We are uncovering better ways of delivering solutions by doing it and helping others do it.
-Paraphrase of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development
Agile software development is now commonly accepted practice. It’s gotten to the point that when people talk about software development or product management they generally imply you’re using some form of iterative approach.
Ok, time to stop beating around the bush. They assume you’re using Scrum.
Most of these teams miss out on the true advantages that a collaborative, iterative, feedback informed approach to delivering value can provide. This happens for a couple reasons.
- Teams adopt the practices and techniques, but they don’t change their mindset. In other words, they’re doing agile rather than being agile.
- Organizations fail to change the way they decide what teams are going to work on.
These organizations have well functioning teams that build feedback into their daily practices and hopefully adopt the good engineering practices described in Extreme Programming. However, they continue to cram too much work into those teams. Those teams become very efficient at producing the wrong things, so they don’t improve their overall effectiveness.
There’s a new idea called business agility that places focus on “agile outside of IT”. The aim is to help organizations change the way they run their business in order to focus on the right things.
While I agree wholeheartedly with the ideas surrounding business agility, I suspect that it will become a vehicle for people to push frameworks and the associated tools, similar to what has happened with agile software development.
To understand how to actually position an organization to work on the right things, I look for organizations that actually practice ideas consistent with business agility and share their stories. I’ve found three such organizations. I should note that you won’t necessarily hear any of them describe what they’re doing as business agility.
Perhaps that’s a good sign.
Those three organizations are Basecamp (was originally 37Signals), Rainmaker Digital (was Copyblogger Media) and Intercom (as far as I know was always called that).
The nice thing about these three organizations is that they share their stories, and they often eschew the silver bullet mentality that so many peddlers of tools and frameworks push. That makes them particularly good sources of information.
Basecamp (was 37Signals)
Basecamp started in 1999 as a digital design firm of four people called 37Signals. Somewhere along the way they created their first product, Basecamp, to help them manage their own projects and then started selling it to others. They created other products along the way until 2015 when they decided to focus solely on Basecamp and changed their name to reflect that fact.
Incidentally one of the Basecamp founders, David Heinemeier Hansson, created Ruby on Rails in 2003.
The company takes a decidedly unique approach to running their business. They are almost entirely remote. They explicitly leave features out of their product in order to keep it simple for their customers. They release a new version of their product on average every 4 years, yet at the same time still keep the old version running for those customers who don’t want to switch.
They run counter to a lot of trends in the industry, yet by all accounts they are successful. Jason and David, the founders, do a great job of sharing their story along the way. First in their blog signal v noise and their three books:
- Getting Real: The smarter, faster, easier way to build a successful web application – describes how Basecamp goes about developing software
- Rework (affiliate link)- a collection of short essays (most likely pulled from the signal v noise blog) that the founders of Basecamp have learned about running a business.
- Remote: Office Not Required (affiliate link)- a collection of short essays (most likely pulled from the signal v noise blog) the the founders of Basecamp have learned about having an entirely remote organization.
Rainmaker Digital (formerly Copyblogger Media) started in 2006 as a copyblogger.com a website run by Brian Clark that taught people how to apply tried and true copywriting techniques to online content. Since then the focus of the organization has expanded to include products, services and training targeted at content marketers and digital entrepreneurs. One of their products is the Rainmaker Platform (affiliate link) which I use to host this site.
The folks at Rainmaker Digital share a lot of their experiences in building their company from a one person blog to where it is today, and they use those experiences to shape their training programs.
Even though their content generally focuses on writing and content marketing, you can get a lot of great information that has direct relation to product ownership at Digital Commerce Institute including their Digital Entrepreneur Podcast.
Brian Clark’s podcast/curated newsletter Unemployable also has information relevant to product ownership and is especially targeted to any of those who are out on their own, or would like to get there. On this podcast and some of the earlier episodes of the Digital Entrepreneur Podcast, Brian sheds light into how Rainmaker Digital operates as well as interviews other entrepreneurs who share their stories.
Intercom produces software that brings together messaging tools for sales, customer service and marketing all into the same platform. Founded in 2011, Intercom chose to go the venture funding route rather than the bootstrap approach that Basecamp and Rainmaker Digital chose. Possibly as a result of that, Intercom has targeted their products at companies of all sizes and produces a great deal of material on how they operate and topics such as product management in general.
Of the three organizations I’m highlighting here, Intercom produces the materials that may be of the most interest to larger organizations. I highly recommend their blog and podcast Inside Intercom, as well as two of the books they wrote to take a deeper dive into specific topics:
- Intercom on Product Management – discusses the tough decisions you need to make as a product manager or product owner
- Intercom on Jobs to Be Done – discusses how Intercom uses the Jobs To Be Done concept to decide what to work on next with their products.
Learn From Others Who are Doing It
I wanted to highlight these three organizations and the resources they provide to give you some useful places to look when you want to know what product management/product ownership looks like in real life.
Yes, these are all small – medium sized companies. Yes, people in large organizations may run into some unnecessary, but real barriers to implementing these ideas. I still think it’s helpful to be exposed to these ideas, if for no other reason so that you know that it’s possible.
Are there other organizations you’ve run across that run in an agile fashion across the organization and share their stories? If so, please note them in the comments.