Agile product management and portfolio platforms explained

Tools like Jira and Azure DevOps serve only part of the agile team’s job functions. Here are the agile tools that will take you to the next level

Agile product management and portfolio platforms explained
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When you ask product owners if agile tools work well for them, you’ll get a mixed, sometimes negative response. Agile tools do help agile teams, but they don’t provide all the capabilities that product owners need to do their jobs.

Similarly, agile tools have limited functionality to help program and portfolio managers. Agile tools typically provide reports on teams, releases, and epics that are often insufficient to help program managers reports on top-down strategic initiatives.

So, don’t be surprised if the product owner on your team hates Atlassian’s Jira or if the program manager can’t get the reporting they need from Jira or Microsoft’s Azure DevOps. Those tools only serve part of the team’s job functions.

Backlogs, sprint boards, and scrum reports do not fully address the tools product managers need to conceive great products or help program managers align strategic goals with the work performed by agile teams. If you’re stuck in a lot of meetings with product and program managers reviewing work status or learning business strategies through PowerPoint presentations, your organization may be ready for an agile product management or portfolio management platform.

Agile management platforms such as Jira and Azure DevOps are primarily designed for agile delivery teams that include developers, testers, and devops engineers. They have boards to manage the status of user stories and other types of work committed to the active sprint, and they have other backlog management tools to help review, sequence, and prioritize stories for future sprints. They come with built in burndown reports and other reports to help agile teams track velocity, review blocks, measure cycle times, and manage work in progress. Agile tools also help product owners write stories, document acceptance criteria, and review story point estimates. They use the tools to prioritize work for sprints and track progress.

Product management platforms share vision and capture roadmaps

Product managers and owners start their work by listening to customers and prospects, determining their needs, identifying how to deliver business value to them, adding ideas and strategic requirements from internal stakeholders, and defining product and services that deliver great customer experiences. In the early stages of product development, their work is a mix of researching markets, testing ideas, and communicating a strategy to stakeholders.

Along this journey, they often develop product visions, business models, competitive analysis, user personas, business goals, and other artifacts to help communicate their objectives to leaders and agile teams.

The traditional tools used by product managers to capture and communicate these artifacts are a mix of PowerPoint and Excel. Although these tools can work at the start of product development to get buyin from stakeholders and align teams, they are poor choices for managing stakeholder expectations as products are developed, released, and enhanced. To manage these responsibilities, product managers and owners need to manage higher-level feature backlogs, communicate the status of releases, and share longer-term roadmaps.

And these tools need to align with agile principles that empower teams to commit, adjust priorities, and self-organize around delivering solutions.

Platforms like Jira Align (formally AgileCraft), Aha, and Version One Ultimate Edition provide product managers these tools along with the integrations into the agile backlogs and release plans. They include a centralized platform for product managers to communicate their product strategies, tools to engage stakeholders on their ideas, and reporting mechanisms to share releases statuses and roadmaps.

For example, Aha enables several integrations with agile tools that include Jira, Azure DevOps, Rally, and Trello to roll up information on teams, user stories, features, and releases. This information can then be mapped to several Aha constructs such as feature backlogs, roadmaps, initiatives, and goals. This is the bottom-up view that lets product managers share status information and plans with stakeholders.

Aha also provides product managers the tools to articulate their strategy, capture business models, and communicate user personas. Organizations using these tools have a standard and centralized way for product managers to engage the organization on goals, vision, and priorities.

Portfolio management drive alignment and standards in large organizations

Enterprises developing a mix of customer-facing products, workflow applications, integrations, business intelligence dashboards, and other technology deliverables also require additional tools to ensure that initiatives are delivering against strategic goals. Large enterprises typically have layered organizational hierarchies and require top-down communications on priorities and bottom-up metrics that can be aggregated into status reports.

Project portfolio management (PPM) tools have been around for some time and can help organizations manage and track strategic initiatives. But many early generations of these tools were designed to aggregate traditional well-structured waterfall project schedules, including milestones and tasks with defined start and end dates. These tools can’t easily aggregate agile projects oriented around sprints and user stories that have changing schedules and priorities managed by self-organizing teams. Some PPM tools that don’t support agile frameworks have data integration complexities rolling up agile data on releases and epics. Worse, PPM workflows driven by top-done scheduling and priorities often create culture clashes between portfolio managers and agile teams.

Portfolio managers tasked with scaling agile practices with frameworks like SAFe, DAD, LeSS, and my own Driving Digital also need portfolio tools to provide oversight on multiple agile teams and establish process standards.

Agile portfolio tools such as Jira Align and VersionOne Ultimate Edition let you manage initiatives at a layer above the work being done by agile teams. They provide visibility on teams’ velocity and capacity so you can assign initiatives to teams and forecast timelines. They also provide tools to assign business value to initiatives and align teams, priorities, and level of investment appropriately.

Jira Align goes beyond managing a portfolio of initiatives, tracking epics, and aggregating agile project metrics. It has tools to visualize and manage dependencies between teams, track risks, and share strategic information with agile teams.

How these tools benefit agile teams

Agile tools have traditionally been used to help teams manage backlogs, align on requirements, commit to sprints, and target reliable releases.

In larger organizations, the underlying data from agile tools becomes critically important to help management understand status and align teams to initiatives that drive the greatest business value. To do this effectively, agile teams have to adopt standards in how they are using the tools, workflows, and data fields especially around work items, sprints, and releases. If teams use the tools without standards, it creates data quality issues and makes it far more difficult for product management and portfolio tools to aggregate up metrics and status.

And without good data, you can expect many meetings with product and program to discuss and capture team status. That can be frustrating to developers that are often overtaxed with developing features and addressing technical debt. By selecting and instrumenting the right process and tools, management get the top-down workflows and reports required to drive strategic priorities without overly burdening agile development teams.

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