April 28, 2020
Product Development: Ant Steps or Giant Leaps?
Chief Technology Officer & Co-FounderTeckro
There is something intrinsically romantic and inspiring when a remarkable individual, or team, have a sudden moment of magical genius and creativity, resulting in a new technical invention to improve the current “best in class.”
These stories are memorable and make great Hollywood movie scripts. But in reality, product development is quite often very different, something Kevin Ashton discusses in his book How to Fly a Horse.
Rather than through a eureka moment of inspiration, new creations, inventions or discoveries are the result of many small, incremental steps. Continuous, and sometimes endless, loops of “try-assess-adjust” activities are undertaken by common individuals who have abundant grit to persist despite missteps along the way.
There are many thought-provoking points in Ashton’s classic. However, the timeless idea of delivering great innovative products as a sequence of continuous “ant-size” iterations rather than the result of infrequent giant leaps is even more relevant today in the world affected by coronavirus – the black swan of 2020.
The word “continuous” is frequently used in business context. Quality managers discuss continuous improvement process. Product and software managers explore continuous product delivery. And more technically-minded folks consider continuous integration as one of the “must-have” engineering practices.
Continuous improvement is a mindset. It is any effort to improve products, services or processes in an incremental fashion or as a “breakthrough.” It originated in Japan after World War II and is how Toyota expanded from a small local car-maker to the largest automobile manufacturer in the world.
Today, the concept of continuous improvement widely applies to business practices, including the International Organization for Standardization of a Quality Management System (ISO 9001:2015) and an Information Security Management System (ISO 27001:2005). Continuous improvement ideas are also at the core of agile software development.
So, how do we apply “ant steps” innovation to product development in the highly regulated clinical trial market? There is no silver bullet or “one size fits all” approach, but there are a few universal ideas to stay nimble and deliver business value via continuous product delivery.
- Document your software development lifecycle (SDLC). This should encompass all essential phases for software delivery, from initial discovery to detailed user requirements through to development, testing and deployment. Scrum framework is a good starting point, but it needs to be applied appropriately and customized to support your own specific business needs, team skills and experience. For example, if your software product has regulatory implications and computer system validation is required, you may need to accommodate validation activities from the beginning into your sprint cycle.
- Focus improvements on the big wins. Starting with a well thought out and relevant SDLC is important, but what is even more important is to keep your continuous improvement hat on at all times. Consider that you are only as good as your last product delivery cycle. Think of your SDLC as a mini management system, ensuring that you have adequate performance metrics so you can spend your improvement efforts on the right areas – the big wins.
- Adopt an agile mindset. People are the lifeblood of any organization. The Agile Manifesto acknowledges this in the first value – “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” A highly motivated team equipped with basic tools or informal, high-level processes is more likely to outperform a demotivated team with the best tools or detailed procedures. You will need to hire for and constantly nurture your organizational agile mindset to succeed in continuous delivery cycles.
- Measure your progress. Mid- and long-term, strategic product roadmap planning is critical. Without a plan in place, you may become very efficient in churning product enhancements that contribute very little business value or don’t address real user needs. And, along the way, you may lose sight of what your product needs to stay competitive. At regular intervals, you need to measure business value against financial metrics, user feedback, and alignment with your roadmap. Ideally, this analysis should be a quarterly exercise and include all C-level and founders if they are still actively involved in the business.
- Learn early and continuously. Common wisdom is to deliver a minimal viable product (MVP) as quickly as possible to obtain real user feedback and ensure the “right” product is being built. A team practicing Scrum may assign MVP features to sprints and deliver an internal release at the end of each sprint. However, these internal releases are not always treated with the same level of rigor as production releases. The result is that key learnings may only be acquired very late when the first release to production takes place. Alistair Cockburn, one of the initial authors of the Agile Manifesto, describes it as “Big-Bang Design.” This approach is riddled with problems and risks, including descoped MVPs being released behind schedule.
Continuous product development is a mindset – it’s a journey and not a destination. It is also a multi-dimensional topic. For example, I haven’t even addressed the topic of good engineering practices, which are critical to continuous product delivery.
While COVID-19 has disrupted everyone at some level, it shouldn’t be a roadblock to continuous product development. Rather, it is a time to find strength – both as individuals and teams – to overcome obstacles. This applies to software development and any other passion we have in life.
For example, a few days ago, I had the opportunity to listen to Patrick Mouratoglou, a world-renowned tennis coach, speaking to students of his tennis academy on a video call. He had a very powerful message to his students – some of whom are likely to be future professional athletes. Despite lockdown, Patrick told them that professional players stick to their daily routine as much as possible to continue to make ant-size improvements in their game.