent application in Agile development, and many experts are excited about its promising future in the world of product management. However, further research and case studies are required before drawing any conclusions.

Research Opportunities

Dr. Nicholas G. Hall (2012) from The Ohio State University produces a range of research opportunities in the study of project management. Hall concludes that there are many opportunities to further study product management and the Agile method. Below are suggested paths of study that specifically apply to product management.

Firstly, the real differentiating factor of product management compared to other project management forms is uncertainty. Unfortunately, there has not been significant research in project management of the uncertain. Further research on individual projects’ processes, selection, notification, and Earned Value Analysis is needed to determine best practices.

Secondly, there are many contractual issues in today’s PM landscape. It is difficult to amass complete cooperation on product projects, especially from larger teams. Further research on cooperation options and solutions would prove highly valuable to the study of Agile and PM.

Lastly, the scalability of Agile is called into question. As previously shown by Vlaanderen et al. (2011), the effectiveness of Agile begins to erode as products and software becomes more complicated and teams continue to grow. Therefore, further experimentation and research into how Agile can be better applied to large-scale companies and their products are needed to determine the most effective route.

Conclusion

This literature review has analyzed the relationship between the Agile development framework and the field of product management. Thirteen sources have been examined and synthesized throughout the review. These resources have provided a clear view of the current state of knowledge on this topic.

The purpose of this study has been to determine the effectiveness of the Agile framework as an effective mode of product management. In general, the analysis centered around the question: is Agile an effective planning methodology for digital product management? To uncover the results of this question, we explored the impact of Agile management on product teams and its result. Therefore, we first examined the history and definitions of Agile development and product management to do this. Following, the three main frameworks of today’s Agile management were presented: Scrum, Lean, and Kanban. Lastly, a critical analysis of the results of Agile was presented from scholars who disagree on the planning method’s effectiveness and necessity in product development.

From the contemporary research examined, one can make several conclusions. As a whole Agile performed well in product management teams that were focused on a smaller product. Agile proved to be significantly more effective than in the predecessor, Waterfall, in three main areas. 1. Cutting back on the overall cost of product development by producing less waste and incorporating user testing into the build of the product. 2. By speeding up the product development process by creating MVPs and Lean products that could be shipped to users at a much faster pace. And 3. Increased business revenue from a better Product-Market Fit accomplished by relying heavily on consumer data to transform software into customer-focused products.

These results were promising and proved the effectiveness of Agile management in specific situations. However, as Agile was applied to products at scale, it became more difficult to quantify such positive results. Larger software companies had difficulty applying Agile principles to their product if they were not accustomed to its requirements. As a result, there was a breakdown in Agile performance amongst large companies with multiple product teams. As a result, Agile could not be confidently stated as an effective means of product management. However, it is necessary to mention the effectiveness of Kanban and other ‘hybrid’ forms of Agile management. Kanban, as stated previously, has proven effective in large-scale companies, and independent teams can use the process. Hybrid forms of Agile have been created and tested to counter these negative results in larger companies. Both of these topics deserve further study and made hold answers.

Therefore, in answer to the question: is agile an effective development model for product teams? It can be stated; there is significant room for further research to be conducted in determining the most effective form of development within product management. Agile is practical for some situations, yet the optimal mode of development is yet to be found. No conclusive statement can, nor should, be made on the general effectiveness of Agile to product management.

References

Cagan, M. (2018). Inspired: How the best companies create technology-powered products and services. Wiley.

de Borba, João Carlos R., Trabasso, L. G., & Pessôa, M.V. P. (2019). Agile management in product development. Research Technology Management, 62(5), 63–67. doi:10.1080/08956308.2019.1638488

Ebert, C., Abrahamsson, P., & Oza, N. (2012). Lean software development. IEEE Software, 29(5), 22–25. doi:10.1109/MS.2012.116

Ellis, G. (2015). Project Management in Product Development: Leadership Skills and Management Techniques to Deliver Great Products. Butterworth-Heinemann.

Fogelström, N. D., Gorschek, T., Svahnberg, M., & Olsson, P. (2010). The impact of agile principles on market-driven software product development. Journal of Software Maintenance & Evolution: Research & Practice, 22(1), 53–80. doi:10.1002/spip.420

Fowler, M., & Highsmith, J. (2001). The agile manifesto. Software Development, 9(8), 28–35. http://users.jyu.fi/~mieijala/kandimateriaali/Agile-Manifesto.pdf

Hall, N. G. (2012). Project management: Recent developments and research opportunities. Journal of Systems Science and Systems Engineering, 21(2), 129–143.

Highsmith, Jim (2004). Agile Project Management: Creating innovative products. O’Reilly.

Lévárdy, V., & Browning, T. R. (2009). An adaptive process model to support product development project management. IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, 56(4), 600–620. doi:10.1109/TEM.2009.2033144

Maglyas, A., Nikula, U., & Smolander, K. (2012). Lean solutions to software product management problems. IEEE Software, 29(5), 40–46. doi:10.1109/MS.2012.108

Nyce, C. M. (2017). The winter getaway that turned the software world upside down. How a group of programming rebels started a global movement. The Atlantic.

Sjøberg, D. I. K., Johnsen, A., & Solberg, J. (2012). Quantifying the effect of using kanban versus scrum: A case study. IEEE Software, 29(5), 47–53. doi:10.1109/MS.2012.110

Vlaanderen, K., Jansen, S., Brinkkemper, S., & Jaspers, E. (2011). The agile requirements refinery: Applying SCRUM principles to software product management. Information & Software Technology, 53(1), 58–70. doi:10.1016/j.infsof.2010.08.00