The 5 Most Critical Agile Product Development Practices

Mallory Merrill

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Unlock the secret to successful software development with the most important Agile product development practices...

If you want to get somewhere fast, you have to be agile.

Whether you’re running sprints in the traditional sense (you know, with your legs) or executing sprints with your software development team, if you want to be truly effective at what you do, you have to be agile about it.

But being agile has a lot of requirements for such a reasonably little word. In the software development community, being Agile means considerably more than just being flexible or quick; it means you conceive, process, and perform every task in adherence to the core values of Agile methodology, project management, and decision making.

That’s a lot to keep up with… and as a result, many Agile teams, product managers, and software developers utilize a slightly condensed or “interpreted” approach to their Agile process. This was a natural evolution, as one of the main differences between the agile approach and classic waterfall development is a less linear, more contemporary, collaborative process that tends to generate change.

But, in its perfect form, Agile is not a la cart. As Agile definitions morph, so does its effectiveness and projects can derail quickly if certain Agile elements are not actively enforced.

Because, the truth is, some Agile principles simply carry more weight than others. If you want the greatest payoff from your Agile efforts, here are the 5 most critical Agile software development practices to incorporate more of the agile functionality into your development lifecycle…

[One quick note: incorporating Agile practices into your software development approach also necessitates regular assessment (and potentially restructuring) of those practices. In other words, “doing” the practice is not enough. You have to be doing it right.]

The 5 Most Critical Agile Product Development Practices

While each of the following 5 principles from the Agile Manifesto is vital to a powerful Agile process, there is one that makes each subsequent element more possible and more sustainable. In the spirit of Agile process, I won’t make you wait for it.

Here is the most critical practice of successful Agile product development (followed by the remaining 4)…

1) Working in Sprints (or Short Iterations of Work)

Organizing your work into manageable, iterative segments of both time and complexity is the most important element of the Agile process. If you can effectively prioritize work items, accomplish tasks, and offer deliverables in shorter bursts of highly focused iterations, the remaining Agile product development practices will naturally fall into place.

Segmenting work into shorter, hyper-focused sprints also forces you to isolate the most important issues and, ta-da! complete them. There’s no wiggle room for getting sidetracked or for falling down a technical rabbit hole.

When you limit the increments of time allowed between deliveries, developers have no choice but to clearly define what it means to be “done,” and to then produce lean, highly targeted software that satisfies that definition. The development cycle is far more rapid.

Lastly, utilizing a sprint structure also allows self-organizing teams of developers (or managers) to set a working velocity based on a shared product vision.

Working velocity establishes a relative baseline for the time and effort required to complete tasks and, when you know your working velocity, you can more accurately plan work, and offer more accurate estimations.

So, without being facetious, Working in Sprints basically enables you to predict the future. And it enables you to secure your future by getting to market before your competitors.

2) Deliver Work Frequently

Although this tenet is the twin sister of Working in Sprints, the elements are not necessarily identical. Delivering work often ensures cross-functional teams remain wholly committed to the agile framework laid out and the items due (usually within a two week period). But it also does two other things:

  • pleases the stakeholder

  • protects the developer

When you deliver working software early and regularly, you will get the glowing customer feedback that kind of performance deserves. Of course, keeping your stakeholders happy is key to earning their trust in your Agile process.

Delivering work frequently also keeps your software developers happy, if for no other reason than that it’s simply easier to prioritize, organize, and produce great code. It also protects developers from things like over-scheduling, overpromising, and from falling behind when their loads get too heavy. In fact, brief time frames protect the team from that overload in general.

This is not to suggest that your coders won’t be busy if they deliver work more often, but with a daily standup and frequent delivery goals, it means product backlog is less likely.

Delivering work more frequently also protects developers from falling behind when products pivot (which are almost inevitable in product development). When you complete work in shorter, more targeted bursts, it’s easier react to (or recover from) change.

3) Unify Team Understanding with Careful Communication

Miscommunication wastes time, so it’s vital that your team understand one another and that each member of your team shares the same understanding of your product goals. If your team is not in sync, your progress with effectively stop.

In addition to developers clearly communicating with one another, to truly Unify Team Understanding of project goals and expectations, Agile developers must ensure stakeholders are equivalently up to speed. And each member of the product team must have a deep understanding of user stories, product requirements, and customer needs.

Remember, it’s the confidence of your stakeholders that actually makes Agile development possible, and those stakeholders will often come from varying backgrounds (Product Owners are almost never coders).

For Agile to truly perform, your developers have to know what your stakeholders want, and your stakeholders have to know what your developers are capable of giving them.

This means developers and managers must convey suggestions, problems, solutions, and timelines very carefully throughout the product development process.

No one communicates or comprehends information in exactly the same way. In fact, you may have to speak differently to your stakeholders than you do to your software developers.

Don’t force your team to make assumptions. If you need an interpreter, get one. But make sure information is conveyed to each of your team members in a manner that they absolutely understand.

4) Value First

Bottom line: software should provide value.

In fact, everything you do in an Agile sprint should create or augment value as it is defined by the software product owner. To ensure your development process shows consistent progress toward value, you have to do these things:

  • know what your goal is

  • segment that goal into items that can be accomplished one piece at a time

  • design each sprint around satisfying that specific goal

  • deliver, discuss, and apply feedback at sprint retrospectives, and apply feedback to future sprints

Because Agile structure allows you to deliver a product in pieces, you have a responsibility to deliver value only.

There is no wiggle room for producing unnecessary items. Instead, software developers should exhaust every minute of work-time producing something that has a purpose.

By questioning the value of every item in your backlog, you can “trim the fat,” eliminate fluff items, and produce clean, powerful software in a shorter amount of time.

Producing value only will result in faster deliveries and leaner, better products. Inherently, it also assumes that you have incorporated feedback from your product owner, and that if you have failed to deliver value, you will analyze why.

The agile product management process affords an opportunity for developers to produce their best work without getting bogged down.

5) Product Owner Vision is the Heartbeat of Your Project

Ultimately, your client (stakeholders, product owners, buyers) is the only person who can define the success of a project. Accordingly, Agile asks developers and managers to honor the stakeholder's vision above all other things as they create the product roadmap.

The voice of your client should echo through every item in your backlog. You are bringing their new product to life and to market.

The “doing” part of this practice is mostly self-explanatory; listen to your client, and apply what their feedback. When in doubt about a critical issue, ask your client. When a barrier what will affect a delivery arises, report it to your client.

As a software developer, project manager, or scrum master, you may offer advice or suggestions to your product owner. In fact, it’s likely you have applicable expertise and your client will WANT your guidance but, at the end of the day, the client is the decision-maker, the tie-breaker, and the risk-taker. And it’s your job to do what they say.

If you can apply these Agile product development practices to your software development strategy, you’ll be on the fast track to solid software that delivers value and satisfies your client.

Agile isn’t always easy, but if you can break ineffective processes and create new Agile habits, it will completely change the way you create and deliver digital products.

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If you need a help refining your Agile process, DevSquad can help. Learn more about us here, or click here to set an appointment to talk about your project.

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