While less than 20 years old, the agile philosophy has immensely impacted how we do projects, interact on teams, and manage resources. First applied to software and IT projects, the agile theory emphasizes people over processes, and experimentation over documentation. Today, we apply the flexibility of agile management to tangible product development as well as computer-based projects.
One of the greatest challenges for an organization that transitions from a traditional project management approach is the role of managers. In a waterfall methodology, the PM directs tasks and activities of the project by assigning work to individual team member. S/he monitors task completion as well as the overall project budget and schedule. The project manager’s role is to keep things on track and to implement corrective actions if there is a deviation from the plan.
In sharp contrast, an agile project leader is a servant leader. In this role, the project leader helps to smooth the pathway for the project team by removing roadblocks and streamlining paperwork and systems as needed. The agile project leader’s role is to engage, empower, and encourage.
In traditional projects, the project manager is a manager by definition. S/he has authority and influence. Accomplishing the written project goals is the primary objective of the project manager. Success is measured by achieving the project scope on-time and on-budget.
As the agile philosophy emphasizes people and interactions over plans and contracts, an agile project leader will focus on building relationships. Engaging the project team and the customer are within the roles and responsibility of an agile team leader.
Notice, too, that we don’t say “agile project manager;” instead we use the term “agile team leader”. This is quite intentional as a manager expects to have the organization line up behind his/her decisions and act on these. In contrast, the agile team leader engages the team in decision-making processes.
Peculiar to new product development (NPD), agile team leaders facilitate customer engagement. Products are designed, developed, and tested to meet customer needs. Engaging customers to gain insights and preferences throughout the life cycle of the NPD project is critical to success in commercializing goods and services.
It is probably apparent in the agile philosophy that the project leader serves to empower the team. Because relationships are placed higher than documentation, systems, and plans, the servant leader works to establish team autonomy. Agile NPD teams, like traditional project teams, are made up of cross-functional representatives. What’s different, however, is that the agile NPD team members are empowered to act autonomously in their creative design. The goal is to create a product desired by customers – not to match a complicated scope of work etched in stone.
Agile NPD teams are also empowered to meet with potential customers directly to test concepts, feature ideas, and prototypes. This feedback is incredibly valuable to the development of a new product and will help the team with speed-to-market. Ultimately, these relationships serve not only to empower external interactions but also help to bond the agile NPD team to a common mission.
A final role of the agile project leader is to encourage the team. Of course, any good leader demonstrates empathy and encouragement, but it is a special characteristic of successful agile NPD team leaders.
Any NPD project faces failures and setbacks. It’s a matter of course in our chosen field. We find that the technology didn’t work as we had hoped, the market size is dwindling, or the customers didn’t like that feature after all. This is discouraging to NPD project team members who have worked hard and long hours to meet the challenge. It is normal to feel a bit depressed about these results.
An effective project leader recognizes the highs and lows in NPD project work and encourages the team. One form of encouragement is simply a reminder of the overall mission of the team. Most products and services are designed to improve customers’ lives and this focus can re-energize the team to establish new energy to accomplish goals. A benefit of the agile methodology is the frequent feedback from potential customers which is motivating in and of itself.
Traits of an Agile Leader
Agile leaders for NDP project teams are successful when they engage, empower, and encourage the team. Engaging with the team and with customers helps to provide focus on the best design. Teams accomplish goals and achieve better results when they are empowered to act autonomously and to build strong customer relationships. Finally, team leaders are effective when they encourage and reward team members as the team experiments with various ideas, concepts, and behaviors.
In our on-line tutorial on Design Thinking and in our Agile NPD course, we discuss failing fast and failing often to drive learning. However, we must first categorize the type of failure to benefit from lessons learned. Not all failures offer a growth opportunity, but we must be open and honest when we do encounter such circumstances. Join us for the Agile NPD course or check out our self-study and other NPDP Workshops. Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 281-280-8717. At Simple-PDH.com where we want to help you gain and maintain your professional certifications. You can study, learn, and earn – it’s simple!
We discuss different customer insight methodologies in NPDP Certification Prep: A 24-Hour Study Guide, and you can find additional references at https://globalnpsolutions.com/services/npd-resources/. Some other books you might enjoy:
- Essential Scrum by Kenneth Rubin
- The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
- Effective Project Management by Robert Wysocki
- Being Agile by Leslie Ekas and Scott Will
- Making Sense of Agile Project Management by Charles Cobb
- The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen
Study. Learn. Earn. Simple.
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