One of the hottest topics in project management and product development today is Agile. Agile is a set of values that generate several different project management frameworks to increase productivity, customer satisfaction, and team morale. While agile methodologies are widespread in software and IT, they are only recently being adapted to the development of physical products.
The Agile Manifesto
The core values of the agile philosophy are reflected in The Agile Manifesto. This proclamation was produced by a group of software developers in 2001 in an attempt to improve speed-to-market and accuracy of product delivery.
The Agile Manifesto compares a preferred way of doing things in a project to the traditional way. So, while conventional project management tools, techniques, and procedures are not rejected outright, the agile philosophy recognizes a better and more efficient way to accomplish project tasks. These are shown on the left-hand side of the comparison statements, while conventional policies are shown the right-hand side.
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working products over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change instead of following a plan
While there are literally dozens of implementations of the agile philosophy, the most commonly adopted framework for physical product development is Scrum. Scrum is an adaptative, flexible approach to projects that allows for iterative development and improves communication across a team and with the customer. Elements of Scrum fall into three categories: artifacts, tools, and roles.
A key artifact or process in Scrum is the idea of time-boxing. This produces a rhythm and cadence in the work and, for product development, helps to minimize risk. Several events are time-boxed or limited. The first is the sprint.
A sprint typically lasts two to four weeks and is a period of intense work for the product development team. Only a few, priority tasks are completed in each sprint so that the team maintains focus. For example, a sprint may be designed to gain customer insights through market research by conducting customer focus groups or testing a particular concept in a real environment. Sprint tasks re prioritized to bring the highest value to the project as early as possible. Thus, by keying in on a few, critical items early in the project, a new product can be designed with appropriate features that customers want and need.
A disadvantage of the sprint in physical product design is in the definition of “done”. Whereas a software project can deliver completed lines of code at the end of a sprint, physical product development sprints may deliver test results or qualitative market research. It may be useful to view the sprint as a learning period.
Other artifacts in Scrum include the daily stand-up meeting and retrospectives. I’d like to refer you to other posts and papers for more information on these artifacts.
As indicated, the new product development (NPD) team works on gaining customer feedback or delivering a working feature during each sprint. A crucial decision-making tool for Scrum is the product backlog. This is loosely like a list of project requirements in a traditional phased and gated product development process.
The product backlog is developed at the beginning of a project and is constantly reviewed and updated (“groomed”) during the project life cycle. Product features and attributes, along with the most critical customer experiments are listed in rank order. Items from the product backlog are worked during any given sprint. The NPD team commits to only work on a product backlog item during a sprint which can be completed in the timeframe (e.g. 2 to 4 weeks). In this way, the highest business value items are worked first.
In physical product development, it is of high value to determine the business case for a new product as well as to test a minimally viable product (MVP). Market studies and technical experiments are often conducted int eh early sprints to determine customer need and product feasibility. Such knowledge-building activities are designed to eliminate uncertainty in the product development effort.
Three important roles in a Scrum project are the team, the Scrum Master, and the product owner. A cross-functional, co-located team does the work of the project during the time-boxed sprints. Close collaboration among team members is often cited as a reason for improved productivity in an agile project versus traditional staged and gated processes.
The Scrum Master is a bit like a project leader yet works in a service role more than a directional one. The team largely decides how to accomplish tasks during any given sprint while the Scrum Master interfaces with the customer, and removes roadblocks and obstacles facing the team in their daily work.
The product owner is a unique role in Scrum and a role that is frequently overlooked in practice of traditional NPD and project management processes. Product owners create the prioritized product backlog, making the decisions of which features are most important – and valuable – to the business and to the customer. It is the product owner who approves features and applications at the end of each sprint. NPD projects benefit from creating personas for the product owner to assume in this role.
Agile for NPD
While initially designed for software development, agile methodologies are gaining traction in NPD for physical, tangible product development. Often, the agile processes, like those in Scrum, are overlaid on a traditional NPD process. Learning cycles are especially important in the market and technology development of a new product.
Please contact me if you’d like a free pdf copy of the Scrum Body of Knowledge (SBOK). To learn more about applying agile to new product development management, check out 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!
Stories of entrepreneurial success, like Airbnb, using agile techniques for new business are artfully included in The Creator’s Code and Barking Up the Wrong Tree (affiliate links). I also dedicate an entire chapter to traditional NPD processes in NPDP Certification Prep: A 24-Hour Study Guide, and you can find additional references at https://globalnpsolutions.com/services/npd-resources/. Some more great references on agile and Scrum are:
- 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
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