For our latest specialist interview in our series speaking to technology leaders from around the world, we’ve welcomed Anaël Pichon. Anaël is a Professional Scrum Product Owner (PSPO) and SAFe Program Consultant (SPC) as well as a Solution Consultant at iObeya.
She holds a Master of Science degree in Engineering and Management and is a seasoned Project Manager with over 10 years of experience in various industries and countries.
How did you get started in the Agile world? What sparked your interest to become a Product Owner?
I was using the 'Waterfall' methodology for the most part. I started exploring different frameworks a few years back and that's how I stepped into the Agile world.
I decided to become a Product Owner because I am passionate about gathering requirements and needs from customers and translating them into technical requirements.
Scrum Master was an option as well, but it is more of a coaching role, and I wanted to stay involved in product decisions.
What does a Scrum Master do?
There are 3 roles in an Agile team: Scrum Master, Product Owner, and Team Member. A Product Owner's main mission is to maximize the value of one or more products resulting from the work of development teams.
There is only one Product Owner per product. In order to bring vision, value and validation, the Product Owner manages the release plan, the product strategy and communicates/clarifies the product vision to stakeholders and the development team.
How did you become a Product Owner?
I decided to take the Scrum.org course followed by the online PSPO certification because I thought it was challenging enough, well recognized, and included a mandatory course, which helped me learn from other attendees as well.
Has agile changed a lot over the years? What are the biggest differences you see today compared to when you first started out?
The increase in remote work and globally distributed teams (even before the pandemic) definitely changed one of the most important aspects of Agile: "face-to-face interactions".
Agile leaders agree that the idea is now described as "synchronous interactions over videoconference when in-person meetings are not possible". So, more and more, instead of holding stand-up meetings in one room, for example, teams meet remotely and participate using Digital Visual Management tools.
This led to more use of new technologies instead of typical sticky notes on walls. Then, I would say that the rise of scaled Agile methodologies has helped bigger and bigger companies improve their time-to-market, in the last 10 years.
While Agile was initially used at the team level, or mostly for R&D and IT, it is now used at an enterprise level, which makes it both more complex and more powerful.
What’s the one thing people usually get wrong or misunderstand about Agile?
I often hear "well, so, the Scrum Master is just like a Project Manager". Not really: even though in the real world, the same person who used to be a Project Manager may become their team's Scrum Master, it is not a simple translation.
Every role has a project management component, but that is outside of the Agile framework. A Scrum Master is there to promote and support the Agile/Scrum framework as described in the Scrum guide.
A similar confusion occurs with Scrum Master and Manager. Again, it often happens that a Manager becomes the team's Scrum Master, but Agile teams are self-managed. The Scrum Master has no hierarchical authority over the Development team.
What challenges have you faced with implementing true Agile practices?
Just like for any major change, people usually tend to resist and want to keep their old habits. One of the main challenges is to get people started. Another big challenge is a lack of leadership and guidance: some companies decide to implement Agile practices either because the competition is doing it, or because it is the trend, but without a true understanding of the framework.
They end up using Jira, for example, but still thinking in a waterfall way, and consider themselves Agile, but they are just at the beginning of the journey. Finally, switching from a project mindset to a product mindset sounds great, but it is actually difficult to achieve at the beginning. Organizing around value is an exercise that is quite different from usual processes.
What advice would you have for other organisations?
The first step should be to convince and to train leaders, so they can sponsor, share and promote the Agile mindset within their company. Train your people. Once employees get trained and start understanding that Agile practices actually empower them, they become more and more enthusiastic. Go step by step, "slowly but surely". Once a couple of teams are starting to see the value and showing what they achieved, other teams will become curious and will want in. Never consider it "done": continuous improvement is part of the idea, and you can always improve your organization's agility. Never forget that people and culture are a crucial part of Agile: share success stories, measure and show progress, and promote transparency.
Are there some qualifiers to see if a company is eligible or qualifies for Agile?
It is ultimately a company's decision to become Agile or not. The main recommendation would be to make sure that it would be beneficial: an organization that is simple, with established processes on a mature product may be just fine with waterfall methodology.
Agile is for complex organizations or organizations that develop complex products and that constantly need to adapt to change and to innovate.
Then, a qualifier could be a set of questions to ask leaders, or questions they should ask themselves: are you willing to put dedicated Agile resources in place (e.g. a full-time Scrum Master, not part-time Project Manager and part-time Scrum Master)? Are you ready to trust your team and decentralize decision making? Are you ready to focus on value, on customers, on quality and not just saying it?
Who would qualify for Kanban, Agile, or Scrum? Why would they be eligible for one but not the other?
This question comes up every so often, and to me, they are not mutually exclusive: actually, quite the opposite.
I would sum it up by saying that Kanban and Scrum are methodologies that both support an Agile implementation. In my opinion, there is no "Kanban vs. Agile vs. Scrum", but rather, "Agile using Kanban and/or Scrum".
- Agile is a framework: a set of practices to organize around value and to develop in an iterative and flexible way.
- Kanban is a flow-oriented methodology borrowed from Lean manufacturing: in Agile, it is used to monitor progress and workload at each step of a process. It does not include any notion of duration. Kanban brings transparency, flexibility and continuous delivery.
- Scrum is an iterative methodology: self-organized teams with defined roles follow a given cadence (sprints) and deliver value at the end of each sprint. They also "inspect and adapt" and review previous work in order to improve during the next sprint. Scrum brings transparency, accountability, cadence, and continuous improvement.
So, a team that is delivering a service such as tracking support tickets or, in the physical world, an assembly line, for instance, would be more interested in Kanban, since those are established processes with set steps.
A team that is developing software would probably combine Scrum and Kanban: Scrum helps them in their day-to-day work, and Kanban to get a quick overview of the status.
What tools have you found most useful for working in an agile way?
Nowadays, in a partly remote set-up, teams will need at least:
- a video/audio-conference tool to keep "face-to-face" interactions
- a task-tracking tool to track features, stories, tasks, bugs, etc. in a structured manner
- a visual management tool (in addition to or instead of physical walls) for rituals, brainstorming, whiteboarding, etc.
The tool(s) each organization selects will depend on specific needs, but I personally like the combination of MS Teams, Jira/Confluence and iObeya.
The fact that these 3 tools can be inter-connected allows teams to use iObeya within MS Teams, and with bi-directional synchronization with Jira. This makes everything easier: users can join their meetings, interact on virtual boards and update Jira issues, all in one place.
Where do you see things evolving and changing for agile in the next five, ten years?
- The Agile Manifesto just turned 20 years old, and more and more companies are adopting it, or at least a hybrid setup. Agile used to be an "IT thing" and now, all types of organizations are implementing Agile, not just in the software industry or the R&D department. I can see Agile being implemented more and more often for Marketing, Sales, HR... It is also getting applied in industries such as retail or tourism.
- The other current trend is scaling Agile: more and more major companies are getting their employees trained and switching to Scaled Agile. This framework is 10 years old, and I can see this evolving for the next 10 years at least since it is a much more recent concept.
- Remote work, as I said earlier, will become more and more common, so I can see an infinity of possible evolutions in the digital visual management world. The switch from physical to virtual may have appeared as a limitation at first, but it actually opens more possibilities, in my opinion. A simple example is copying information: in the physical world, you need to grab a new sticky note, rewrite the same information, and take the new note to another wall or room. In the digital world, this can be achieved in a couple of clicks.
What advice do you have for aspiring Product Owners and those new to agile?
- Get trained, attend events about Agile, learn from others, and go for it.
- Never stop learning, be curious, and don't be scared of failure: this is all part of innovation.
- Be prepared to advocate but also to listen: you represent customers, but also stakeholders, and you need to understand your development team as well. Remember that your mission is to maximize value.
- Product Owners have to have an entrepreneurial mindset and believe in their product: if asked if you would invest all your money in your product, your answer should be "Yes".