Agile Advisor

How Should Agile Respond to Customers?

Why it's both necessary -- and dangerous -- to listen to your customers.

How do you know you're building the right product? That is, how do you know that the value  your team is producing each sprint (iteration) is actually the correct bit of value? If you've read Clayton's Christensen's book The Innovator's Dilemma, you probably know where I'm going with this article. If you haven't, I'd highly recommend the book. Why? Because Christensen outlines a trap many organizations fall into when they do what seems very natural; that is, they listen to their customers.

There's a common saying most of us love to throw around: "The customer is always right". Said differently, a company should put customers first. When they do, they'll be successful. It's a great statement and one that rings true in many industries. Restaurants, hotels, clothing stores, and other similar industries go out of their way to ensure that their customers feel appreciated and feel loved. It keeps customers coming back, and it's an easy way to differentiate from competitors.

How does this relate to software? Well, it relates in the way we engage with the customers of our own products. I often tell others that as a product owner, my job is to first listen to what customers want; and ultimately build them what they need. It's a fine line to walk, but it's an important one.

My existing customers will no doubt lead me to making my product incrementally better. They'll tell me about the rough edges I can smooth over and they'll push me to discover new scenarios I can support. But my existing customers will rarely help me recognize something new or disruptive in the market.

You can see why I call this the product owner's dilemma. Agile teaches us that we need to be collaborating with customers throughout the software development lifecycle. Engaging customers is critical to our ability to deliver value that meets their needs. This is all true and something I fundamentally believe in. The dilemma lies in the fact that while listening to and engaging with customers, a product owner must also carefully watch and analyze the landscape of the market. He or she must pay attention to new and disruptive products and/or technologies that present threats, and be prepared to make hard decisions about items on the backlog.

I often tell people that a good portion of my job is apologizing to and empathizing with customers about things we're not building. It's often difficult, but it's absolutely necessary: A decision to not do something is just as important as a decision to build something new. It's a bit of a backwards approach to thinking about value, but it's true.

If you're a product owner, you might ask yourself: Are just improving your existing products?  Or are you paying attention to what's going outside your product, and looking for that next disruptive technology that could turn your industry or market upside down?  It's the product owner's dilemma.

About the Author

Aaron Bjork is a Principal Program Manager at Microsoft working on Agile experiences and tooling within Team Foundation Server (TFS). Prior to joining TFS in 2008, Bjork worked as a software engineer and development lead in Visual Studio. He is passionate about Application Lifecycle Management solutions and has a strong desire to see teams improve their software engineering practices. Follow Bjork on his blog at blogs.msdn.com/aaronbjork.

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