TEI 224: Integrating Scrum into other processes including Stage-Gate – with Mike Cohn


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Commit to the process and work through challenges to achieve product success.

Product Management Interview - Mike CohnMany of the companies I have worked with this year want to make their product development and management capability more agile. They sometimes express their current process is too linear, rigid, and heavy as well as not providing the shorter time-to-market they want. Most often they are using something that is of a stage-gate nature, but being more agile doesn’t mean throwing away a stage-gate framework.

However, it does mean adopting agile philosophy and processes. This is what our guest, Mike Cohn has been doing for more than 20 years — building high-performing software development teams and organizations through the use of agile and Scrum. He’s worked with startups and some of the largest organizations in the world and has valuable experience to share with us.

Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers

[3:20] Why do organizations adopt the scrum approach?

Many organizations have an ad-hoc development approach with no formal processes in place so there’s nothing in place across the organizations. Other organizations have too many processes in place and need to speed things up as the business cycle becomes quicker.

[4:50] What are the challenges organizations face when adopting scrum?

Some people think that scrum is just something developers do and no one else is affected by it. Not everyone has to adopt scrum, but everyone has to stop doing things that work against scrum. For example, sales can’t make promises without talking to developers. Most people transition pretty well into scrum, but occasionally HR has to get involved when issues arise. There are other instances where management doesn’t understand the philosophy and they think it means they can change things all the time.

[7:42] How do you help align expectations with reality?

In a pre-agile world, teams would still make plans and promises that were mostly false. It’s still possible for agile teams to make long-term commitments, but it’s difficult to do so with precision. For example, it’s very possible to give a broad overview of what you’ll deliver in six months. Planning with accuracy isn’t hard, but planning with precision is nearly impossible.

[14:53] What must change to adopt agile?

Teams have to be empowered so they can be self-organizing. They’re given a problem and plenty of room to figure out how to solve it, which requires giving the team freedom to make it happen. One of the earliest agile projects was a team in Japan that was tasked with making a photocopier that was state of the art at half the price in two years. They thought it was impossible at first, but with the freedom to work, they took ownership of the problem and solved it. A stakeholder can define what success is, but the team needs to determine how to deliver that success.

[19:30] What makes a good product owner vs. a product manager?

Ideally, it’s one person who is both externally and internally focused. However, it’s often difficult for one person to have the time to do both of those jobs well. The more common scenario is to have a product manager who is externally focused and a product owner who is internally focused. It’s important to make sure they have a good working relationships and one isn’t trying to overtake the other. Normally the product owner is a little more analytical and organized, while the product manager is more extroverted and focused on the big picture.

[22:47] Are there other things that surprise organizations about moving toward a scrum model?

People think that scrum will fix the problems in the organization. It won’t, but it will help expose the problems. Be prepared for some roughness when you first transition. If you work at it, you’ll get past those problems and life on the other side will be much smoother. Success will not happen overnight.

[26:47] What’s your advice to an organization that wants to get started with agile?

Start with one project; don’t try to implement it across the whole company at once. It should be an important project so people take it seriously and put in the work to make the changes and follow the process. The start should be aggressive, but still strategic and planned. You know that agile works objectively, but you don’t know how it’s going to work at your organization.

Useful links:

Innovation Quote

“A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.” -Bob Dylan


Thank you for being an Everyday Innovator and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it on your favorite social network.

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