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Agility v. Fragility in Product Management

By Clifton Gilley | May 07, 2020 | 0 Comments

Product Leadership

At its best, product management is often an inexact science; at worst, a seemingly arcane art. Decisions that we make regarding vision, strategy, and tactics are nearly always being made with imperfect data. Due to this, those decisions — be they a short-term prioritization change, a long-term roadmap change, or even a business model pivot — are inherently fragile. They are based on the available data, but reflect often-unspoken assumptions as well. If those assumptions are not fulfilled, the entire house of cards upon which our product plans were supported collapses.

Fragility: the quality of being easily broken or damaged; the quality of being delicate or vulnerable.

On a long enough time horizon, certainty is achievable — but rarely do we have the luxury of waiting to achieve such clarity. Rather, we are driven by internal and external factors to make a decision rapidly. However, those same factors heavily influence the success of these decisions. How can a product manager optimize their decision-making in a way that accepts uncertainty, but that moves our products forward? How can we make our plans, and our products, less fragile?

Agility: the ability to move quickly and easily; the ability to think and understand quickly.

The answer lies in building a culture of agility — not one in which decisions don’t stick, but one in which decisions can be questioned. One in which decisions can be changed as new information becomes available. One that accepts uncertainty from the outset but pushes toward greater certainty as our time on-task — and our knowledge — increases. Sticking to a plan simply because it was decided is a fragile enterprise — not only must all of the data be solid, but all of the underlying assumptions must come to pass precisely as originally conceived of. In reality, this requires a perfect storm of prediction coming to life. And rarely do we see this come to fruition.

Product managers seeking to reduce the fragility of their plans and focus on increasing agility to achieve business goals should:

  • Identify and address unspoken assumptions made by others by adding explicit assumptions to product documentation such as business cases or project proposals.
  • Assess the risk posed by assumptions before any work is done by collaborating with stakeholders to identify the riskiest assumptions and those most likely to prove false.
  • Optimize the likelihood of achieving business results by regularly reviewing assumptions made during the lifecycle of a product effort and adjusting the plan as new information is obtained.

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