Organizations with a product perspective generally have an understanding that a project or release will follow the current project reducing the need to get as large a bite at the apple as possible (having tried this a child, I can tell you choking risk is increased).

Organizations with a product perspective generally have an understanding that a project or release will follow the current project reducing the need to get as large a bite at the apple as possible (having tried this a child, I can tell you choking risk is increased).

The concepts of product and project are common perspectives in software development organizations. A simple definition for each is that product is the thing that is delivered – software, an app or an interface. A project reflects that activities needed to develop the product or a feature of the product. Products often have roadmaps that define the path they will follow as they evolve. I was recently shown a road map for an appraisal tool a colleague markets that showed a number of new features planned for later this year and areas that would be addressed in the next few years. The map became less precise the further the time horizon was pushed out. Projects, releases and sprints typically are significantly more granular and with specific plans for work that is currently being developed. Different perspectives generate several different behaviors.

  1. Roadmap versus plan: The time-boxed nature of a project or a sprint (both have a stated beginning and end) tends to generate a focus planning and executing specific activities and tasks. For example, in Scrum sprint planning, accept and commit to the user stories they will deliver. There is often a many-to-one relationship between stories and features that would be recognized at by end-users or customers. Product planning tends to focus on the features and architectures that meet the needs of the user community. Projects foster short-term rather than long-term focus. Short-term focus can lead to architectural trade-offs or technical shortcuts to meet specific dates that will have negative implications in the future. The product owner is often the bridge between the project and product perspectives, acting as an arbiter. The product owner helps the team make decisions could have long-term implications and provides the whole team with an understanding of the roadmap. Teams without (or with limited) access to a product owner and product roadmap can only focus on the time horizon they know.
  2. Needs versus Constraints: Projects are often described as the interaction between the triple constraints of time, budget and scope. Sprints are no different; cadence – time, fixed team size – budget, and committed stories – scope. There is always a natural tension between the business/product owner and the development team. In organizations with a project perspective, product owners and other business stakeholders typically have a rational economic rational to pressure teams to commit to more than can reasonably accomplished in any specific project. Who knows when the next project will be funded? This behavior is often illustrated when the business indicates that ALL requirements they have identified are critical, or when concepts like a minimum viable product are met with hostility. Other examples of this behavior can be seen in organizations that adopt pseudo-Agile.  In pseudo-Agile backlogs are created and an overall due date generated for all the stories  before a team even understands their capacity to deliver. Shortcuts, technical debt and lower customer satisfaction are often the results of this type of perspective. Organizations with a product perspective generally have an understanding that a project or release will follow the current project reducing the need to get as large a bite at the apple as possible (having tried this a child, I can tell you choking risk is increased).
  3. Measuring Efficiency/Cost versus Revenue: Organizations with a product perspective tend to take a wider view of what needs to be measured. Books such as The Goal (by Goldratt and Cox) make a passionate argument for the measurement of overall revenue. The thought is that any process change or any system enhancement needs to be focused on optimizing the big picture rather than over optimizing steps that don’t translate to the goals of the organization. Focusing of delivering projects more efficiently, which is the classic IT measurement, does not make sense if what is being done does not translate to delivering value. Measuring the impact of a product roadmap (e.g. revenue, sales, ROI) leads organizations to a product view of work which lays stories and features out as portfolio of work.

These dichotomies represent how differences in project and product perspectives generate different behaviors. Both perspectives are important based on the role a person is playing in an organization. For example, a sprint team must have a project perspective so they can commit to work with a time box. That same team needs to have a product view when they are making day-to-day trade-offs that all teams take or technical debt may overtake their ability to deliver. Product owners are often the bridge between the project and product perspectives, however the best teams understand and leverage both.

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