Why agile portfolio managers should act like rice farmers

One of the themes in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is how differences between Asian and Western cultural practices may have a hidden influence on the different attitudes to success and determination.

Gladwell describes how the painstaking persistence of rice cultivation in China differs from Western grain cultivation. In the latter, land is often left fallow for long periods to allow the soil to regain nutrients. He suggests the resulting difference in farm labour has influenced the different attitude to work and play between the two societies.

Although I found this intriguing, I couldn’t help draw parallels between the practice of rice cultivation and the management of an agile product portfolio.

To explain why, I’ll start with some of the points Gladwell made about rice cultivation.

  • The rice farmer planted two or three crops a year. The land is fallow only briefly
  • A rice farmer might plant a dozen or more different varieties at one time, adjusting the mix from season to season in order to manage the risk of a crop failure
  • Sometimes each rice shoot would be individually groomed with a bamboo comb to clear away insects
  • Farmers have to check and recheck water levels and make sure the water doesn’t get too hot in the summer sun
  • A rice farmer would have hundreds of different varieties of rice from which to choose, each one of which offers a slightly different trade-off, say:
  1. between yield and how quickly it grows,
  2. or how well it does in times of drought,
  3. or how it will fare in poor soil

Here are the parallels I see for effective agile product portfolio management.

Like the rice farmer, the portfolio manager must continuously seed the market with new product iterations. However there are times when the market isn’t ready, such as during an off-season.

For example, to attract repeat purchases a TV manufacturer should maintain the rollout of new technologies. However demand is likely to reduce soon after a large international sports event.

Similar to the hundreds of different rice varieties, online platforms should have different varieties of product balances, which can allow them to adjust for different trade-offs.

For example fine tuning the prevalence of adverts against retention of users

Like maintaining rice variety to mitigate against crop failure, creating a product range gives an organisation insurance, even if some of the products are a burden under certain conditions.

For example Procter & Gamble market different laundry detergents designed for different levels of affordability, which respond to different degrees of consumer confidence.

Like those individually loved shoots of rice, some products, or product features, needs very attentive ‘grooming’.

For example consider Telsa Motor’s careful public relations management following crashes involving new autopilot technology.

Like the rice farmers who constantly check their water levels, the portfolio manager must maintain close awareness of the factors which nurture their products

For example, vigilance over the number of active users on a social media platform is necessary since this is a key metric to attract advertisers.

Perhaps you can think of other parallels?

The practices of the rice farmers are a consequence of their agile mindset, where they are:

  • Iterating with a continuous ROI
  • Building in flexibility for unforeseen circumstances
  • Maintaining close vigilance of leading indicators (e.g. water levels)

These should also be the practices and the mindset of an effective agile product portfolio manager.

Thinking along the lines of Steve Blank, who launched the Lean Startup movement, I would say we don’t really know our market, product or customers. Therefore we should act like a rice farmer.

In Tim Hartford’s Adapt he writes that in order to survive and thrive in an uncertain future, we must continuously create variation, build in survivability so failure isn’t a catastrophe, and use feedback to select what works. Again, just like a rice farmer.

Nassim Taleb coined the concept of Antifragility. Rather than become resilient to uncertainty, a portfolio manager must seek uncertainty and complex situations. That way through many small failures, they are constantly getting stronger by hedging and fine-tuning their response to the evolving market. An effective agile product portfolio manager should embody the notion of antifragility.

Here are two future posts to continue this theme. Leaders and PMO people, I hope you’re sitting up!

  • The sometimes maligned PMO is absolutely critical in orchestrating this agile approach.
  • The importance of self-organising teams. As a teaser I’d offer that the speed and volume of feedback required to make portfolio management effective means that a traditional hierarchical, command-and-control structure will always function sub-optimally.

Both emphasise the importance of the agile mindset throughout the organisation. I believe the competitive market is moving too fast, and uncertainty is too great, to operate in any other way.