Product Development versus Project Development

Agile has been most widely used in “product” development environments and less widely used in “project” development environments.  The difference between product development versus project development is not widely-recognized.  Of course, this is not a totally universal, black-and-white distinction; but, in general, there are some key differences.

Product Development versus Project Development

General Characteristics

AreaProduct DevelopmentProject Development
  • Products typically have broadly-defined objectives
  • Products are less deterministic and the business model is usually a little more open-ended
  • Projects generally have more clearly-defined expectations and requirements
  • Projects are typically more deterministic and the business model is more closed-ended
UncertaintyProducts are generally somewhat speculative and might require a significant amount of innovation particularly if it is something that has never been done beforeProjects are generally less speculative
DurationFor many products, it’s an effort that simply goes on-and-on without end to provide ongoing support and enhancements for the life of the productProjects typically have a well-defined beginning and end and are completed as soon as the project objectives have been accomplished
ExamplesFor example, a company might say that:
  • We want to develop a product to satisfy “X” market need (where that market need may only be generally defined and might need to be validated) and
  • We’re going to invest $X to fund a team for ongoing development to support that product development initiative
For example, a company might say that:
  • We want to implement a project to install and implement a new CRM system with the following requirements
  • The project needs to be completed in six months and is expected to cost $X

Budgeting, Business Model, and Decision Process

AreaProduct DevelopmentProject Development
BudgetingThe budget for a product development effort may have some slack in it depending on the level of uncertainty associated with the product development effortVery few development teams are given a “blank check” to do some kind of project without having some expectations of what the project will accomplish, what it’s going to cost, and what the schedule will be
Business ModelThe business model behind a product development effort is typically based on a projected return on investment (ROI) that the decision to invest $X in the ongoing development effort will provide an acceptable return from the profitability that the product will generate over the life of the productThe business model behind projects is typically very different. A company typically has a given amount of funding to invest in projects and some kind of project portfolio management approach is generally needed to determine the appropriate mix of projects that will provide the greatest overall benefit
Decision ProcessThe decision process associated with a product development effort is generally focused on prioritizing what features should be added to the product to provide the highest level of customer satisfaction and profitability
  • In order to make the decision of what projects to fund, something may need to be known about the expected results, costs, and schedules of the projects in that portfolio
  • There is also an ongoing need to monitor the performance of those projects to see if they really are going in the right direction to provide the return that was expected

Overall Summary

There is a big difference between the business model and decision process in a product versus project development environment. 

Agile is very well-suited for a product development environment. Applying Agile principles and practices in a “project” development environment can be a bit more challenging but it definitely can be done. 

  1. Agile works best where there are limited constraints on costs and schedules and the primary goal is to add features to maximize market acceptance and customer satisfaction
  2. When you introduce constraints on costs and schedules in a project development model, a hybrid agile approach may be necessary to meet the competing demands of:
    • A highly flexible and adaptive development approach, and
    • The predictability of meeting cost and schedule constraints that is often demanded in a project environment.

The Hybrid Agile Development Approach is an example of how this can be done.  It involves wrapping a “shell” around an Agile development process. That “shell” can be as thick or thin as you want it to be. The approach can balance the need for planning and predictability with some level of flexibility and adaptivity.

Additional Resources

You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.

Agile Project Manager Job Description

I was recently asked by a company I am working with to create an Agile Project Manager job description. Here’s what I came up with:

Agile Project Manager Job Description


The Agile Project Manager (APM) is responsible for planning, leading, organizing, and motivating Agile project teams. The goals are to:

  • Achieve a high level of performance and quality, and
  • Deliver agile projects that provide exceptional business value to users

The APM may be responsible for managing several concurrent high visibility projects using agile methods in a fast-paced environment that may cross multiple business divisions.

Potential Agile Project Manager Roles

The APM may play a number of different roles in actual practice:

Enterprise-level Role

At an enterprise level, potential roles include:

  • Leading and managing large, complex enterprise-level projects
  • The projects may consist of multiple Agile teams and require integration with other activities outside the scope of the Agile teams

Team-level Role

At a team level, potential roles include:

  • Playing a consultative role to put in place the appropriate people, process, and tools, to improve team efficiency and effectiveness
  • Coaching members of the team as needed to optimize the efficiency of the project team

Hybrid Agile Role

In situations that require a hybrid Agile approach, potential roles include:

  • Using good judgment and skill to develop a project management approach that is suitable for planning and managing the effort
  • Achieve the project goals within designated project constraints

In performing these roles, the APM will be expected to use a high level of knowledge and experience in blending traditional project management principles and practices with an Agile development approach in the right proportions to fit large, complex, mission-critical, enterprise-level projects and with the appropriate level of planning and provide the right balance of agility and predictability.

Agile Project Management Job Description

Essential Job Requirements

Project Planning and ManagementDefine project scope and schedule while focusing on regular and timely delivery of value; organize and lead project status and working meetings; prepare and distribute progress reports; manage risks and issues; correct deviations from plans; and perform delivery planning for assigned projects
Team ManagementAssist in team development while holding teams accountable for their commitments, removing roadblocks to their work; leveraging organizational resources to improve capacity for project work; and mentoring and developing team members
Product Owner SupportSupport the Product Owner in managing customer expectations for project deliverables, managing stakeholder communications, and helping to implement an effective system of project governance
Process Management and ImprovementDefine and manage a well-defined project management process and champion ongoing process improvement initiatives to implement best practices for Agile Project Management
Team BuildingPromote empowerment of the team, ensure that each team member is fully engaged in the project and making a meaningful contribution, and encourage a sustainable pace with high-levels of quality for the team


  • Solid understanding of software development life cycle models as well as expert knowledge of both Agile and traditional project management principles and practices and the ability to blend them together in the right proportions to fit a project and business environment
  • A proven track record of successfully implementing software or web development projects using Agile methodologies including 8+ years of experience as a Project Manager managing large, complex projects in a high-tech development environment with multi-function teams. PMP preferred
  • Prior experience with SCRUM/Agile methodologies with enterprise-level application development projects. PMI-ACP, CSM, or equivalent preferred
  • Experience overseeing multi-function project teams with at least 10-15 team members including Developers, Business Analysts, and QA Personnel
  • Balanced business/technical background:
    • Sufficient level of technical background to provide highly-credible leadership to development teams and to be able to accurately and objectively evaluate complex project risks and issues
    • Ability to provide leadership to business analysts and collaborate with customers and develop strategies and solutions of high business value

Skills Required

  • BA or BS or equivalent experience is required; MA or MS is a plus
  • Very effective interpersonal skills including mentoring, coaching, collaborating, and team building
  • Strong analytical, planning, and organizational skills with an ability to manage competing demands
  • In-depth knowledge and understanding of business needs with the ability to establish/maintain high level of customer trust and confidence
  • Proven ability to lead software development projects and ensure objectives, goals, and commitments are met
  • Solid understanding of and demonstrated experience in using appropriate tools:
    • Agile Project Management tools such as Jira/Greenhopper, Rally, VersionOne or equivalent
    • Microsoft Project, Visio, and all Office Tools
  • Excellent oral and written communications skills and experience interacting with both business and IT individuals at all levels including the executive level
  • Creative approach to problem-solving with the ability to focus on details while maintaining the “big picture” view

Additional Resources

This is a new and rapidly evolving field. For more insight into the role of an Agile Project Manager, check out the online training curriculum below:

Agile Project Management Training Curriculum

Managed Agile Development Framework – A Hybrid Approach

I’ve seen many people ask a question like “should I use Agile or Waterfall for a project? That excludes the possibility that there is a hybrid approach that provides the benefits of both approaches. The Managed Agile Development Framework is an example of a hybrid approach that is very easy to implement


A few years ago, I was responsible for managing a large government project.

  • The project required meeting some defined cost and schedule milestones
  • However, the customer wanted to take an Agile approach to defining the requirements.

In response to that project, I developed an approach which I call “The Managed Agile Development” framework that would satisfy those two seemingly inconsistent goals. The framework consisted of two levels:

Macro LevelThe “Macro” level was the outer envelope of the project. It was focused primarily on managing overall contractual requirements
Micro LevelWithin that “macro level” envelope, we were still able to implement a fairly flexible Agile development approach at the “micro-level”
Managed Agile Development Framework

How Does It Work?

There are two layers in the framework as shown in the diagram above. The “Macro” layer is plan-driven; but it can be as “thick” or “thin” as you want it to be. The “Micro” layer can be any Agile development approach such as Scrum.

  • The macro-level framework is a plan-driven approach. It is designed to provide a sufficient level of control and predictability for the overall project. It defines the outer envelope (scope and high-level requirements) that the project operates within
  • Within that outer envelope, the micro-level framework utilizes a more flexible and iterative approach based on an Agile/Scrum approach. It is designed to be adaptive to user needs

Trade-offs to Consider

Naturally, there are tradeoffs between

  • The level of agility and flexibility to adapt to change at the “micro-level” and
  • The level of predictability and control at the “macro-level”.

It is important that both the client or business sponsor and the development team need to agree on those trade-offs. The framework provides a mechanism for making those trade-offs by making the “macro-level” as “thick” or “thin” as you want to fit a given situation.

Increasing Predictability and Control

Increasing the level of predictability and control requires:

  • Beefing up the macro-level,
  • Providing more detailed requirements at that level, and
  • Implementing at least a limited amount of change control

Increasing Agility

To increase the level of agility:

  • You can simply eliminate the macro-level altogether or limit it to only very high-level requirements
  • Other elements of the framework can be easily customized or eliminated depending on the scope and complexity of the project and other factors

Change Control

A question that often comes up is “How do you handle change control?”. The answer to that question is that:

  • You have to design enough slack into the milestones at the “macro” level to allow detailed elaboration of requirements to take place in the “micro” level.
  • However, when there is a significant enough change in the “micro” level that would impact achievement of the requirements in the “macro” level, that should trigger a change to the “macro” level milestones.

General Approach for Agile Contracts

This general approach can be used on almost any project. Check out this article for more detail on Agile Contracts:

Agile Contracts

Additional Resources

You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.

Agile Maturity and the Martial Arts – How Are They Similar?

There’s a definite relationship of Agile levels of maturity and the martial arts like Karate.

Agile Maturity and the Martial Arts
Young couple doing Martial Arts exercise outdoors

What Is the Similarity of Agile and the Martial Arts?

In theory, there should be a lot of similarity:

TechniquesThere are a wide range of Martial Arts techniques that can be applied in different situations
Finesse and SkillMost Martial Arts require finesse and skill; it’s not just a brute force approach
Levels of SkillThere are different levels of skill associated with Martial Arts and it is an ongoing journey to become a “master”

How Does It Compare to Actual Practice?

In actual practice; however, I think that Agile principles and practices are at a very low level of maturity compared to Martial Arts (that’s perfectly understandable given that Martial Arts have been around for thousands of years). However, there is a lot we can learn from martial arts that can be applied to Agile:


Agile has become synonymous with Scrum as the primary methodology for implementing Agile.

  • Our knowledge of implementing Agile successfully is heavily defined by the “mechanics” of how to implement Scrum.
  • Surely, there must be more to Agile than that.
  • That’s equivalent to saying that Karate is the only Martial Arts practice when there are many, many others.

Finesse and Skill

I’ve seen many companies take a very superficial approach to Agile.

  • They will do a few Agile practices like holding Daily Standups and putting up Kanban Boards and call it Agile.
  • In many cases, if you look under the surface, it’s still just a brute force approach to get things done.
  • They haven’t really fully implemented Agile principles and practices and
  • They haven’t mastered the skill and finesse needed to do it well.

For example:

  • People may not be dedicated to Agile teams
  • The company may still rely on overtime, weekend work, and pressure to meet unrealistic deadlines
  • There may be no Product Owner role and the business side may not be well-integrated with the project

Levels of Skill

Many people don’t seem to realize that there are different levels of skill associated with Agile (some of those levels aren’t even fully understood yet). There is a wealth of knowledge about how to do almost every aspect of Scrum at the team level but;

  • Very little is understood about how to scale Agile to an enterprise level and
  • How to integrate it with a business environment that isn’t necessarily well-suited to Agile

There are also still very wide gaps in our understanding of how to blend Agile principles and practices with more traditional project management principles and practices. Those two areas are often seen as competit1ive rather than complementary with each other.


There’s a particular concept from Martial Arts that is helpful to understand the level of maturity we are at in Agile. The concept of “Shu-ha-ri” is a Japanese concept to define different levels of proficiency in Martial Arts:


“Shu” means to keep, protect, keep or maintain.

  • During the “Shu” phase, the student builds the technical foundation of the art.
  • In “Shu”, the student should be working to copy the techniques as taught without modification. And, without yet attempting to make any effort to understand the rationale of the techniques of the school/teacher.
  • In this way, a lasting technical foundation is built on which the deeper understanding of the art can be based


The second stage of the process is called “Ha”.

  • “Ha” means to detach and means that the student breaks free from traditions to some extent
  • In the “Ha” stage, the student must reflect on the meaning and purpose of everything that he/she has learned. The student thus comes to a deeper understanding of the art than pure repetitive practice can allow


“Ri” means to go beyond or transcend.

  • In this stage, the student is no longer a student in the normal sense, but a practitioner
  • The practitioner must think originally and develop from background knowledge original thoughts about the art. He/she tests them against the reality of his or her background knowledge and conclusions as well as the demands of everyday life
  • In the Ri stage, the art truly becomes the practitioner’s own and to some extent his or her own creation

(Source: Shu-Ha-Ri

Overall Summary

There’s a lot to be learned from the levels of maturity in the martial arts that are directly relevant to Agile. It provides a good way of understanding the level of maturity of Agile teams.

If you think about our current level of knowledge of Agile as it exists today:

  • Many people are still struggling with the “Shu” level to understand the mechanics of how to do Scrum. They have a long way to go to really get to higher levels of mastery
  • Many people do not realize how big this gap is
  • Many people seem to think that all there is to know is the mechanics of how to do Scrum at the team level

I think we have hardly scratched the surface of the knowledge that is needed about how to successfully do Agile Project Management. Martial Arts have been around for thousands of years and there’s still a lot to be learned so its very understandable that our level of knowledge about Agile is at a fairly low level of maturity.

For example, here is a very good article written by Patti Gilchrist on the innovations that Bruce Lee has brought to Martial Arts that has some similar thoughts to this article that I really liked:

Additional Resources

For more on levels of mastery in Agile, check out this article:

You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.

Agile Estimation – What’s the Right Level? Is It Important?

I participated in a discussion recently on the subject of estimation in an Agile Project.

  • The individual who started the discussion indicated that his team was not very good at estimating.
  • He asked whether it was important for them to become more proficient in estimating the level of effort required.
Agile Estimation

Why Is Agile Estimation Important?

Estimation can be very important and is a skill that is often neglected in Agile development projects. There are different levels of estimation in an Agile project. Here’s why I think each of those levels is important:

Agile Estimation in Project-level Planning

At a project level, there is a need for some kind of planning to estimate the scope of the effort. That can be essential to set expectations of how long it is going to take to finish the project:

  • Very few projects are given a “blank check” for a project without some expectations about the cost and schedule of the project
  • In that situation, it’s irresponsible to not set and manage those expectations

I have seen Agile projects where the project has gone on-and-on for an extended period of time without a plan for when it would finish:

  • In one case, a project was so large that it couldn’t possibly be done by a single Agile team, and
  • That wasn’t discovered until well into the project
  • At that point, the whole project had to be re-planned and estimated

Agile Estimation in Determining Business Value

At a more tactical level within a project, there is an ongoing need for the Product Owner to evaluate the value produced by stories:

  • The Product Owner needs to compare the value of the stories against the level of effort required to develop that capability
  • He/she needs use that information to prioritize he work properly to maximize the value that the project produces
  • If the Product Owner only knows the business value of the work without an idea of the level of effort associated with it, it is very difficult to make a good decision

Agile Estimation in Sprint Planning

There is also a need to accurately size the level of effort that can be taken into a sprint so that it can be completed successfully:

  • A team can become demoralized if they never finish a sprint successfully. And, that can happen if they weren’t able to accurately estimate the level of effort required
  • Estimating the work to be done also allows the team to better allocate the work among people on the team to do it more efficiently

What’s the Right Level of Estimation?

The level of estimation can range from

  • Very rough, high-level estimates to
  • More accurate, detailed estimates

The right approach for estimation in an Agile project will depend on several factors:

Level of UncertaintyThe level of uncertainty in the project is the most important factor. Naturally, the accuracy of any estimate must be proportional to the level of uncertainty in the requirements
Customer ExpectationsThe customer’s need for predictability is important. However, that obviously needs to be balanced against the level of uncertainty so that the customer expectations are properly set
Contractual RequirementsAny contractual requirements will also have a big impact. The nature of a contract might range from a very collaborative partnership to a more typical “arms-length” contract.

Overall Summary

There is no question that estimation is a difficult thing to do in an Agile environment and, the importance of doing estimation is not well-understood. For those reasons, developers sometimes resist making estimates.

  • The important thing is to define the approach for doing estimation in the context of the project you’re operating in
  • Some projects may have very uncertain requirements and may be very difficult to estimate
  • That may be OK for some projects but that doesn’t have to be the norm for all Agile projects

It is not an all-or-nothing decision between:

  • A totally adaptive with no plan or estimates at all and
  • A rigidly plan-driven approach with highly detailed estimates

There are plenty of alternatives between those two extremes. What is most important is that the project team and the customer have a common understanding of:

  • The level of uncertainty in any estimates and
  • How that uncertainty will be managed.

Additional Resources

You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.

People, Process, and Tools in an Agile Project – How to Fix a Broken Project

The inter-relationship of people, process, and tools in an Agile project is important to understand. It is particularly important when you try to fix a broken project.

People Process and Tools

Typical Traditional Project Management Approach

On several occasions, I’ve been brought in to rescue a project that was in trouble. In many cases, there is an expectation that, as a Project Manager,

  • I will re-plan the project,
  • Get it on the right track, and
  • Perhaps also”ram-rod” the effort to get it moving through to completion if necessary.

That’s the typical expectation of what a traditional Project Manager might do. If a project fails, it is the Project Manager who is typically held responsible.

People Process and Tools in an Agile Project

I think the Agile environment is different.

  • I’ve certainly seen a need to re-plan projects and get them on the right track and it often takes some strong leadership skills to do that; however
  • A more critical role in many cases in an Agile project is developing the right people, process, and tools to make the Agile project teams more effective and self-sufficient.

The irony is that if you do that successfully, you might practically eliminate the need for a Project Manager and put yourself out of a job, but that’s the right thing to do. I think that’s a key difference in an Agile project. In a traditional project, the role of the Project Manager might normally be expected to continue all the way to the end in order to push the project on to completion.

I’ve seen several Agile projects that got into trouble because they didn’t have an adequate amount of upfront planning. And, as a result the project didn’t have the right people, process, and tools to be successful. This happens frequently in larger, enterprise-level projects because many people don’t understand or appreciate what it takes to scale an Agile development approach to an enterprise level. Here are a few examples of typical problem areas I’ve seen:


The first and most important area is related to “people”:

  • It takes a lot more skill to organize a large, enterprise-level Agile project
  • The number and different types of people involved are typically a lot more numerous and complex
  • It can be a real challenge to figure out how to organize all of the people (both inside and outside of the project teams) to get the effort done successfully

Here’s an example:

  • I’ve seen projects get in trouble because there was no Project Governance model defined to provide overall direction to the project
  • In many cases at an enterprise level, its not as simple as having a single Product Owner to provide direction. And, without a plan for how all of the stakeholders and decision-makers will participate in the project as it moves forward, it’s very easy for a project to go off-course and get in trouble


The second major area is process:

  • In many cases, there’s also not a clear understanding of what it takes to scale an Agile process like Scrum to enterprise levels.
  • There are typically layers of management needed above the team level and it has to be well-integrated with the company’s primary management structure.
  • It may not be as simple as layering a Scrum-of-Scrums approach on top of a couple of Agile teams.
  • There is also often a need to define a hybrid process that blends together:
    • Some amount of traditional plan-driven project management at a higher level with
    • An Agile development approach like Scrum at the team level.


The third area that it often important in effectively organizing large, enterprise-level Agile projects is tools.

  • In large, complex enterprise-level projects, tools also can be a major problem area
  • The tools that people many times use for small, simple Agile projects, just don’t necessarily scale well to larger, more complex, enterprise-level projects

For example,

  • People might use physical story cards and white-boards for tracking progress of small, single-team Agile projects but
  • Those methods start to fall short very rapidly as you to try to scale the effort to larger, enterprise-level projects with multiple teams that need to coordinate with each other and may not be collocated
  • Managing that type of situation typically requires more sophisticated, on-line electronic tools

People Process and Tools – Overall Summary

I’ve been in situations where clients might not have the patience to address some of these more systemic issues involving people, process, and tools:

  • In some cases, there might be an expectation that the Project Manager will just somehow “ram-rod” the project to get it moving and get it back on the right track but
  • Taking that kind of approach and ignoring the more systemic factors associated with people, process, and tools is not likely to be very successful,
  • That’s equivalent to just putting pressure on a broken process to make it work better. A more effective approach in most cases is to fix the broken process.

Additional Resources

You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.