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Agile Product Management - A Complete Guide

31 May 2019

Agile product management is a process that helps guide companies throughout the entire lifecycle of a product ranging from development to marketing while focusing on the customer and the product itself.

Here we'll discuss what's involved in Agile product management and clear out the confusion regarding different factors such as the difference between traditional and Agile product management, the difference between a product owner and product manager, and so on.

What is product management?

Product management can be described as managing a product's lifecycle within a company, but is actually far more complex than that. As a matter of fact, product management is a function that helps companies plan, develop, price and promote products through every stage of the product lifecycle.

This is achieved by combining people, business systems and data processing across the entire supply chain. The purpose is to develop and design a product that will be appealing to consumers who will buy it while also helping a company improve its revenue and profitability.

The process consists of two major areas - product development and product marketing. Depending on the structure of the company and the complexity of the product, a product manager often handles both (other times, there is a separate person that handles product marketing). Here are a few responsibilities these encompass:

Product development

  • Identifying the new product.
  • Identifying the product requirements.
  • Developing the product according to requirements and schedule.
  • Gathering consumer feedback.
  • Determining feasibility and business-case. 
  • Developing product roadmaps.
  • Testing the products.
  • Ensuring products are up to specifications and proper price margins.
  • Ensuring that products can be manufactured at optimized costs for components and procedures.

Product marketing

  • Differentiating the product.
  • Naming and branding the product.
  • Positioning the product and developing outbound messaging.
  • Product promotion across various media channels.
  • Gathering and analyzing consumer feedback.
  • Market research and competitive analysis.
  • Successful product launch on the market.

Product manager responsibilities

Depending on whether the product manager will handle just one or both of the aforementioned aspects, the scope of their responsibilities will vary. For example, these may include analyzing the market, as well as the market trends. They also determine and define product features and functions while overseeing the production or development of the product. The product management process itself encompasses numerous activities that can be both strategic and tactical.

Activities can vary based on the organizational structure of a company. The fact of the matter, however, is that product management needs to be a separated and independent function in order to maximize the benefits for the company. Product managers must, therefore, be able to ensure cross-team collaboration, communication and teamwork so that product development can proceed efficiently.

Moreover, they must also possess adequate skills and knowledge required for them to operate across various departments and business operations. As an example, product managers must collaborate with developers, designers, engineers, stakeholders and others, in order to ensure that the product is built in a way that will increase the likelihood of its success on the market.

Introducing Agile into product management

In 2001, a group of software developers got together to try and bring together various approaches to developing software in an iterative way that focuses on satisfying the customer. As years went by, this new way of approaching software development grew into a whole different way to deliver any kind of work and, for better or worse, became a household term - Agile.

Due to some core differences between agile and traditional product development processes, there are also certain important differences between traditional and agile product management.

Traditional approach

  • Multiple roles, such as product manager, product marketer, project manager and others are involved in the product decision-making process.
  • Product managers are separated from development and testing teams by departments and organizational structure.
  • Extensive planning, market research and business analysis are conducted before the start of the project.
  • Product discovery is defined and requirements are specified and frozen before the start of the project.
  • Customer feedback is regarded after the product is already launched.

Agile approach

  • A single role, such as a product manager or product owner can lead the project even though both roles can coexist depending on the requirements of the project.
  • Product manager or product owner works closely and collaborates with the rest of the teams.
  • Extensive planning and documentation are replaced by envisioning what a project should look like.
  • Product discovery is an ongoing process and requirements evolve alongside the project's backlog.
  • Customers and stakeholders are highly involved. Their feedback is regarded before and after each iteration or sprint, in order to ensure the project's success.

Instead of withholding information within a silo and preventing cross-department collaboration as in waterfall methods, Agile focuses on an iterative and adaptive environment where everyone contributes to the project in some way.

Also, instead of building the entire product, Agile focuses on quickly delivering a working product which then grows with each iteration. Moreover, customers, to whom the product is designed for, are able to revise each iteration of the product during the entire lifecycle of a project, instead of reviewing the product after it's finished and launched on the market.

agile product management illustration

Product Owner vs. Product Manager

There's a lot of confusion regarding the roles of product manager and product owner in the Agile product management. In order to clear things up, we must take a closer look at both of these roles. Previously, we talked about product manager responsibilities and what they encompass. Now, we will focus on the role of the product owner in Scrum and how these roles compare to one another.

The Scrum Product Owner (PO) is essentially a stakeholder. They envision a product and what they want to build so they convey that vision to the rest of the team. The important thing is that the Product Owner is someone who has a good understanding of the users themselves, the market, competitors and market trends. That way they can prioritize product features in the product backlog.

Even though the PO takes the lead in ordering the backlog, it's still up to the team to decide how much work to take on for each sprint and how they will deliver the functionalities and features required to realize Product Backlog items. The PO's suggests the product backlog items that would bring the most value to the product.

The Product Owner also must communicate with teams, stakeholders and anyone else involved in the project, in order to have the most complete possible overview of the product and to be able to make the best possible decisions on where to take it as it develops.

Many Agile hard-liners argue that the role of a product manager is obsolete in Agile methodology, especially since the Product Backlog serves as a big picture artifact which guides the product in every respect.

However, it's important to point out that both the product manager and product owner can co-exist in an Agile environment. In fact, sometimes both of these roles are necessary. This is especially true when large-scale projects are involved. Also, it's not uncommon for a product manager to assume the role of PO.

When both these titles/roles are present, the product manager focuses more on the corporate responsibilities and the product marketing aspect while the product owner focuses on the needs of the development teams.

The product manager will help investors, upper management, and customers understand how the product is progressing or evolving. They must also project the product's vision to marketers, sales teams and analysts while also trying to predict how the market will shift in the upcoming years.

On the other hand, the Product Owner will convey the product's vision to developers and working closely with them, in order to make the right decisions and develop the user stories into a working product. Of course, their communication will also go in the other direction, translating the development teams’ insights to other business groups.

Of course, in most cases, there will be overlap and the best situation is one where the product manager and Product Owner collaborate closely and bounce ideas off one another.

The conflict in Agile adoption

As you may already know, the product manager is a role that originated in traditional methodology. That means that they've adopted a specific mindset, as well as a specific set of responsibilities for a methodology that made sense at the time.

Unfortunately, this can result in friction that can jeopardize an otherwise well-functioning and ever-improving Agile adoption.

For instance, in a situation where a product manager evolves into a Product Owner, this can lead to a perceived loss of authority and oversight on behalf of the former product manager. Additionally, they may feel overwhelmed by new responsibilities that were once handled by team leaders, project managers and sub-managers and other roles that become obsolete in Agile.

An introduction of a separate, additional Product Owner can make a product manager fee nervous about their place in the organization and they may feel apprehensive about delegating some of their authority. They may also start feeling detached from the actual work on the product as this will be mostly handled by the Product Owner.

The good news is that this friction can be overcome with proper, honest communication and, if need be, training. Agile product management is not a negative side effect of adopting Agile, but an improvement that can lead to better products.

Product management in Agile - the best practices

Now that we have cleared the confusion regarding product owner vs. product manager and explained the differences between traditional and Agile product management, we can focus on what's truly important and that's how to properly conduct product management in Agile.

No matter who is responsible for product management, it's of the utmost importance to stay on top of the game and contribute towards the project's goal, in order to successfully deliver a working product that will be of value to both customers and the company. With that in mind, here are a few tips for product managers and/or Product Owners.

  • The important thing is to maximize the value of the product through collaboration, communication and prioritizing tasks and not to micromanage or rush decisions. After all, you must provide the teams with the right means and allow them to get the job done.
  • Agile is a set of principles, as well as a mindset that guides towards successful development of working software. Some stakeholders may not understand why a different approach is needed in place of the good old traditional one. It's your job to explain it to them and show the value of your actions. The main reason is that Agile is not just an approach but an essential part of an entire company culture, which means everyone must be on the same page.
  • Projects begin and projects end. They are just an activity that's created to deliver a specific product, within a specific time-frame and for a specific budget. Product managers/owners must focus on the product and not on the project. The main reason is that project's and product's success are measured differently. A project is successful once the scope is delivered and the project is finished while a product's success is measured as long as it's alive on the market. A product is deemed successful only when it gets adopted and used by the customers it was designed for and once they're satisfied with the outcome.
  • Agile is about delivering value to customers through working software. Many companies are focused on delivering products to market as fast and as soon as possible. This is, after all, a strategy with competitiveness in mind. However, delivering fast doesn't necessarily mean delivering value. If you rush things you may not deliver working software or value for that matter. As mentioned before, a product's success is only deemed so when customers start using it and provide you with positive feedback. Therefore, don't rely on speed to market. Instead, rely on developing a product that will be valuable to customers. Customer satisfaction is a greater competitive advantage than being first to deliver a product on the market.
  • Take the time to celebrate success and enjoy the fruits of your efforts, as well as hard labor. What's more, take the time to reflect on those efforts and see if there is room for improvement. What worked in the previous project and what didn't? What should you stop using and what should you start using? Agile is about continuous improvements. Each new project will be different but you can use your past experiences to make them more seamless. The more you strive towards improving, the more successful your future products will be.
  • Agile is designed for complex environments where adaptive development and the ability to adjust to changes is in the main focus. Trying to predict outcomes and problems may easily be a waste of time in such environments. Instead of dedicating time and resources to heavy analysis, try to be more flexible and adaptive towards changes. Test different approaches and measure outcomes and don't hesitate to gather feedback. This will help you embrace changes as they are an integral part of Agile methodology.
  • Market research, competitive analysis, sales forecast, marketing and more are all responsibilities of both product managers and product owners. However, Agile fosters collaboration and teamwork, which means you don't have to do everything by yourself. Delegate if you have to so that everything can be completed properly. Just make sure everyone is synchronized and that everyone understands what's involved. As mentioned before, in situations with both product managers and Product owners, the former are focused on corporate aspects and are more business-oriented while the latter are focused on product development and are more technical-oriented.
  • Release working bits of a product as early and as often as possible. This core characteristic of Agile is often lost on even the best organizations, which undermines everything else that they do well. This will enable you to quickly respond to new information that will come up regularly, both from outside and inside the product development environment.

Agile product management is a dynamic process that ensures the quality and value of developed products. Instead of trying to separate and define the roles of product managers and product owners, try focusing on utilizing the best these two have to offer. Test and try different approaches and find what works for your organization. Keep inspecting the results and adapting the way you work.

That is what Agile is about. Agile product management included.