What is Digital Business Development and how it relates to Agile Product Delivery

Lean-Agile Software development has taken the world by the storm and it’s encouraging and delightful to see companies adopting it around the world. Agile brings a never seen before speed and responsiveness in the software delivery. More than that, it has put the customer at the centre of the software development so that every development and release is based on immediate and real customer feedback. Or is it?

It is interesting to note that there are two very important topics in SAFe that are still not very concrete. These two are the role description of the Business Owner and the process of ‘Release on Demand’. Everyone will agree that the role of the business owner is the most important role in agile development. BO is supposed to provide inputs on what features are needed by the customer and what economic value those features should have and when they will be released. But there is no way to ensure that what BO decides is really the voice of the customer. The role of the BO has been described in great detail ‘within’ the SAFe framework. But their interaction outside the SAFe framework and their decision making model is still undefined. How does a Business Owner know what features must be developed? How do we ensure that they are the right features? And most importantly, who in the organisation should be the business owner?

The business owner as defined in the agile context should be someone who must be closer to the customer. Someone who has ‘ears to the ground’, so to speak. The most suitable candidates for this role would be the sales and service teams. I have not seen many organisations where sales and service teams are fairly represented in agile development let alone owning it. Usually, this role is taken over by the Business Unit heads who act as the customer proxy but is that truly agile? This is my view that the biggest reason why agile programs fail is due to this very reason, business doesn’t always know what customers want. They either guess or use traditional methodologies to define requirements which cannot be tested and validated. The business hypothesis written down in the epics at the beginning of the initiatives remains a hypothesis because no one bothers to test them.

Then there is a challenge with the process of taking products and features to market. Most sales and marketing teams are still not agile. Their ability to continuously learn and take new products out to customers is severely limited. Important activities like sales enablement and go-to-market strategy are developed as an afterthought. As a result, digital products adorn the shelves waiting for real customer feedback. Without products getting sold and used by the customers, the feedback that developers get is not the real feedback. And the work that they do in the absence of real feedback is not development, it is rework.

But that doesn’t sound right! You might think someone would have talked about it. Why doesn’t this show up in management reviews? Well, my guess is that the SAFe community has thought about this problem and devised a workaround called ‘Release on Demand’. The coupling between deployment and release is disconnected in Agile and DevOps. The intention is to allow the developers to release their code in production where it can be released by the business as they deem fit. While this model works great for small improvements and enhancements, it is not a viable model for major feature releases or testing out completely new ideas.

Usually before a new feature is launched, it has to go through many checks and approvals. A typical app would require legal clearance, Data Protection clearance, pricing and margin approval from finance, launch planning from marketing, sales enablement acceptance and in some cases operations and supply chain planning. These organisational processes are not agile. They can be, but they are not. And they are not in the purview of SAFe which already has its hands full with orchestrating across the organisational technical capacity. They have gone to great lengths to ensure that things work well within the SAFe framework. But every framework needs to have boundaries. In SAFe, there is a clear boundary between development and business. And the complete job description of Business Owners and definition of Business Development processes is outside that boundary. The onus really is on the business to feed the Agile machinery with the right requirements and feedback to get maximum possible value from them. So how does one go about the commercial aspects of Agile?

The answer to this puzzle is a dedicated Digital Business Development function whose role is to make the commercial side of the organisation agile. Digital Business Developers are agilists at heart who like to run with their development colleagues and clear the path for them and their products so that they can reach the real customers and get the real feedback. Digital Business Development owns the agile go-to-market process between the development and release. They collaborate with business owners to define the business strategy and collaborate with the Agile development team for its implementation. They are ones who take the lead on taking new products and solutions to markets and front-end digital sales along with the sales and service teams.

Within Digital Business Development, there is a clear distinction between Business Sponsor and Business Owner. A business sponsor could be any one — Business Unit Head, CDO, CEO or CIO but the business ownership always lies with the Digital Business Development team. It is ultimately their responsibility to lobby with the management to get commercial approvals and work with the sales teams to sell and deploy it. They are thought leaders who launch organisation’s brilliant ideas out in the world. And finally, they are responsible for monetization of digital investments through sales, partnerships and other forms of business development activities.

I am happy to see that many organisations have started creating the Digital Business Development roles and some of my colleagues have started this journey. I will be writing more on this exciting new function in the upcoming articles. If you’d like to know what Digital Business Development can do for your business from innovation to monetization, feel free to reach me at the below coordinates.

For more such interesting and short reads follow Somil on Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/somilguptaai/