3 things I learned from “The Art of Business Value”

art of businessI am trying something new with this blog post – providing a mix of book review and a summary of what I learned about a book I really like. Waiting for Mark Schwartz to release his latest book “War and Peace and IT” I thought I re-read his earlier works. And as I was reading “The Art of Business Value” again I noticed that I am reading it with fresh eyes and that I appreciate this book even more than a few years ago.

Spoiler alert – the answer the book provides is a bit of a cop out: “…Business value is what the business values, and that is that.” But reducing this book to the final response to the question does not do it justice. The book artfully explores different angles of business value and why they are challenging when it comes to driving Agile delivery on the basis of this: ROI, NPV, Shareholder Value.

This is must read for all product owners to understand why there is not one answer to the question of business value and why Mark’s final response is unsatisfying yet completely appropriate. The book is also small enough that you don’t have to feel bad to recommend the book to the product owners you work with. I have recommended my favorite book of all time “Goedel, Escher, Bach” to many people fully knowing that only very few people would work their way through this fascinating but challenging book. “The Art of Business Value” is a book you can recommend without such thoughts on your conscience.

What I found even more useful in Mark’s book is that he explores the space around business value and three key learnings stand out for me:

  1. That the language of Agile can lead to a new command and control paradigm – this time by the product owner or Agile coach as Only Person you can listen to (OPYCLT)
  2. That the product owner as interface to the business requires a special kind of organisation and having X-teams are a better approach
  3. That the bureaucracy and governance we encounter is codified business value of the past

Let’s explore each of these a little further:

Agile as a new command and control paradigm

This one hits close to home. For a while I have been complaining about the Agile coaches out there who evangelise their methods without being able to explain why calling something a “PBI” is better than “User Story” or why we will only provide documentation in code. Mark adds another interesting dimension to this, if the product owner is the Only Person You Can Listen To for the team then how is this different to the project manager assigning work. Mark argues in a similar vein that the prescription of technical practices is a similar command and control rule – I recently spoke to an organisation that does not do automated testing and rather does production monitoring in full knowledge that they can respond quickly enough if something breaks. So I think we need to all be vigilant to not let Agile drift into just another command and control world this time run by the agilists instead of the project managers.

Product Owner vs. X-Team

In traditional Agile thinking the product owner represents the business and he presents the business problems to be solved to the Agile team which go off and solve them. Mark compares this with a loosely coupled system where the details of implementation is up to the team as long as they fulfil the contract that the product owner has made with the business. I am with Mark that this too simplified. We have plenty of experience that shows that the product owner needs help to manage the backlog and to work with the rest of the business. Mark introduces a new term “X-Team” from another book as guiding principles that teams need to work internally and externally. It is amazing how much more productive teams can be when they have rich context. For one of my Agile teams we arranged recordings of customer calls and visits to call centers so that the team got a better understanding of the business problem rather than relying on the product owner. The levels of innovation immediately increased when we started doing this.

The value of bureaucracy

This one is probably the one that requires the most consideration and came out of nowhere for me in re-reading the book. I think I had dismissed this point last time I read it. Mark argues that the processes you encounter were at some stage codified business value in many cases. And that we would be at risk of losing tacit knowledge of the value if we just throw it all out. Rather we should understand what the underlying value was and whether or not it is still applicable. You can then decide whether there is an alternative way to create that value or whether you continue with the established process. A good example is transparency as a value which might require you to do certain things that might not on first view provide value of itself like additional documentation or reviews.

There you go – I really enjoyed the second time I read his book and hope you will too.

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