Pause before you pivot: five considerations for agile product development

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  • Digital product

One of the first things you learn (and live by) in digital transformation is that in the world of agile, the famous Heraclitus quote: “Change is the only constant” comes with a catch...   

“...and so, we shall pivot.”            

Pivoting is instrumental in agile product development – this is what differentiates the process from the waterfall method, where each phase depends on the delivery of the previous one. Understanding when and how to pivot is your key to success. 

That's why I recommend you take a breath and read my top five vantage points to consider before you pivot again.                 

1. Think process             

Think product”, “product-first”, “product-led”, “product thinking” are the terms we are all familiar with. Recently, the focus in the space of digital transformation has shifted almost entirely to "product". For example, we are no longer ‘running projects’; we are “building products.” Every app and a website are being seen as a “digital product”. 

Product management styles can be democratic (i.e., driving decisions collectively through governance forums) or exclusive (i.e., the product leads consult the experts but drive the product vision independently.) The process embedding, however, should be universal and adopting a process should lie within everyone's remit. 

Processes are the foundational blocks of product management, but often they will not have been afforded substantial priority. Effort must be made for all team members to be included in process changes, as this helps to embed new processes and encourages the team to take ownership.  

If everyone is an advocate of your process, your organisation will be a well-oiled machine. Companies could benefit from a “think process” approach. So, before you say “pivot”, make sure you have a plan to effectively communicate changes to all levels of your organisation. 

2. The Apple University 

We live in a world where a new trendy process model is born every other day. The Apple model, the Spotify model, the Amazon model – these are just a few of the recent digital transformation trends that have captured our imaginations and have led some of us lift and shift some of these methodologies. 

Let’s focus on the Apple model. There is very little known about the Apple way of building world-class products. However, we do know from Steve Jobs’ biography that it took Apple over 10 years to develop their process model. In fact, Jobs commissioned the Dean of Yale University to curate the model from the ground up. This process is now called “The Apple University.”           

Before you pivot to one of the new miracle-promising models, please consider that there are very few effective one-size-fits-all solutions that you can take off the shelf and make your own. It can take years to learn what does and doesn’t work for you, your team and your business. So, it’s advisable to invest the time required to adopt or develop a process model that is tailored to your needs. 

3. Amygdala’s job 

If you picture the brain as an onion, then the innermost layers are where the basic instincts and the ‘primitive’ knowledge is stored. If, as a species, we did not look out for the slightest rustle in the wind any other changes to our familiar environments, our very survival could have been threatened.     

With this in mind, it’s easy to see why humans are built to see change as a threat. That’s the Amygdala’s role – it’s the part of the brain that processes fearful and threatening stimuli. If change becomes too rampant, there is a risk that your team will fail to thrive. Instead, they’ll use all their energy and resources just trying to survive. This will make them less productive, less creative and less proactive in the long run. Some of the thoughts your team might be combating are “How quickly can I learn the new vernacular?” and “How can I keep up with the new changes made by the boss who incentivises early adopters even though they’re not bought into it?” And lastly: “How can I stay off the radar of the new boss who is looking to rid the team of anyone that’s not playing ball?” 

You want to make sure your team feels that the changes to your organisation are good for them and not a threat. Your process change is more easily absorbed when it’s simple and introduced consciously.     

4. Autopilot 

Our bodies are said to work up to 20 times faster when we put ourselves on “autopilot”. Since humans are not machines (yet!), the idea of auto-piloting yourself may seem strange, but according to Prof. Peters, who trained Olympic athletes and works on the neuroscience behind the concept of autopilot, the beliefs, habits and knowledge we accumulate over the course of our lives allow us to make most of our decisions without really thinking about them. Our mind automates the actions we’ve learned once – for example, making a cup of tea or riding a bike, so that we can repeat them without using too much brain power.       

So how can we apply this concept to digital transformation? In a nutshell, it comes in handy when, as a leader, you’re thinking about changing some of the established processes within your team. I would recommend pivoting in this area only when it’s absolutely necessary, because if your team are able to put themselves on autopilot for the “how” or the “process” parts of software delivery, then your company will benefit from employees focusing on solving business problems and adapting to market changes, rather than spending time learning new processes. 

5. Dunbar’s number

The Dunbar’s number hypothesis maintains that a person can maintain a maximum of 150 relationships. Mapping this to running organisations, big organisations have a large number of relationships to maintain between all the stakeholders (internal and external) and the communications model is complex. On the other end of the spectrum, we have startups. 

The working model of startups cannot always be adopted by large organisations. The passion of the founders, the energy they bring, the genuine money crunch, the fresh success story, and most importantly, the Dunbar’s number. Usually, startups have less than 150 people working on an idea, and you can introduce any number of changes that will be absorbed swiftly. The reason for this is – the employees see the “why” behind the change just observing the passion in their founder’s eyes, her body language and her micro-emotions. 

The case study of ShareChat in India shows that this startup rolled out their Tik Tok equivalent product to a billion people in India, 72 hours after the Indian Government banned Tik Tok. Anything is possible for startups - it’s like swerving a coracle. 

Introducing changes in large organisations is like changing the course of a large ship. When you can see the iceberg, everyone wants the ship to change course. The command has been given, the mechanics are working — the mechanics, however, are built in a way that the pivot can’t be performed fast. On a large ship, it’s too late if the iceberg is already within sight. You need binoculars, satellite images, and you need a crystal ball if you can get one, to be able to spot the incoming obstacle and plan for it well in advance.  

The takeaway  

Change is inevitable, no matter the working model of your organisation, and you need to make sure your team is prepared, and that they feel positive about it. Process pivots are vital in the world of agile product development, but you need to make several considerations before you decide to lift and shift a model and implement change.

There’s plenty of good resources out there in the worldwide web but, in my opinion, no one says it better than John Kotter in his book Leading Change. Kotter’s 8-step change model has proven to be a great framework to manage change and is particularly applicable in digital transformation programmes. 

And here are some more titles for your inspiration and further reads:  

The Chimp Paradox, Prof. Steve Peters

Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 

Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson

Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari 

Show Your Work, Aston Kleon 

ShareChat case study 

Titanic, the movie

Dare to Lead, Brene Brown 

Inspired, Marty Cagan 

Leading Change, John Kotter