Something really interesting is happening in software development. The idea of developing new software, or upgrading existing applications under the umbrella of a project, is dying off. More and more organizations recognize that the arbitrary packaging of features into a release at the end of a project makes no sense.
Instead, they are creating permanent teams of developers that deliver digital products in a continuous series of sprints, automating change management, and releasing features and functions as soon as they are ready (aka DevOps).
To be clear, “more progressive” doesn’t mean a tiny minority. Around 85% of respondents to a late-2018 Gartner survey said their IT organizations had adopted or planned to adopt a product-centric delivery model.
The digital product concept
We define digital products as self-contained applications that aren’t necessarily an end-user product on their own, but combine with other apps and services to provide an end-to-end service or solution for customers. Think about the check-in process for an airline, a self-service quotation tool for consumers to estimate costs, or the shopping cart function on a website.
When product managers and product owners work in an integrated manner, the link between client needs and work delivery is as direct and short as it can be.
These teams are supported by technical product owners that manage and maintain the prioritized backlog of features. Strategic direction is provided by product managers who represent the needs of clients and the larger market.
These two related product roles—product owner and product manager—can combine to deliver greater effectiveness and efficiency. When product managers and product owners work in an integrated manner, the link between client needs and work delivery is as direct and short as it can be. Adjustments can be made same day and delivered within minutes of completion and sign-off.
Clear benefits for all
The benefits are many. Companies that shift from a project mindset to a product one not only get features into the hands of clients more quickly, they also enhance agility and accelerate digital transformation. By shifting the focus to a more strategic, results-oriented view and owning their development process, these businesses erase the typical project constraints of time, scope, and budget. This fundamentally redefines how success is measured.
As IT strategy guru Mik Kersten puts it, “IT leaders can assess software organizations not by the lines of code written or microservices produced, but by how much business value their products deliver to customers.”
The product model also allows for greater agility. The end-to-end process that starts with identification of the demand and ends with delivery of the feature becomes far less disruptive, allowing more features to be delivered more quickly. Beyond the business benefits, this shift also makes for a better customer experience. By embracing continuous development, customers get what they want faster, with fewer bugs and errors than the planned release model, and with greater confidence the functionality will actually do what it needs to do.
When decisions have to be made in the context of contributing to an integrated system that is continuously evolving with no defined end, the outcomes are very different than if organizations are focused on one-off project “snapshots.” This involves a significant change in thinking.
All stakeholders need to think more in terms of long-term value. They must recognize the connection between today’s decisions and what becomes possible in the future. To be successful, solutions must work well with other elements of the product offering and be accepted by users. This forces stakeholders to focus on delivering value and owning that value delivery.
It’s not just the development or the business side of the organization that’s impacted. This mindset stretches from concept to outcomes, through the entire software lifecycle. The whole IT organization needs to shift their thinking. And because IT is the foundation on which the business runs, their transition will be instrumental to the company’s success.
A new operating model for IT
With such a profound change occurring, and with so many teams impacted, it’s critical that the transition within IT be smooth and effective. That’s especially true today, when the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the need for successful digital transformation at all levels.
[Read also: Managing a remote team while staying agile]
As the business organizes around products, IT splits into two groups. The first group joins developers and moves into permanent product teams. The second group of support, infrastructure, and IT operational staff continue to be the heroes who keep the lights on and manage our devices. The move to stable teams occurs in a series of steps:
- Permanent teams are created, making IT resource management and planning more predictable.
- Training and development of IT staff is tied to a specific product, simplifying the process for staff and for learning and development functions.
- IT departments continuously adjust operations to support business success, increasing clarity about IT investments. This approach may include adopting service-based models and outsourcing tactical IT activities in order to focus on strategic, high-value work.
- Alignment improves between the work being delivered by IT and the needs of the business, even as those needs constantly evolve to reflect shifting business conditions.
- As the alignment grows, IT’s ability to prioritize improves and expands its ability to refuse work that doesn’t contribute to the success of the business.
- The wild disruptions associated with new products and versions give way to a more reasonable process of continuous delivery.
- IT becomes a true partner to the business as it stops counting requests and measures success by its contribution to business goals.
The long haul
IT’s transition from project to product will be evolutionary, and there will be challenges along the way. The transition can only succeed if it’s supported and enabled by business functions who recognize the need to align all work business value.
In the end, IT teams will appreciate a more predictable delivery process. Business teams will deliver more value more quickly and consistently. And as every aspect of the business gets optimized through technology, the traditional barriers between business and technology functions will evaporate as IT becomes a natural part of every business process and interaction.