Review of Product Development Books
June 09, 2019
Now that a software “Done” Milestone is more like a Tombstone
If you work in an industry that has digital products and services then the Product Development trend will impact you. As software becomes more critical to business operations and product offerings we are seeing that software projects do not end.
Many organizations are transitioning to become software focussed organizations that offer specialized services. Amazon is a software company with retail (and cloud) offerings. Banks are increasingly digital companies with financial services. The same with insurance, travel, music and even commercial goods. The cost of developing the software in new vehicles is now greater than the cost of the engine. It has become the single most expensive component, even in internal combustion engine vehicles with no autonomous driving features.
These websites and software services will only be “done” development when the company stops being competitive, offering new services or keeping up with technology evolution. At one time getting to "Done" on your software project was a relief, a goal, a milestone, now it is more of a tombstone. It means the product is no longer competing or actively being maintained as technology continues to evolve.
Switching from projects (that are temporary in nature) to products that are designed to be ongoing sounds easy enough - just keep funding the team, but for many organizations it is not that simple. Also, organizations that embrace the whole digital product view still need help governing the ongoing process.
This is where product development books can help. They describe the factors at play and provide ideas for guidance around planning, funding, staffing and governance. As I was working with clients experiencing the transition from projects to products I was lucky to engage with several authors of product-first, #NoProjects books and chat about the challenge areas and potential solutions.
I have written about #NoProjects a few times before:
- When will this software project ever be done
- Where did all the project managers go?
- The truth about transformations
Then when I recently read a third book about product development shift I thought it could be useful to review some of the books in the market. A neat aspect of these books is that they all present different views on the project to product mind-shift and journey.
“Continuous Digital: An agile alternative to projects for digital business”
Allan Kelly, Software Strategy Ltd.; October 2018
Allan’s book was the first I read about switching to continuous product development. I had been following his blog for a number of years and was familiar with his work. However, it was not until reading the book that I saw his points laid out in order with full explanations.
It is a great read, it makes a compelling argument for why a project view of software projects is a flawed model. I loved the explanation on the diseconomies-of-scale for software and why it is actually cheaper in small batches – unlike physical goods.
It offers the best explanations I have heard into why a continuous delivery of features by a stable team is preferable to using conventional project models. It nicely describes the team aspects of knowledge work and offers some good suggestions around funding and governance models.
Any change in mindset has to happen internally first before we can help others adopt it. Continuous Digital cemented my own thoughts about why good software projects never end. It explained the “Why?” questions at the heart of any shift in thinking and behavior. In the same way, we have to understand the agile mindset before generating any kind of commitment towards it. This book helps set the mindset and Why of #NoProjects so we can start our journey.
“#noprojects: A Culture of Continuous Value”
Evan Leybourn, Shane Hastie, lulu.com; July 2018
I read an early draft of Evan and Shane’s #noprojects about 6 months after I started reading Allan Kelly’s LeanPub drafts of Continuous Digital. While Kelly’s Continuous Digital and his spin-off book Project Myopia focus on explaining the Why with some How topics, #noprojects has more of a team focussed view.
It talks about the history of software development. It explains how we came to run software development with project structures and the inherent issues that came with them. It then outlines the case for continuous development with all the arguments for retaining knowledge, reducing handoff and dependences, etc.
I think it is a great follow-on from Continuous Digital. Obviously, it is designed to be a stand-alone text but, for me, Kelly explains the Why of product development better. Then #noprojects fills in some additional background information and focusses more on the team level implementation. It might just be because I read Kelly’s book first but if you are looking to convince others in your organization about the need for transitioning to product development it is the go-to source. Reading both will provide a great foundation to understand and transition from projects to products.
“Project to Product: How to Survive and Thrive in the Age of Digital Disruption with the Flow Framework”
Mik Kersten, IT Revolution Press; November 2018
I first came across Mik’s work via a podcast he did with Shane Hastie. In the podcast, Mik explained that technologies often follow 50-year cycles and then transform through a tipping point into the next evolution in the way of working.
Organizations that try to continue operating with the old model flounder and fail. Moreover, it is now about 50 years since NATO held the first conference on software engineering and the age of software began. Mik explained he believes we are at that tipping point and transitioning to product delivery will be part of the differentiator for the next wave of successful organizations.
I have an interest in technology evolution stories and learning how ideas spread and then transform our lives. So, the 50-year cycle piqued my interest and I ordered the book. The book delivers and not only does it explain the tipping point we are living through right now, but it gives the best explanation of the digital revolution and need for digital transformation I have read to date. Kudos to Mik. If you want to explain why a digital transformation is necessary, and the implications of ignoring it, Project to Product is a brilliant source.
After this great introduction, the remainder of the book explains the Flow Framework Mik helped develop and promotes through his company Tasktop Technologies. The Flow Framework provides metrics and tools for tracking and managing product development. This is useful because while the project management world has a wealth of information about tracking and managing projects, organizations that switch to product management often experience a void or competing recommendations.
The Flow Framework is useful for explaining what we should pay most attention to tracking. Namely features, defects, risks and debts. It recommends a business outcome set of measures that include: value, cost, quality and happiness. The framework employs a lean inspired set of metrics that include flow velocity, flow efficiency, flow time, and flow load.
It is in the rebranding of tradition lean metrics that I struggle to recommend the book wholeheartedly. By prefixing the normal throughput based lean metrics with the word “Flow” Mik is able to define specific versions of the terms that are often implemented slightly differently from organization to organization. I can see the advantage of that, but it seems an unnecessary name-grab or overloading of lean terms to create trademark-able terms.
That’s a minor quibble though and what Flow Framework does provide is a good mental model for organizing, executing and tracking your product development process. It nicely extends the pattern of books started with Continuous Digital that explains Why product development. Then #noprojects that provides some team-based and stewardship elements. Finally, Project to Product provides solid How To ideas for ongoing governance and improvement.
These three books form a useful progression for anyone wanting to learn about the product development trend. They each provide valuable ideas to help with understanding, practicing and then managing successful product delivery.
The books allow readers to understand and internalize the need for a product development mindset. Then how to practice on a small scale before encouraging others to try and providing ways to measure and manage it.
Obviously, you do not need to read all three of them, or in this sequence. Any one of them is a good read and source for practical ideas. However, I found that they build nicely upon each other and thought people would be interested to consider them as complementary.
Thanks for putting all of this into context, Mike. All three look like interesting reads, but please tell Even and Shane that I don't buy Dead Tree books—let us know when #noprojects is available on Kindle.
Posted by: Dave Gordon | June 16, 2019 at 12:38 PM