Agility in Product Organizations, The Why and How

Organizational Agility is probably the most important characteristic of not only product organizations but entire businesses.. want an example ? think COVID-19 !

When COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic and lock-downs started by early 2020, a lot of businesses went into shock, no one ever witnessed something like this before, simply no one studied something like this in business text-books or schools. Many organizations didn’t have any sort of blue-prints or SOPs (standard procedures) for how to act to this sudden and devastating change, no one also had any sort of predictions to when things would get back to normal, hence the uncertainty in taking actions, questions like should we downsize, should we wait, should we pivot the business, should we close physical stores, should we pay rent ! answering any of these questions required knowledge that no one actually possessed and a lot of businesses went into real-time decision making based on new findings as they come.

It’s almost 2 years now since the start of the pandemic, and when you look at the businesses which were able to not only survive but actually flourish, you will find a common characteristic that defines almost all of them, Agility.

Why should you care about your Organization Agility?

The answer is quite simple; survival.. put it this way, if your organization is not fast enough in sensing and responding to new changes then you will most probably become a nice meal for some potential predator !, this predator can be a lethal virus, a natural disaster, a financial crisis, or a new competitor.

Now if you work in technology then you are most probably aware of “Agile software development” and practicing it in some way or another, and if you know the story of how it came to be then you’d know that it was introduced to solve some very critical problems with the way software development used to happen before 2001, It advocates adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, and continual improvement, and it encourages flexible responses to changes in requirements, resource availability, and understanding of the problems to be solved.

Yet as great as it is, the concepts of “Agility” is in many organizations limited only to engineering or technology teams !, it’s a weird phenomena but I bet you encountered it a lot, i call it the “tale of two cities “ syndrome, where there is a product/tech city appreciating flexibility and adaptability and a business city ruled by the ex-BCGs and ex-McKinseys of the world who value very long business cases and 5-year forecasts..

If you are the product leader in your organization then you will definitely have a great influence on your company’s culture and a big opportunity to participate in evolving it, start with a robust foundation within your own team and make sure that you have the right people onboard, partner solidly with tech to make sure that you have full synergy and then move outwards to the most adjacent business functions to change their subcultures a team at a time. Based on my experience, Marketing teams were always the most open to change and adopt a more Agile way of thinking.

How can you introduce systematic agility in your product organization?

In this part of the article i’ll be talking about a model that i developed over the years to introduce systematic agility in the product teams i led, yet the same model can be deployed throughout an entire organization since it’s steps are not product and tech specific.

The model is made up of a continuous cycle of 4 main activities that you and your organization need to master; sense, reflect, plan and communicate.. it has no end state, should be always running and continuously calibrated. Now let’s deep dive into each one of these activities;

Sense

It’s time to grow antennas ! or develop your own spidey senses, whichever sounds cooler to you..
This activity is the main key to the whole model, as you will only be able to respond to changes if you were good enough in detecting them in the first place, obviously.

In order to get good at sensing changes you should establish the right subprocesses and continuously improve them to sense changes in your as in new rules, regulations or business models, in your as in new competing products or features launched by existing competitors, in your as in inter-segment movements, in as in new software or hardware, in your as in needs or wants shifts.

The following subprocesses if established can help you get started, yet you need to continuously evaluate and improve them, with more training and experience you should also be able to separate signal from noise as responding to noise can create a catastrophe to your organization, you’ll be indefinitely shifting your plans, accomplishing nothing which leads to a loss of trust in your product org and in your capability as a leader.

Ways to harvest signals;

  1. Form a product council: the value of the product council is that it acts as an “intelligence agency”, the council should be formed from only senior members who are capable to sift through the many granular details and only afloat the most important ones. In Delivery Hero MENA i established a product council which included the VPs of engineering, operations and sales with the mandate to meet on bi-weekly bases to share new insights, anecdotes, and strong rumors.
  2. Insure data availability and invest in data discovery: If you are not doing it already then you should start right away, start with hiring strong product analysts who can help you sense meaningful changes in data trends, build live data dashboards and work with them to build early anomaly detection and reporting capabilities, using IQR or other methods of anomaly detection.
  3. Establish continuous user research & VOC scanning: In a previous article i spoke about the importance of user research and how you can -and should- integrate it effectively into your product development process, equally important you should also actively scan for VOC in social media, store reviews, feedback emails and almost all customer touch points. Hence you should always cover both active (customers reaching out to you) and passive (you reaching out to customers) qualitative feedback.
  4. Streamline teardowns for competing products: teardowns can be extremely helpful in understanding and responding to competing products, not only will they help you save time by avoiding re-inventions but also they can help you pinpoint potential flaws in competing products which you can act upon on your own product to create a strong competitive advantages.

Remember that no one size fits all in the world of product development and hence you should continuously test and only maintain what works for your organization the best.

Reflect

Here comes the time to ask yourself the million dollar question; Was what i sensed relevant to my company overall direction ? and is it more important than what i’m doing right now ?, if your answers to both questions were “yes” then you should continue with the rest of the model stages, if it was “no & no” or “yes and no” then you shouldn’t disrupt your current team focus and plans.

Now this question is what is known as a “Compare & Contrast” question, it doesn’t ask whether or not a new sensed change is important, rather it asks if the change is in particular more important to respond to compared to everything that you are doing right now, hence reflection in essence is as good as your ability to master calculating the opportunity cost of the alternatives you have in front of you.

Reflection as an activity will consume time, either from you as the team leader or from a subset of your team who will be tasked to do the due diligence, and yes due diligence should be done properly as the last thing you want to do is to keep throwing unrefined and inconclusive thoughts at your team while they are focusing on delivering the agreed upon product plans. If this happened then you will be shooting yourself in the foot, disruption causes time loss and eventually will cause frustrations within your team. There is a reason why your product managers and their teams are following the no-scope-change rule heartedly once their sprint has started.

So, 3 very important things you need to take care of at this stage:

  1. Understand the cost of disturbing your team while focusing on a preset, pre-agreed upon plan.
  2. Do your due diligence to make sure that you are not responding to noise! and calculate the opportunity cost of not responding to a sensed change, like if it’s going to push you out of business then obviously you should act immediately.
  3. Be transparent, show empathy and make sure that you do bring your team fully onboard, they have to buy-in and be 100% aligned with your decision, they need to understand the “why” and “how” would that change bring them even closer to their goals and hence be a much better use for their time & effort.

Plan

At this stage you are kind of replacing an airplane engine in midair, so be surgical, decisive and fast.

Solid planning for the next best action is extremely important as without it you risk your team going into planning chaos.. One thing that helped he in such situations was to onboard the team leads first, and work with them on the change plan, and also to put a plan for consequences.

It’s worth noting that not everyone responds well to change, hence the importance of doing the action planning properly, because when your team sees a solid articulate plan in-front of them they will tend to maintain their trust in you and in your decisions, and make sure that you also plan well for the consequences, anticipate resistance and be ready.

During my last year with Delivery Hero, i faced multiple situations where we had to change the missions of entire teams, basically scrapping what they have been working on for the past months in order for the whole organization to reduce redundancy thus gain speed and become more efficient, such situations are very hard and emotional as teams get attached to their products by time, hence you should anticipate things like potential talent loss, and you better be ready with a plan !

Communicate

As with everything product development, structured communications always play a great rule in the success of your plans, keep it inclusive and give room for feedback.

Keep your communications well structured; You should be communicating the reason behind the change in your plans, why is it important, what will get changed and how changes will be executed.

Keep your communications inclusive; Product decisions rarely only impact product and tech, unless what you were working on originally was in-fact a very a technical task like addressing tech debt or breaking down a monolithic application, otherwise your product decisions will impact other business functions beyond product & tech, like marketing, sales, finance, operations.. etc, for that they need to be included in your structured communications to act upon the new changes and be able to highlight any risks if any.

Finally…

Agility should be one of the main characteristics of any product organization, it ensures your organization long term business sustainability and continuous growth.. You should deeply root Agility as a value in your product culture and it should guide your hire and fire decisions. In a previous article i wrote about the main characteristics of Scalable Product Managers and how to spot them, the obvious link here is people, having product managers who can embrace change, accept uncertainty, and can themselves demonstrate resilience will definitely have the greatest impact on the success of your efforts of building agility in your organization.. So make sure your have the right people onboard.

I hope you enjoyed reading this article, and as usual please remember to share your thoughts & comments below.. cheers!

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Karim Ali

Karim Ali

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Director of Product at OLX EU (Jobs & Services), former Head of Product/VP at Delivery Hero MENA, Investor, Mentor & A Happy Father of 2 :)