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4 Tips in Agile for Product Managers

Agile is not just a buzzword. Being agile is everything I do and live for as a PM. In this fast moving and uber-competitive industry, agility is how you stay ahead of market expectations and keep customers happy.

But being agile is not about shipping new products and features quickly. Being agile is about learning quickly.

No product is ever built perfectly the first time. Mistakes will be made, whether it’s unforeseen bugs, missed use cases, imperfect beta testing or any number of challenges.

The purpose of the agile framework is to get the team from one logical point in the development cycle to the next point– a sprint –so there’s just enough product on which to conduct a short demo and learn what’s working well and what needs to improve in future sprints.

At the beginning of a startup, teams are super agile by necessity. Because the window of opportunity is tighter, with limited financial resources and with larger competitors looming, it’s imperative to get the product into the hands of beta testers to learn and make improvements.

However, as your product and company scales and becomes “all grown up,” things start to change. You’ll need a more formal QA and automation process; technical debt and stability become mission-critical; and growing business will add new categories of projects to your roadmap. Your management team will also expect you to do more with fewer resources.  

You can easily see how agility can be lost in a lot of large and mature organizations! Stay agile and create efficiency with the following tips:

1. Focus on the problem you are solving; everything else is a distraction

It’s easier to get distracted than you may realize. Lots of people have lots of ideas for your product. You want to please everyone, but it’s impossible to do build all of these ideas and stay agile. 

As the PM, it’s your job to clearly define the problem you are solving and keep the scope within reason to solve the problem effectively. To do this, you need to listen to all the great ideas, but prioritize only the ideas that solve the problem best.  

Ideas that don’t relate to the problem being solved are a distraction and should not be in your team backlog. They aren’t necessarily bad ideas, but solve a different problem and require a different project or product entirely. 

2. Reserve 20% of your team capacity for various improvements after each sprint 

Constantly shipping, learning, and improving are the keys to an effective agile process. After each sprint and demo, there will be things you want to change in the product. It’s important to anticipate these changes, so they don’t happen unexpectedly and detour your project plan and timeline. 

When you are scoping and planning your project, your SCRUM master or engineering manager should reserve 20% of team capacity for the improvements you’ll want to make. This will help you reflect on your initial scoping and requirements so you don’t oversubscribe the team in the development process.

3. Cut scope wherever there is ambiguity 

The scope and plan of the project should be crystal clear to everyone on the team. For features that aren’t clear to more than two team members, it’s best to cut the scope and focus on what’s clear at the given point in time. Learnings generated in the sprint can inform the next set of features and improvements. 

In other words, take small steps and move faster toward the next step. This also helps improve efficiency as less time is wasted explaining features that may or may not be needed right now, at the expense progress on the current sprint plan with the clear tasks in scope.

4. Use the product (as much as possible)

This one should be obvious, but always worth mentioning. If you don’t use your own product you’re not learning the right way. No one can stare at wireframes or JIRA tickets and truly understand how a product works: you need to use the product religiously in your day to day and assimilate what it’s like to be a customer of your product.  

You’ll also want to recruit beta testers that can provide you with the feedback you can use to re-assess the 20% improvement capacity you have set aside. Then you can plan the next sprint and use those learnings to generate a new set of learnings and improvements.  You never stop learning!

Remember, agile is not going to cover all the bases. It’s a methodology that allows the team to focus and learn fast. The more quickly you can uncover the next set of learnings, the more likely you are to stay ahead in the market and keep your customers happy.