Guest Column | November 15, 2019

Maintaining Strategic Focus During Agile Releases

By Kash Noorani, OpsRamp

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In today’s hyper-competitive world, releasing early and often is a business necessity. When done right, this unrelenting commitment to speed enables product teams to quickly respond to shifting market conditions. But sometimes, agility can lead to a lack of strategic focus. Releases degenerate delivering shiny objects that temporarily fascinate the product or sales organizations without wowing customers. Without strategic focus, releases can:

  • Lack a discernible theme, becoming an amalgam of disconnected features
  • Introduce incomplete and disjointed workflows
  • Fail to address long-standing customer requests
  • Attempt to patch weaknesses rather than building upon strengths

When planning product releases the goal is to keep a strategic focus while still rolling out the simplest, complete solutions to customer problems. The following set of questions guide us:

  • Will this release show notable progress in executing the company’s strategy?
  • Will this release provide a complete solution to a strategic customer’s problem?
  • Which customer success stories can my team tell as a result of this release?
  • Will this release show notable progress in executing the company’s strategy?

It’s incredibly important to reduce alert fatigue for our users. Therefore, in every release, we give high priority to our AI features that help with alert noise suppression. This means we sometimes have to make hard decisions, such as deferring new dashboard widgets to later releases. Your company’s strategy may be to add revenue by attacking a market adjacency, or maybe it is to reduce a perceived value gap to a competitor product by bringing feature parity. Regardless, whether your company’s strategy is explicitly defined or implicitly understood, maintaining strategic focus means that every release has to further your company’s objectives.

Will this release provide a complete solution to a strategic customer’s problem?

Product management and engineering can build a shiny, new toy, whether that’s upgrading to the latest JavaScript framework, adding some esoteric widget to a dashboard, or building a cute Slack bot to get the field and a few customers buzzing. But marketing and sales leaders know that they can’t drive more prospects, cross-sells, upsells and long-term loyalty if they aren’t solving complete problems for high-value customers. Take care to avoid the distractions and focus on pressing customer needs.

Product teams should do the hard work of conducting customer interviews, surveys, mining community forums and sharing observations with stakeholders to determine how to complete existing features or solve well-understood customer problems. These solutions should allow a user to say, for instance: “Now I can automate my entire workflow, even though I don’t have all the bells and whistles I want.” Such users can turn into customer success stories and references. Prioritize shipping the complete solution in one release, even if that means you have to delay shipping customization options for a later release.

One of the lessons product managers learn quickly is that a release is unlikely to be successful if the field isn’t excited about it. Contrary to our wildest dreams, our users don’t take a day off when we have a new release and walk through every menu function to find hidden features. Without marketing, sales and customer success teams going above and beyond to demonstrate value and drive adoption, product releases may languish or experience mediocre adoption. It’s not uncommon for users to express surprise upon discovering a feature that solved a problem for them, and which has been available for a while.

To excite our field teams, we have to tell strategic customer success stories. There is nothing more powerful than telling our field that you made a specific user’s life better or helped a customer grow sales. It’s even better if that user can be part of your release announcement to the field, showing his or her enthusiasm and willingness to be a reference. These customer success stories don’t magically materialize at the end of a release. They require a ton of planning up-front and tremendous discipline and focus to bring to fruition. Yet, they bring incredible rewards as the whole company feels rejuvenated and validated when they hear how their work has made a positive impact on real customers.

Product release planning is a strategic exercise that’s critical to the business. It’s not simply pushing out a bunch of work a product team has accomplished. As a product leader, keeping a strategic release planning mindset will help you focus the field and product teams’ energy on the company’s objectives. Teams will see the fruits of their labor by driving greater customer adoption of releases. And that’s something we can all celebrate.

About The Author

Kash Noorani is senior director of product management at OpsRamp.