For some time now, agile project management methods have been a hot topic. The agile philosophy emerged in 2001 as a group of software developers tried to find a better way to launch completed products. Until then, they had struggled with severely delayed schedules and rampant budget overruns.
So, what is magical about agile? Really, there is nothing mysterious or bewitching about the agile approach. Instead, the philosophy encourages a development framework that forces a team back to the fundamentals of new product project management. And in innovation, those fundamentals are the customers and their needs.
The Agile Philosophy
The agile philosophy is built on a set of four values that favor customer interaction and activity over planning and contract negotiation (agilemanifesto.org). Traditional project management frameworks, including the staged-and-gated decision process in new product development (NPD), can become document-heavy. Especially large and risk-averse organizations tend toward adding processes, procedures, and policies to reduce project failures.
Instead of adding documentation to a project plan, the agile methodology adds more communication and testing. The research to create more detailed plans does indeed make the team more aware of project risks, but it does nothing to actually address those uncertainties. Brainstorming alternatives to implement IF a risk is triggered is a good practice but testing those alternative solutions in a trial will reveal the best answer in a clear and unconditional manner.
Thus, agile supports close customer interactions, lots of prototype testing, cross-functional (vs. sequential) project tasks, and collaborative communication. These values are foundational in a successful NPD program, especially if the team is targeting a radical or disruptive innovation. This is why software products served as an early demonstration of agile implementation.
It is very difficult to document the various cases in which a software tool will be used before the code is written. It’s also next-to-impossible to know which features customers will use and how they will use them. Agile allows the development team to build and test to generate information rather than preparing plans with assumed requirements.
As an example, my favorite hobby is scrapbooking, and I make greeting cards for friends and family. In fact, if I skip a holiday, they are still asking for a handmade card. I have been subscribing to a scrapbook/card-making magazine for several years to stay up-to-date with the latest trends and to find inspiring, creative ideas from other artists. I like to take copies of the magazine with me on trips as it is easy to thumb through while in queues or at the airport or in the evening at a hotel.
The publisher began putting a one-page ad into the magazine a couple of years ago about developing a mobile app. The mobile app would let you view the card photos on your phone or tablet. Now, keep in mind that the full magazine content includes photos of cards, supply lists, vendor information, and instructions to duplicate the art exactly.
Unfortunately, the publisher moved forward to develop their mobile app without consulting readers (customers). They spent a lot of money to develop the new product (the app), but it is not differentiated from other, free sources of photos of greeting cards. In designing a mobile app, the publisher moved away from what made their print magazine special (supply lists, instructions, and grouping of product examples). I found out recently that the publisher is out of business – losing their base product (magazine) at the cost of a new product (the app) built without customer input.
How Do You Implement Agile in NPD?
Because agile methodologies were originally designed for software, companies working with tangible products sometimes question whether the approach is right for them. The answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Remember that the agile framework for project management is a return to fundamentals – what do customers need and is what we are designing meet their needs?
Some of the core principles within agile are very easy to implement. For example, the idea of rapid prototyping to gain real customer feedback is a step that any NPD team can incorporate to any process immediately. Talking to and observing customer when they use your product or try to solve a particular problem is inexpensive and drives the agile value of customer interactions.
Other aspects of agile are more difficult to put in place at a firm. In particular, the agile framework changes the culture of the NPD team and changes the way we do design and development work. First, teams will learn how to work together collaboratively rather than doing R&D, engineering, or marketing work in sequential silos. Next, the development effort proceeds much faster – in sprints – with the concepts of time-boxing and delivery of working features at the forefront. Finally, old forms and templates, and especially directive management, are replaced with transparent and interactive measures of project status.
Scrum is the most common implementation of the agile philosophy in new product development. Scrum utilizes short, but intense, work periods that create usable deliverables. For example, while a software project might product a few lines of tested code at the completion of a 1-week sprint, an NPD team may product a full customer journey map at the conclusion of a month-long sprint. Neither deliverable yields a fully integrated working product, but each sub-system is completed and ready-to-go in a short period of time. Each deliverable is independently tested and validated with customers.
In addition, Scrum utilizes three important roles in implementation. First, the product owner represents the voice of customer. This ensures the close interaction with both customer and business needs throughout the life of the NPD project. The Scrum Master is not a traditional project management but acts to facilitate work and communication among team members and business interfaces.
Finally, the Scrum team is a cross-functional, collaborative group that does the work of the project. They remain focused on the project throughout the development cycle. This team is small enough to make critical product design decisions and is diverse enough to address product development issues across the engineering, operations, and sales spectrum.
Agile has moved beyond a hot topic to a way of life for many companies. By re-focusing on the fundamentals of new product development, an agile project management approach can speed time-to-market and increase the quality of the products launched. Moreover, the very nature of an agile approach to NPD drives more creative and disruptive innovations.
To learn more about agile in new product development, we are holding a special workshop on Agile NPD on 23 & 24 April 2019 in Houston, Texas, USA. Register here for the 2-day Agile NPD workshop and save on a full 3-day experience including a pre-workshop course on Design Thinking. Use code “bundle” at checkout and save 15% on both courses. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 281-280-8717 for more information on innovation, project management, and leadership training or coaching. I love helping individuals, teams, and organizations achieve their highest innovation goals!
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