I was just reading a recent ExecutiveBrief article on the role of the business analyst in Agile SCRUM development in preparation for a local PDMA chapter panel discussion that I’ll be on next week.  It brought to mind some thoughts and observations from my relatively recent work at Sage where we implemented this methodology in a fairly large ERP project.

Agile SCRUM, like any methodology is no assurance, that high value features will be produced for the intended customer.  The fast-paced SCRUM iterations can just as easily produce large volumes of great code that adds little to customer value.  So as I think back on this project where we had eight teams, (if my memory is correct), I distinctly remember there were some pretty significant variations between the teams’ ability to capture high customer value.

In our case, we did use business analysts with one or several teams, who worked closely with the product owner (a senior product manager) to manage the myriad of details within this large project.  The business analysts, who were also part of the product management organization, were responsible for managing their specific backlog lists to ensure that their teams were focused on the high value feature priorities.  They were constantly in contact with intended customers to define and validate the teams backlog.

A fundamental characteristic of all Agile methodologies is that they are shorter on documentation and longer on face-to-face, real time interactions.  And as a result, team dynamics play and incredibly important role in the overall success of this approach.  Strong interpersonal skills and abilities are essential ingredients therefore, especially for the business analyst since they need to be the critical link with the customer to ensure that the customer’s value priorities are heard and met.

Teams also need to walk a careful line of applying the correct amount of technical innovation that yields the optimal value for the customer.  It’s so easy for a team to over engineer features or create new feature sets that, while making for “elegant software” don’t really serve the needs to the customer.  Given the relative autonomy of SCRUM teams, if the business analyst gets caught up in this gestalt, a team can quickly lose it’s way.  Sometimes, as in one case that I recall, it can take some "tough love" to deal with and end up requiring some pretty significant team restructuring with the corresponding loss in time, effort and forward momentum.

My personal belief is that it’s not enough to have the business analysts and product owners to be the only links to the intended customers.  All members of the team should have direct customer interaction over the course of the project.  There’s just no substitute for the rich “customer value context” that the team gains as a result.  It’s another way to, in VALUE:driven’s terminology, “become the customer”.  As the many decisions are made by the team to determine the scope and design of the product, they are guided by a deepening sense of the customer’s needs, environment and perspective.

And, of course the product owner and business analysts must lead this charge for the team.   However, senior management must reinforce and support this by creating a supporting culture - where creating and delivering superior customer value is always Job #1.

As always I invite your input and comments on this an any of my blogs.  And, if you happen to be in Portland next week, I invite you to register and come to the PDMA chapter meeting I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, where we’ll be discussing the role of engineering and marketing in a lean environment.  I’m sure it will be a very interactive and informative event!

We've all heard the incredibly funny baseball routine performed by Abbott and Costello in their 1945 film "The Naughty Nineties".  And while miscommunication makes for great comedy, it isn't nearly as funny when it shows up in your organization.  Of course there are many reasons why communication can be challenging in organizations today, one that I've seen often over the years stems from a lack of alignment about customer value.  

All too often the context for understanding customer value is within each manager's respective functional area.  Each area has a different role with the customer, and without an organization-wide customer value definition, each area will tend to establish what it thinks is the most relevant definition based upon their viewpoint or experience with the customer.

To product development it may be all about the number of open, P1 defects; while customer service believes it's all about first call resolution; while product management focuses on product utilization and sales believes it's about "time to close".  It could be any of a million different things.  And that's the point, without a clearly articulated and commonly understood statement of customer value that is based upon the customer's needs and objectives, it will be all over the board.  And most likely, not at all what they customer values the most.

While we are debating among ourselves what the customer really wants from us, the customer's voice get's lost and we continue in our fragmented and disjointed delivery of our perceptions of value.  One of the primary reasons for this is the simple fact that we don't really know what the customer values most from us and so, we start making things up and confusing what is valuable to us with what is valuable to them.  What makes our lives easier or better vs what makes their life easier or better.

This is not to say that each functional area is wrong to have their own metrics, but it does mean that each area's metrics should be tied in some clear way to the customer value statement.

A common understanding of customer value also helps break down functional silos in the organization.  It acts as a unifying principle that brings all parts of the organization, regardless of their specialized focus, together.  It helps the organization work together to deliver, in a consistent and compatible way, what is of most importance to the customer.  And it helps the organization shed internal barriers that limit our efficiency and effectiveness and tends to open new avenues for improved customer value delivery.

A simple test of how well you're doing in this area is to ask members of your staff what they think is of greatest value to the customer.  The answers you receive will tell you whether you're united around a common customer value statement, or not.    

    John Geffel

    Value is a much abused, misunderstood and misused word, everyone thinks they provide it but so few show real evidence that they do!

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