Do Agile Teams Know Who Their Customers Really Are?

Mystery Customer

The last few months at Gear Stream have involved intensive work helping new clients, welcoming new colleagues, and most importantly, delivering on the potential of Agile.  Throughout all this crazy growth is a recurring client challenge that I’d like to highlight that has the potential to undermine Agile success and worse, introduce outcomes nearly as dysfunctional as those we’re seeking to eradicate with Agile.  What is this challenge you ask?  Agile teams routinely lack insight and appreciation for who their real customers are.

With Agile enjoying mainstream adoption, there is an accelerated use of Agile project management frameworks.  Recent survey data confirms that Scrum is clearly the Agile PM framework of choice among companies both large and small.  Scrum’s attraction is easy to understand.  On one level Scrum is easy to teach, easy to learn, and easy to “sell” to those whose permission is required prior to introduction within a larger Enterprise. While the many “gotcha’s” of successful Scrum execution are well documented, the one I don’t see folks talking about nearly enough is the concept of “Customer”.

Scrum’s emphasis on building what Customers value is intoxicating to those who have experienced the insanity of teams marching to the predefined scope of traditional projects.  While this “customer centric” approach to Scrum is welcome, it presumes something very dangerous… namely that our teams and organization know whom their customers are and that they know what these customers truly value.  When Agile first took root it was often in software start-ups or development organizations where the concept of customer was simple to identify and understand.  It was often a very specific person or role with a very narrowly defined problem requiring a solution that could be easily identified and delivered.

As Agile has scaled up to large Enterprise programs the issue of Customer is now a very real conundrum. Customers are no longer simple roles, they are collections of stakeholder groups each with a different definition of value, yet Scrum simply says to the Product Owner “prioritize your team’s focus by business value”… Who’s definition of business value?  There are many definitions of value across important stakeholder groups that must be constructively harmonized; so, how will this be accomplished?  How will we govern this activity?  Who will define success?  How will we track our effectiveness and progress towards these goals?  These are not theoretical questions they are the foundation to creating better outcomes for organizations seeking improved results via the use of Agile methods.

In future articles I will share more about emerging insights and patterns that larger organizations (both internal IT and R&D) are employing to better understand how to insure delivery of high impact value to these complex Customer stakeholder groups.   I’ll give you a hint… Design Thinking is emerging as the new star… more on this in future articles.

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