Using Product Design Methods to Kick off your Agile Transformation

I’d just concluded an engagement as an Agile Coach with a major online retailer. After years of experiencing successful initiatives, it was evident that this was not one of them.

The client did not get what they were expecting and it was clear that there was never a shared understanding of what those expectations were (“We’ve been at it for two months, how come we’re not further along?”).
Lakshmi, my co-author, had just completed yet another successful Product kickoff. She shared that success in a presentation that highlighted how Lean Inception created a shared understanding among all those responsible for delivering the product.
It seemed obvious:

What if we begin an Agile transformation the same way we kick off a new product?

After all, it’s not change that people dislike, it’s being changed. What I’d seen in my experience is that few people resist a change that they had a part in designing.

When groups apply agility to developing a new product, they recognize how important it is to understand the “why” before worrying about “what” and “how.” Too often we approach Agile transformations as a big bang, producing the dreaded playbook, complete with petabytes of training and practices. We jump right into “how”.

Instead, we propose using product design techniques to collaboratively create our transformation plan. By using Lean Inception as our design methodology and Path to Agility as the basis for our “features”…..

  • We start not with Agile-speak, but with identifying the desired business outcomes that drive the desire for such a transformation.
  • We identify who will be affected by the transformation and what those impacts are.
  • We identify what Agile outcomes will help those involved meet the intended business outcomes.
  • We present a clear representation of the collaboratively-created transformation plan.

Setting Product or Transformation Vision

The first step in a Lean Inception is to define the product vision. For our Agile transformation, we use the nine Business Outcomes as the jumping-off point for defining the vision of our initiative. Agreement on the top one to three desired business outcomes of the transformation initiates the design process with a collective “why”.

One method for honing in on your “why” would be to start a conversation centered on the nine Business Outcomes presented as part of Path to Agility (below). While all nine are outcomes worth improving, finding the one to three most important can frame the rest of the transformation discussion.

Agile Transformation Personas

The next step in designing our product is identifying who it’s for and their user journeys. Just as designing an airport must consider passengers, flight crew, baggage handling, etc., our transformation must account for who is being impacted by this change. For each persona, we want to understand how they will be working within an Agile context. Some examples include:

  • How will the teams work together?
  • How will we satisfy leadership’s requirements?
  • How do we integrate quality roles and responsibilities?
  • What will project managers and functional managers be doing?
  • Will finance be affected – how do we calculate CapEx and OpEx?

Function Brainstorming

In a Lean Inception, we are now ready to identify all the features that will go into the product. For our transformation, we need to recognize the elements of agility that will lead to a successful transformation. For these features, we turn to the Agile Outcomes and Agile Capabilities presented in Path to Agility (some examples of Outcomes and Capabilities below). The Agile Outcomes support the Business Outcomes identified in our vision-building step; it’s the Agile Capabilities that help us reach those Agile Outcomes.

Prioritization and Sequencing of Capabilities

Once we have identified all the features we might want in our product, the next step with Lean Inception is to prioritize, starting with an MVP. We want to do the same thing for our Agile Transformation. Instead of instituting every element of agility from the start, we will refer back to our chosen Business Outcomes (our “vision”) to select the Agile Capabilities (and their enabling Agile Practices) that support those Business Outcomes. We can create a transformation roadmap by forecasting the following sets of Agile Capabilities in the same way we would create a product roadmap–with the similar understanding that later “releases” are candidates, not formalized plans. Here is an example of prioritizing Agile Outcomes into an MVP and a follow-on.

Minimum Viable Product (MVP) Canvas

In a Lean Inception, we end this design phase by creating a canvas illustrating the agreements we built. As many Agile transformations are doomed by a lack of shared understanding from the first, this is a logical exercise for concluding building our Agile transformation plan. The canvas below would result from summarizing the examples above.

We all struggle in varying degrees trying to help companies deliver value in an agile way. It is imperative to set the initiatives up for success with a common set of expectations. We can do this by employing proven techniques used to design products to aid us in building our Agile transformation strategy and then implementing it.

Lean Inception is a design methodology that can be used to frame the plan for a transformation in the same manner it is used to design products. Path to Agility provides a structured set of Agile Outcomes and Capabilities that can become the foundational “features” for the transformation “product.” Using these tools, you can facilitate building a transformation blueprint where all stakeholders, enablers, and participants begin the journey with the same goals in mind.

About the Authors:

Ben Rodilitz, Certified Scrum Professional, CAL-1, SAFe Program Consultant, and PMP, started his Agile journey teaching Pattern of Problem Solving at UCLA. After a short detour (30 years) of software development and traditional project management positions in aerospace, financial, and navigation companies, Ben began facilitating software development/delivery using Agile/Scrum in 2009 and has not looked back. His most recent postings have been as an Agile Coach in Agile transformations at start-ups, mid-sized, Fortune 10 companies, and Space Force. After a few engagements with Agile Velocity, Ben ventured back into aerospace as a Staff Agile Coach at Northrop Grumman. Ben has been a featured speaker/panelist at numerous Agile and PMI gatherings and enjoys contributing to podcasts and blogs.

Lakshmi Ramaseshan considers Agile coaching her true calling! With 20+ years in the software industry, her journey started as a developer on an Agile team. She quickly realized good product development is all about having the right conversations, building happy teams, and being aligned with your customer. Lakshmi is passionate about growing people, fostering trust among team members, and building high-performance teams.

She also believes in giving back to the community and paying it forward to help inspire others on their journey! One of Lakshmi’s recent focuses has been to up her Facilitation game and enable teams to come alive & collaborate in a meaningful way. She takes great care to create a generative space where the team can have the right conversations, a diversity of thought when collaborating, and where everyone feels safe and energized to contribute. When we take this approach, we get to enjoy the “magic of collaboration.”

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