After the initial joy of getting approval for a new mapping project, I faced the daunting prospect of becoming a Product Owner. I knew this was a role to use ‘agile methodology’ but I didn’t know my ‘product backlog’ from my ‘sprints’!
Following a conversation with Paul Chambers, Product Manager for our Digital Register service, I was invited to spend a couple of days with his team in Plymouth. This would give me the opportunity to see what the Product Development & Management Team is doing and to get a feel for agile working.
I also spoke to Carla Pinhey, who’s the Product Owner for our Case Management workflow. Her team are working on a way to manage work more flexibly and efficiently. She gave me an excellent overview of agile (thank you Carla!), so I didn’t feel quite so green when I arrived in Paul’s team. Yet it soon became clear this was a very different way of working. The fast pace and collection of diagrams and post-it notes can be a little overwhelming, but there’s a definite refreshing vibe.
In a nutshell, agile is a way of managing and delivering software products and services. I learnt there are core principles behind agile, with a focus on customer interaction, collaboration and the ability to respond and adapt. These principles focus on user needs, breaking the project down into ‘user stories’ that are prioritised and delivered in short cycles called ‘sprints’. This means that a product is delivered bit by bit, allowing the team to reflect and adapt the product in managed stages.
Although the team has many different skills with business reps, testers, developers and user researchers, there’s a strong team working ethos. There is an obvious desire to work together and learn from each other. The team manages itself and has the independence to do so. The only formal roles belong to the Product Owner, who is responsible for what the product delivers, and the Scrum master who acts as a facilitator and guardian within the team.
I noticed that no part of the wall is saved from the post-it note. Also scrabbling around on the floor mapping out the Digital Register customer journey seemed perfectly logical. Yet I was impressed as to how these simple methods are not only visually effective but create an excellent forum for honest conversation. Face to face communication is important, with short daily ‘stand-ups’ providing an opportunity for the team to tell each other what they’ve done, what they will be doing and anything slowing them down.
I attended the ‘sprint review’; a ‘show & tell’ that reviews the user stories completed during that sprint. It is open to anyone interested and anyone across the organisation can join the online meeting, see progress and provide feedback. Each sprint review is then followed by a ‘retrospective’ where the team takes time out to talk about what was learnt.
Of course agile comes with its challenges: technically and culturally. I can also see that it may not be suitable for every project. Am I sold on agile working? Most definitely YES! It’s fast moving, but continuous feedback and communication make it easy to see progress and issues. It makes sense and is far less daunting than I thought.