Two things that define today’s startup ecosystem are innovation and speed to market. If you’ve a unique idea and if you can get to the market fast, before everyone else, chances are your product will be a success. I don’t imply that these are the only two things that matter. But they play an important role in defining product success.
While some may argue that innovation and speed to market don’t go hand in hand, I heartily disagree. Agile project management is one of the ways that allows innovation without compromising on the delivery timelines.
I have been an agile practitioner for nearly a decade now. I’ve worked in different kinds of projects with different SDLC methodologies. Among them, I find Agile to be one of the best methodologies for project development. Especially in managing those projects where new solutions are required to meet rapidly changing customer needs.
Let me share an example. One of our partners, Phritz, began their journey in December 2019. They started building a personal health record chatbot. At that time, they envisioned the chatbot to behave like a personal healthcare assistant that users can chat with anytime. The chatbot would even help users when they change doctors or health insurance.
However, as COVID-19 pandemic started spreading, we began to think of ways in which Phritz could offer extended support. There was a lot of hysteria among people regarding the information available about the virus. We began by thinking of ways to offer a feature in the chatbot where users could add their symptoms and the chatbot would offer answers. For instance, if you have a sore throat, the bot would give advice to take necessary medications. However, if you’ve sore throat, cold, and fever, the bot would suggest you to get a COVID test. If your test comes out to be positive, the bot also offers to inform people whom you’ve met in the past one week.
We couldn’t have imagined adding all these new features if we had chosen waterfall as a project development methodology.
Another example is from one of my recent projects. Our partners wanted to go for HIPAA compliance and secure all the protected health information (PHI) in the project. Securing PHI is an essential in a healthcare setup, so it’s critical to get this step right. This involved creating non-functional stories for securing PHI requirements, ensuring that it covers what has already been built and what will be built in upcoming features.
Since the stakeholders were in full gear with their marketing strategies and were getting the product familiar with the public, it was important for them to get the product to be HIPAA compliant faster.
With Agile, it was easier to accommodate this new requirement. In the Waterfall way, our stakeholders couldn’t have thought about implementing this until upon reaching the first milestone.
Implementing agile not only helped us in accommodating the PHI requirements but also helped us with process improvements and clear communication with stakeholders.
These examples show that agile development helps in incremental development of the product– one that conforms to the needs of the users and solves their problems.
Agile can be beneficial to implement in healthcare projects under the below scenarios as well–
When you’re not sure about the entire solution
All great products are built on ideas that first appear on a piece of paper. It’s not necessary to flesh out an idea completely before jumping in to develop it. Strategy and execution are important but getting to the market fast is more important.
In such cases, agile development helps in validating the idea. You can start with just a goal in mind. Something that’s specific and measurable. For example: “The claim management software will reduce the claims processing time by 70% and improve efficiency of providers by 90%”
Once you develop a solution to this problem, put it out in the market and get customers to use it. After they start using it, collect feedback from them and improve your solution as per their needs.
When you’re navigating a complex domain
The world of healthcare is constantly shifting and innovating. Therefore, if you’re in the race to build the best product, it would no longer help you win. Instead, you ought to focus on innovating in the services, and improving the customer experience of the product.
One of the best examples is Practo. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Practo was subliminally known as an online consultation and medicine delivery platform. When the pandemic striked, they quickly pivoted as a telemedicine solution. Within a short span of four weeks, Practo created an ‘Artificial Intelligence’ tool that guided patients after collecting their basic information. The tool leveraged WHO protocols to profile high-risk people by asking them to share their travel and contact history.
This is just one of the many examples. In other healthcare products, you might be dealing with other regulatory guidelines like HIPAA. They make healthcare a complex domain. But with agile development, you can tackle them one at a time.
When there are multiple stakeholders/decision-makers
Healthcare product development might involve many stakeholders and decision makers. Each stakeholder might have a different perspective and goals for the product’s adoption in the market. This might cause a lot of feedback cycles that go in loops and a lot of incremental changes in the product’s features.
Agile teams are equipped to take up new changes, prioritize the needs of all stakeholders, and help you stay on track with rapidly changing requirements.
When you want to improve quality and reduce costs
In healthcare products, there is an unwavering focus on doing things quickly and shipping out features for the world to use and give feedback. Innovation matters the most, along with agility. But funding is limited and you can’t wrap yourself under the garb of innovation. Therefore, features must be rapidly tested. The focus is on failing fast and adapting to the users’ feedback.
In this scenario, agile proves to be the best method. The 2-week/4-week sprint works best in shipping out features that can be tested with the real users.
When product’s scope is variable
In the waterfall approach of product development, the scope of the project is fixed while team members and time can be varied. That is, if you’re halfway through a project when you realize you’re going to miss the timelines, then you either add more team members or extend the timelines. This increases the cost of development and causes delays in reaching the market.
One of the best things about agile development is that here time and people (team members) are fixed whereas the scope can vary as per requirements. It means that once the scope is defined, it’s not the dead-end of discovery.
If after the first sprint’s release you get feedback for adding/removing/improvising features, agile accommodates it. It might impact your final deadlines, but it would still be somewhat near to what you had planned.
Agile empowers and enables teams to adapt to things that are beyond their reach — such as market volatility, risk-adjustment, end-users feedback, budget changes.
Some other advantages of agile teams is that they are more capable of making day-to-day decisions, independently. With a defined and structured process, they can also thrive in different geographical areas.
However, the agile processes are not easy to imbibe. Ceremonies like backlog grooming, sprint planning, need a lot of discipline to execute. I learnt it on the job with the help of my leaders. If you’re a new product manager, I would suggest you to read some good books on agile project management. The Lean Startup by Eric Ries and Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days are two of my favorite books that can help you get married to the idea of agile development.