Agile Should Not Be Confused with a Product Strategy

Kevin Smith | April 2, 2018

Companies turn to Agile for different reasons.

Heightened efficiency, quicker time to market and risk reduction are all compelling benefits. That’s provided teams can actually stick with the discipline required to make the methodology work for them.

Either way, organizations shouldn’t substitute Agile as a product strategy, according to author and consultant Greg Cohen. Although that hasn’t stopped some from trying.

“You can be so responsive with Agile, you can get away without a strategy in the way you couldn’t in the Waterfall world,” Cohen says.

While Agile as a development methodology can give you a distinct edge in many areas, it’s woefully inadequate as a standalone strategy for market success.

A team may think it can rapidly develop and release a product, for instance, leaving strategic decisions like plans for rollout, marketing, distribution and partnerships until it’s available to the general public. Unfortunately, that’s not a path to profit.

We recently chatted with Cohen, who runs Agile Excellence, and he expanded on this key distinction.

Jama Software: You’ve said before Agile is not a substitute for product strategy. Could you elaborate a little bit on that?

Greg Cohen: If you think about what Agile is, it’s absolutely a superior process for development and working in an uncertain and dynamic environment. And without a doubt a high performing Agile team is a competitive advantage.

So in that sense, a superior process can be part of a bigger strategy. Agile lets you learn, out develop, out innovate your competition — if you can use this process better than your competitors.

But even knowing that, do you know how many times the word ”strategy” shows up in the Agile Manifesto or The Scrum Guide?

JS: Zero.

GC: Right, exactly zero times. And, in that sense, Agile isn’t a strategy. Its creators didn’t consider it that way at all.

And that’s why I wrote this new book that came out in September, Strategy Excellence for Product Managers. Because what I saw was teams were losing the hard skills of product strategy and just sort of relying on Agile flexibility to react to the market. And no longer leading it.

But product strategy is about analysis. It’s a deep analytic, intellectual exercise. And there are five elements in it:

  • Your customers and their unmet needs
  • What’s going on in the market – is it growing or shrinking?
  • What’s your competition doing and what advantages do they have over you versus you over them?
  • Technology trends – how quickly is it being adopted and how fast is the cost curve dropping on any given technology
  • And, ultimately, what is your business strategy because product strategy needs to feed into the business.

As the other thing to realize is what I’ll call the instantiated product: what’s coming out of development? It’s only a small part of an overall product strategy.

So product managers need to concern themselves with what we call the “whole product,” which is this set of services that surrounds the product and turns it into a solution.

Because customers buy solutions to their problems. They don’t buy products.

And product managers, therefore, have a lot of what I call leavers to pull to influence the success of a product.

There’s what’s coming out of development, the feature set, but there’s also things to consider, such as:

  • How is it priced?
  • How do we promote it in the marketplace?
  • What are our distribution channels?
  • What’s the buyer experience before you’re even using the product?
  • How do we onboard our customers?
  • How do we train them?
  • How do we support them and what experience do we give there?
  • And even bigger things like partner ecosystems, which turn our instantiated product into a bigger solution and fit to solve a customer need.

You have to get all of that right to be successful. So in that sense, Agile addresses the development side. Certainly, Agile-thinking can permeate into larger decisions about how the company structures, does governance and organizes, but it is not a product strategy and no one should confuse the two.