Of “Ethan Hunt” and product development

Every “Mission-Impossible” movie is incomplete without a formidable villain in it. In a similar manner, product development in many large organisations is incomplete without the utter disillusionment of stakeholders. Weird comparison, I know. Firstly, there is an entire industry now dedicated to making development agile. Its full of buzzwords that many people pretend to understand. Scrum, Sprint, Gollum, Yoda (you get the point). Watch a great talk on this subject below by Dave Thomas.

Secondly, I have been talking to a few friends working in product development across industries. Most agree that the single most important metric to measure effectiveness of product development in a company is how fast you ship code. Having great ideas matters but if you don’t ship code fast enough, you might as well not do it. Some people pride themselves on releasing on a daily basis some weekly and in case of many companies its their lucky day if they manage to make it to the designated release in a given month.

So what is going on? People use JIRA, Dev Ops, test automation, and all kinds of ninja kit, but when it comes to how fast they ship code, the speed still underwhelms. I tried to analyse why that is the case. Without going into problems too much, I list 3 key areas where improvements can be made.

  1. De-layer ruthlessly until you get to a performing product management function

There are simply too many functions and teams involved. Its not unusual to find that the product owner works in a different team while the developers sit in a different team. The project manager is borrowed from another function while the BA double hats across 3 projects. The scrum masters are roped in like para-troopers and the product owner never even gets to see the developers. Those are recipes of disaster. While it is not always possible for teams to be co-located, we cannot allow too many layers between the product, engineering and experience. Bringing them together within a single coherent structure will be a great start. Moreover, you do away with additional effort of having to “mobilise” a delivery every time and go through a budgeting exercise at the start and end of the development effort.

2. Make sure that the product manager is technical and has a good sense of experience  design

While it is not necessary for him or her to code, he or she absolutely needs to be able to converse and work with development team without feeling like they are talking to aliens. As most industries begin competing with tech industry they need to get this right. In tech organisations you wouldn’t, even by exception, find product managers that do not understand technology. Today’s products are technology products, and not being technical at all is not the luxury the companies can afford for long.

3. Everyone needs “digital” skills. Period.

Digital for many is a discipline and people proudly say that they are a “digital product manager” or a “digital BA” or a “digital user experience designer”. Given most products in question here are digital, the nuances of digital expertise are not materially different skill sets. Have you seen a digital department at Google? The product skills are necessary sure, but digital skills are a must when all of our products are digital. Yes, if you have lots of money you can hire a “Digital PM” but rest assured, it will slow you down. Just to be absolutely clear, the digital functions are immensely valuable and probably engines of growth for many organisations, however, “pure play digital” or “pure play product” skills will be a thing of the past soon.

It is a hard to make generalisations and I appreciate that these many not apply to many organisations. These also may not be exhaustive list of remedies, it is for now just a starter for 10. At the end of the day, these are quite radical changes, and they will not happen overnight. But for every tall order and a “Mission Impossible” you always need charm, wit and courage of an “Ethan Hunt” 🙂




Author: Abhi Shah

Passionate business builder with background in software development, big data analytics, commercial product management including digital and mobile. Currently building machine learning and data products at Barclays PLC

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