Do you know how to unlock flow in your organization?
Dr. Mik Kersten’s groundbreaking 2018 book Project to Product: How to Survive and Thrive in the Age of Digital Disruption with the Flow Framework has made a major contribution to the agile community that drives forward our thinking and approach to how we deliver value to customers. Even best-selling author Gene Kim says, “This is one of my favorite books that I’ve read this decade.”
But many business leaders still struggle to understand the concept of flow, or even to grasp the importance of the mindset shift that unlocks the benefits of moving from Project to Product in their organizations. Kersten’s book concentrates on unlocking value in the software development pipeline, and it can take some imaginative thinking to understand how to apply the principles of his work to an entire organization.
This shift to product thinking, with its corresponding shift in ways of working, can help your company obtain or retain a market-leading position when adopted properly. Learn the secrets to achieving flow with a project-to-product organizational shift.
What is Agile Process Flow?
Simply stated, Flow is the unblocked progress of value from the earliest stages of a product idea to the point where the product is used by the customer. While it’s easy to imagine this process in a clear, step-by-step way, the reality is never so smooth. However, to gain maximum effectiveness, we must demonstrate mastery in our ability to complete the process as well as repeat the process. It’s essential to understand flow as the culmination of three critical factors:
- DEMONSTRATED ABILITY TO DO THE MISSION: The steady progression of work through the production pipeline in a way that is predictable and repeatable
- ADAPTIVE TO COMPLETE THE MISSION: The ability to remove blockers or non-value-adding work and processes in the system
- STRUCTURES TO MISSION FOCUS: Clear communication and alignment between stakeholders to ensure the system is delivering on the early promise of the product.
To add context to these three points, let’s look at them in terms of business problems.
When Work Just Works
First, businesses can run into problems ensuring that work is predictable and repeatable. By predictable we mean that the work can be delivered on-time based on our knowledge of how we operate in our environment. Notwithstanding major disruptions coming from within the company (budgets, people, processes) and disruptions from outside the company (competitors or literal market disruptors). By repeatable, we mean that newly discovered customer needs resulting in features for new or existing products can follow a similar game plan and achieve high levels of success.
Companies face issues with predictability and repeatability constantly. This is often where the proponents of Waterfall think that a tightly-controlled process will ensure the best results. But here’s the rub: There will always be threats to predictability and repeatability. Waterfall processes are not designed to handle these threats; Agile processes are. Waterfall locks you into a plan that resists adapting to new discoveries. Agile amplifies the ability to respond to the business environment.
As an example, a business trying to release a new product to market may find themselves blocked by lack of clarity and consensus about the right way to proceed with the build. While cycles pass by in deadlocked arguments, a competitor releases a similar product with features that outperform their original product plan, which can also be called “Cost of Delay.”
In a Waterfall system, this is probably the point where the team packs it in and moves to other projects. In Agile, however, the commitment to welcoming changing requirements throughout the product development process means that the team rolls with the punches, regroups, and creates a new plan for adding additional competitive value to the product. And they don’t stop delivering on the core value of the product while they do this. The key principle is that requirements changes need to be driven by actual real-time customer learnings. Agile teams adapt based on data that shows their product can meet customer needs with more precision.
To a non-agilist, being willing to change on a dime probably seems like the opposite of predictable and repeatable. But we explain it this way: There will always be unforeseen problems when you build a product, no matter how well you plan. What you can rely on is creating a process that brings small increments of value further down the pipeline in short, steady sprints, and keeping that flow of value unblocked along the way through good communication. The structure for frequent feedback loops allows teams to embrace the value of learning more about what customers really want. If you can do this, you’ve gone a long way towards product launch success and making your process repeatable for the future.
This is so essential in bringing a product to market that, in an agile organization, it’s the primary function of mid-level and senior leaders. Unblocking the flow of value keeps a product moving steadily towards its targeted launch date. The faster a product launches, the less likely it is to be disrupted by a competitor and become an albatross rather than an eagle! In agile, we look at it this way: Getting a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) version of a product into the market and adding new features later is much more valuable than spending years adding a lot of features to a product before ever launching it. Not only can you start generating revenue faster, but what’s better is that you can get customer feedback faster. This will make future updates on the product much better — you’ll be giving the customer exactly what they want, rather than what you think they want. You can only get there by increasing the cadence of “test and learn”.
Blockers threaten delivery dates, which threatens your ability to get this valuable customer feedback as soon as possible. Agile companies are always vigilant about maintaining the commitment to a release date, choosing to remove features before moving back a deadline.
Managements’ primary service to the team is to remove the blockers. This means management leads the way to unleash the team from the constraints of blockers that inhibit the team’s flow to create a great product.
Open flow of information is the grease that keeps the agile engine moving. In many Waterfall organizations, there is a “need to know” mindset. In agile, it’s assumed that everybody needs to know. We prevent endless meetings and emails, however, by focusing on what information is actually most critical. Part of removing blockers and non-value-adding work is reducing the sharing of information that doesn’t contribute to product value. It reduces the noise and distractions that teams are always exposed to.
It’s easy to report on productivity and work-in-process — It’s harder to hone in on what measures actually contribute the most to customer satisfaction. Clever agile leaders create concise reports that focus on fewer, better measures of value flow through the pipeline.
That means ditch the Red-Yellow-Green status reports. We all know that these are subjective metrics that are easily manipulated. (How many times have we seen a project move from green status to red status in a matter of a day?) These subjective metrics increase the distortion of reality. Instead, focus on real, measurable data such as time efficiency in removing blockers, cycle time of work delivery, feedback from customers, increased utility of customer usage, new users, etc. These are much more objective and meaningful.
“As startups disrupt every market and tech giants pull further ahead of entrenched businesses, the majority of enterprise IT organizations are facing an existential crisis. Either they quickly become much better at software delivery, or they risk becoming a digital relic.” — Dr. Mik Kersten
Embracing the Project to Product Mindset
So what does ‘project to product’ mean? Simply put, don’t treat the work as discrete tasks on a list waiting to be completed. This ignores the principle of creating the highest level of customer value. Rather, we need to organize in a way that accelerates our learning using fast feedback loops, recognize that the risk of missing customer needs is worse than being “late”, and that we must aim to reduce waste.
It means rejecting the rigid structures of project-focused teams that limit power and value, and trading those for product teams: A group responsible for the ultimate outcomes of the product launch, with the authority to make decisions on behalf of the customer. This is the best expression of agile, where the teams closest to the work and the customer are considered best positioned to make decisions, and the executives are responsible for unblocking and supporting the teams in making those decisions.
Finding Agile Process Flow at the Enterprise Level
When an Agile Transformation finds only limited success, it’s often because the project-to-product mindset hasn’t spread beyond the product teams to positively impact the whole organization. A team can’t truly be unblocked without the process and behavior shift of the C-level in the company, which often takes longer than transforming teams on the ground. Unlocking flow, removing blockers and good communication is as much the responsibility of the C-suite as it is the managers in the product teams. However, it can be difficult for companies to take the agile lessons and apply them at scale.
With this in mind, our Lean Portfolio Management (LPM) course demystifies the work of making the enterprise have agile capabilities. Designed for leaders across organizational units (ie: not just for portfolio managers), the focus is on democratizing the process of strategy creation, ensuring the goals and vision of the organization are achievable and energizing for the whole company, and funding the right things at the right time.
LPM practices uncover the opportunities to increase collaboration and practices within a modern agile organization, how to improve decision making and delegation, and optimizing the way that data is used in reporting.
Ultimately, this framework-agnostic approach is about creating transparency, and enhancing the focus on outcomes, rather than outputs.
LPM supports flow in a number of critical ways. First, a good practitioner in this area is a key partner with Product Management and other team leadership to ensure the predictable delivery of value in the pipeline, using their skills and influence to remove blockers. Second, and very critical, is their ability to zero in on non-value-adding work and processes and eliminate them. Churn and productivity theater is a very real problem in the Waterfall enterprise, as people spend more time reporting on the work than actually doing it. LPM looks to eliminate this for the good of the company and the customer. Finally, in the reporting that is created, LPM practitioners are focused on making it shorter and better with every passing month, getting the right data to base decisions on, and eliminating anything that could cloud the judgment of stakeholders.
The goal of Lean Portfolio Management is clarity of communication, which is fundamental to agile itself. Productive flow in the product delivery pipeline includes the flow of information, which portfolio managers are ultimately responsible for. This critical skillset is essential for successful agile transformations.
Finding Agile Process Flow Today
For Agile-skeptics, the proof is in the remarkable outcomes that a shift to agile methods can produce. When Hyperdrive consulted with Prudential Financial in 2015, their risk-averse culture and Waterfall style of working had backed their software teams into a corner: Two years without delivering a single line of working code, a project labeled a failure, and the prospect of canceling a multi-million dollar program. In just weeks, Hyperdrive helped the team adopt agile ways of working and release code to production.
Prudential’s shift from a project to product mindset had a remarkable impact on their business and the morale of their teams, leading to a 600% increase in productivity as compared to their previous working style. You can learn more about project to product in this video from Hyperdrive CEO Stacey Louie.
Continue Your Project to Product Education
Hyperdrive’s Lean Portfolio Management certification (ICP-LPM) course teaches leaders the skills they need to both implement LPM and become a change agent in their organization, supporting true agility at all levels. Learn the significant changes needed when shifting from project-based approaches to product or value stream based structures and working styles, and unlearn the certainty of funding a project with certain outputs (iron triangle) to fund outcomes.
The CSPO, A-CSPO, and CSP-PO courses in our Product Owner certification track will provide you with the skills required to put a product mindset into practice, and help you continue to build your skills and influence at your company over time. According to Scrum Alliance, provider of the most recognized Product Owner certifications in the industry, the main responsibility of the product owner is to maximize the value the product creates for the users, customers, and for the business.
Who should take this certification track? Product Managers, Project Managers, Business Analysts, Data Analysts, and anyone who enjoys (or wants to become more familiar with) the business side of projects. Learn how to jump-start your organization’s project to product transformation.
You can also learn more about shifting from project to product from Dan Walsh in our newest course Product Management Foundations for Agile. This course is open to anyone interested in discovering, defining, and delivering compelling products and services, and creating products as holistic solutions. The course introduces frameworks, principles and methods for developing winning products within your organization.
Questions? We Can Help.
When you’re ready to move beyond piecemeal resources and take your Agile skills or transformation efforts to the next level, get personalized support from the world’s leaders in agility.