Agile and Product Management

The purpose of this post is to provide an insight into working with Agile from a Product Management perspective. Given Agile recognizes Product Owners not Product Managers (more on this follows) the prevailing challenge we’ve faced in Product Management is time.

Below are 6 recommendations for a Product team to ensure true product management continues.

1. Change approach and find the right balance

First and foremost when your development team switches to Agile, the product team also needs to make changes (or risk drowning). Assuming the Product Managers perform the tasks of a Product Owner, its important to remember these responsibilities are a subset of the overall responsibilities of a Product Manager. With tight deadlines being an inherent characteristic of Agile, planning next months sprint along with performing tasks in the current sprint can quickly absorb all the hours in a day leaving little time for the other functions in Product Management.

Finding the right balance between being available to perform the responsibilities of the Product Owner such as:

  • creating and maintaining the backlog
  • prioritization according to business value or ROI
  • conveying the vision
  • representing the customer
  • participating in daily scrums / retrospectives and sprint planning
  • inspecting the progress and subsequently accepting or rejecting the deliverable
  • communicating externally to all stakeholders etc.

and executing other inbound and outbound Product Management responsibilities such as:

  • understanding market problems and your companies unique ability to address them
  • creating an integrated product strategy
  • formalizing plans to deliver profitable solutions
  • translating plans to user stories for technical implementation
  • creating go-to market plans aligned with the buying process
  • ensuring organizational readiness to sell and support deliverables
  • supporting the sales channel with market and product expertise
  • not forgetting bugs, meetings, webinars and of course powerpoints

means creating an environment where Product Mangers are not involved in every single tactical decision. This is an important step towards a successful implementation of Agile within your company.

2. Build to scale 
One of the greatest aspects of product management is the cross functional interaction. Throughout my career I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with customers in addition to every single function in an organization – from Legal to Finance, Sustainability to Operations, Marketing to Sales, HR to Client / Customer Services in addition to Research and Development and Executive roles. Product literally touches them all. This however can also be one of the greatest challenges as each of these groups has a different view of what a Product team does for example:

  • Sales require support for RFPs (often with tight deadlines), pitches and ad hoc meetings.
  • Marketing require product insight for positioning and pricing.
  • Executive team require a product portfolio which meets the overall company goals, in addition to justification in the form of detailed market analysis and a well thought through roadmap defining the path to get there.
  • Development/engineering require the PM to be Product Owners (this can easily become a full time role given monthly sprints and releases).

As the Product Manager goes about their day skillfully switching conversations, between customers, executives, engineering, sales, marketing and client / customer services to name a few, it’s possible to see how the responsibilities of Product Managers are not insignificant. As an example conversations may range from:

  • competitive landscape and analysis to build, buy or partner decisions and goto market strategies,
  • business cases and driving ROI to portfolios and roadmaps,
  • star wars, black holes and unicorns to personas and user stories
  • value based selling and understanding market problems to pricing and positioning,
  • thought leadership and support to training and collateral.

Each of these responsibilities demands time and more importantly a detailed understanding. Ironically with all the meetings, coordination and communication these responsibilities bring, being available to each stakeholder group and department often places challenges on the product managers time given the accelerated timeframe and demands of the sprint.

Depending on the size of your team, think about supporting roles such as Product Marketing Managers, and Product Specialists who can support Product Managers and provide the appropriate coverage to ensure a well delivered and adopted product. Helping everyone understand the domain so you don’t need to be involved in every decision is also of value.

3. Don’t short change market research
Research (competitive, market and end user) is a source of credibility for Product Managers. As mentioned, an Agile environment will create new demands on time which may well eat into research time which was previously accounted for in the creation of the large business requirements specifications/documents.

Work to find solutions to avoid this, for example – share your research and create many voices for it. This will help free up time as good product management begins before a user story is written. It always starts with solid research – understanding the market problems, assessing the competitive landscape and identifying opportunities to differentiate. Support qualitative research with quantitate.

When conducting research, a Product Manager is looking to answer a number of questions:

  • How does this product become part of the everyday workflow of its user base?
  • What are the needs of the untapped or potential market?
  • How can we differentiate?

This level of understanding takes time, do not short change your research time which ultimately is paid off in the clarity and robustness of user stories. Some of the best and most successful sprints at have been ones following several months of research by the team.

4. Be prepared to validate 
Armed with this research and analysis, the Product Manager arrives at the table with a wealth of information valuable to each of the groups mentioned earlier. For the executive group it includes direction and insight into the roadmap and definition of the market, for sales and marketing this includes critical research for positioning and placement. For development/engineering this includes the very validation that is demanded often so vigorously in an Agile world – and rightly so. It is neither fun nor efficient to change direction based on a miscalculation once troops are mobilized.

It’s very healthy to work in an environment where teams challenge each other. If this isn’t the case, look to foster this type of environment certainly within the Product and Development groups. Developers bring strong product and environment knowledge to the table and will either help shape a solution to be more robust, or recommend alternatives which may better meet business goals.

This type of validation is paramount to the process – with finite resources, time bound velocity, competitive pressures and business goals – focussing on functionality which does not drive the business forward is not an option. This type of validation provides a valuable check and balance.

5. Avoid feature bloat 
In an Agile environment it is very easy to bloat products with features as there is a tendency, and organizational, desire to keep development busy. If you are not ready – try handing a sprint over to the dev. team to focus on bugs, infrastructure or technical debt.

In the case of a launch, being ready means understanding:

  • the goto market strategy
  • how products drive returns to the business
  • and how a product fit into the business model

Defining a model to score requirements will help you understand and rank what delivers the highest return for the least effort. We’ve invested velocity recently removing features resulting in significant improvements to user experience.

6. Over communicate
Agile provides quick iterations – it moves fast. Supporting functions such as Marketing and Design, require insight and runway to ensure plans are executed. Sales often need training and collateral – getting the latest information to the front line will likely help close deals. A Product team has the luxury of knowing most if not everything which is taking place within the sprint and is responsible for external communications. The accelerated pace significantly increases the need to keep stakeholders regularly informed. It is easy to assume everyone else is on page when this might not be the case. Other teams may not be able to support a release – this information upfront will help with planning.

Share planning, go to market strategies and roadmaps frequently. Articulate the market problems to all stakeholders (Sales, Marketing, Executive and Development). Get everyone aligned and work to enable these groups have sufficient information to answer their own questions.

Product Managers need to be scalable. Providing the context of market problems along with evidence of this problem in user personas and scenarios enables a development team to go above and beyond producing great products.

Hopefully this posts provides some valuable pointers for any product team looking to transition to Agile alongside their development team. I’ve certainly enjoyed the transition from waterfall to Agile and learnt some of these lessons along the way. Please share your thoughts using the comment box below.