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How Product Management Must Change to Enable the Agile Enterprise

When development teams adopt agile practices, product management is often caught off guard by the amount of work added to their already overflowing plate. Agile calls for new product management skills and traditional staffing models do not typically accommodate the new product owner role. Given that most product managers are already overworked, how can they manage these new activities to derive more value from software projects and products?

Simply put, agile product managers must change the way they work to keep up with faster development cycles and shorter customer feedback loops. This article provides an overview of a successful product management transition to Agile, the most common pitfall to avoid and proposed solutions to the new challenges that arise.

The traditional product management role

Before we discuss the product manager role in agile organizations, let's review the role of a traditional product manager. That role is often nebulous to many in the organization, and agile does not make things easier with its new product owner role. Are you a product owner or are you a product manager? The reality is that very few university programs are dedicated to the product management profession, so most product managers come from diverse backgrounds – from marketing, engineering, pre-sales and post-sales support or even business development – each bringing their own slant to the profession. A product manager in one organization may focus on very different things than a product manager in another organization (which does not make them better or worse).

That being said, a “skilled” product manager would typically be accountable for the following common set of tasks:

  • Define a product vision and roadmap
  • Build the business case to get funding
  • Determine the best market timing to release products
  • Segment the market and identify the target audience
  • Identify and track competitors
  • Be the “voice of the customer” to development
  • Identify customer needs to solve
  • Determine features to deliver in the next release
  • Document product requirements
  • Update executives and other stakeholders on release status
  • Ready the company to maximize the market impact of releases
  • Coach marketing on how to position the product
  • Coach sales on how to sell the product
  • Coach professional services on how to facilitate customer adoption
  • Equip support with known “gotchas” and caveats in releases

Regardless of how different product managers may be, there is a commonality among all traditional product managers. Very few of them spend much time with their development team, because the focus in traditional product management has been primarily on strategic activities, as well as writing long requirements documents to keep development busy for the next 18 month a traditional software release would take.

This is about to change when development adopts agile…

How agile changes the traditional product manager role

Agile introduces a new product management role: the product owner. The primary responsibility of the product owner is to groom the product backlog, present stories to developers and act as the “voice of the customer” for the development team.

Because of the much-accelerated development cycles in agile software development, the product owner role provides the crucial interface between developers and customers to quickly collect customer feedback at the end of each sprint, and adapt to changing customer needs. This is the role that was dearly missing in traditional development where development could go for many months with very little customer input, leading to the poor statistics we all know about the software industry - rarely on budget, often too late, with little value to customers.

In essence, the product owner role is about embedding product management in the development team to remind developers that customer value should drive their decisions, to remind product managers that not all features are technically equal, and to proactively respond to the changing needs of the market and customers before the release goes out.

This is all fantastic news to finally put in place a solution to respond to customer needs, except that product managers are usually overloaded even before embracing agile.

The product owner role is time-consuming: at sprint planning, the product owner presents to development the stories to work on in the next couple of weeks. During the sprint (usually 1 to 4 weeks), she monitors progress, clarifies story details, validates completed stories and researches stories for the next sprint. For most products, this is more than a part-time job! Product management consulting companies like Enthiosys have estimated the product management workload to rise by about 50% when software teams adopt agile.

So what happens to the traditional product manager tasks we listed earlier? Who stays in touch with customer needs? Who keeps a pulse on market trends and competitors’ moves? Who reviews sales recent win/losses? Who defines packaging and pricing for new products? And who educates sales and support about new features?

Unless you have super-hero product managers on your team – those who need less than 4 hours of sleep a night and have no work-life balance who can take on 50% more work - something will break.

Avoiding the single biggest pitfall

When teams adopt agile, product managers are often not part of the first pilot in which development teams are getting used to agile practices - from short time boxes to continuous integration and test-driven development. At that point, often a technical lead will assume the role of product owner. Once the development team is familiar with these key development concepts and starts delivering better software faster, they then want to make sure their efforts lead to great value to users, at which point the product owner role needs some “real” product management skills. That’s when the traditional product manager is usually pulled in to join the agile experience.

The biggest pitfall I have seen is to simply transition existing product managers to become product owners. It seems like a natural transition when everyone is focused on adopting agile, yet there is a heavy price to pay. When a company falls into this pitfall, one of two things can happen as traditional product managers are forced to decide what they will work on – given that there is still only 8 to 12 hours in a work day:

The most common scenario is that the product manager fully embraces her new product owner role, learns to write good stories and gets to know her development team. This is usually a very exciting time, especially if you have a neutral agile coach preventing natural finger pointing that may happen after so many years without collaborating. However, this leaves no time for the traditional product management tasks, so those fall by the way side. The risk is an incredibly productive development team delivering software that is launched at the wrong time, with the wrong price, with sales and support poorly enabled and, as a result, unable to reach the target audience and bring the expected revenue. Software failures are more often market failures than development failures, so only staffing the product owner role (with no product management resources left to accomplish the most needed strategic product management tasks) run the risk to fail at delivering solutions to their market.

A less common scenario (but just as impacting) is the product manager who does not embrace the product owner role. This occurs when the product manager has a more “big picture” brain and little interest in the tactical day-to-day product owner duties. In this case, the team flounders with poor requirements, being in the unpleasant situation to make assumptions as they go, because “the voice of the customer” is absent when questions arise. One red flag to monitor is user stories without acceptance criteria. Because traditional product managers were not in involved in validating requirements (most often the quality assurance group was), writing acceptance criteria are often a challenge, and are quickly overlooked. Stories without well-defined acceptance criteria run the risk of not being accepted at the end of the sprint, when the product owner and development engage in a “but I thought you thought….” discussion, resulting in frustrating and costly rework to correct the original story. The price to pay when the definition of “done” is not made clear with acceptance criteria is a story that keeps being reworked and the associated decrease in development productivity.

So how can product management adapt to their company’s transition to agile, and avoid the pitfall discussed above?

Practical advice for adapting product management to agile needs

Let’s explore some of the lessons-learned I wish I would have known when I started my transition from traditional to an agile product manager.

Stop doing work that does not deliver real customer value, directly or indirectly, and communicate what you will stop doing. This may seem like a brilliant flash of the obvious, but if you truly adopt this state-of-mind, you’ll find many little things that really don’t bring any value to customers. For example, are there reports that someone in your organization needs for their own tracking but that bring little customer value? Or have you been developing sales tools that bring little value to the sales team?

Favor live interaction over lengthy documentation, whether it is describing a business case to executives or documenting requirements. This is one area where you may have to take a leap of faith that trusted developers are more innovative and productive than those provided requirement documents (along with pizzas) under their doors. Trust that the human race thrives when empowered to make decisions.

Practice ruthless ranking. Whether it is prioritizing requirements, business goals or your daily activities, assign true priority numbers instead of using the MoSCoW prioritization technique (must-have, should-have, could-have, and won’t-have) where too often you end up with too many must-haves and should-haves. If you struggle with this practice, assume you have one developer available for one day. What would you have him do? That is your #1 requirement.

Embrace change as an opportunity rather than a threat. This can actually lift a huge burden for product managers. At each sprint, reassess what the team will work on next based on the customer feedback you received in the past sprint. You don’t need to sign your life away on a huge requirements document that would take 18 months to execute. You can even make mistakes and correct those mistakes 2 weeks later.

Identify critical product management tasks

Rank all product management tasks. Let’s face it: when adopting agile, most product managers are overwhelmed by the added product owner role. Until you adequately staff your product management team to fulfill the new agile responsibilities, make sure to identify which tasks are critical to your product’s success. Reduce or even drop some of the other tasks (at least for now), and clearly communicate to your organization where your focus will be, and what may no longer be delivered. For an overview of all product management tasks, refer to the Pragmatic Marketing Framework, recently updated to reflect the product owner role.

Don’t let go of the strategic part. Your selection of critical product management tasks should have a good dose of inwardly-focused tasks (focused on the team) and outwardly-focused tasks (focused on others in the organization and outside the organization). But depending on the software you’re building and your product position in the market, the proportion of inwardly-focused vs. outwardly-focused work may vary. For example, a well established product does not need as much sales enablement at each new release as a brand new product in a brand new market.

Staff appropriately to fulfill the new roles & responsibilities

Assume you will need more that one body. In very few cases can one person be both a product owner (tactical inwardly-focused role) and a product manager (strategic outwardly-focused role). Start thinking about who could help handle some of the product management tasks. Rigid organization structures will make this tip a challenge, so getting executive support may help. If not, communicate clearly what will not get done with only one body.

Empower whoever takes on the product owner role to be available to your team, and expect them to validate stories as soon as they are completed. Most importantly, don’t spread your product owner too thin by expecting her to fulfill outwardly-focused tasks on top of her team duties.

Match individuals and product management roles carefully. To fulfill both the strategic and the new tactical product management functions, pick personalities compatible with the task at hand. As general guidance, analytical minds and detail-oriented folks tend to do well as product owners. Big picture, extroverted folks tend to do well as product managers. Business analysts can make great product owners, and product marketing managers are good fit for some of the strategic product manager tasks, such as competitive analysis and release enablement for sales and support. Don’t get too hung up on titles – they get in the way - but rather match up people with product management tasks they are skilled at and passionate about. If you are lucky enough to have individuals on your product management staff that excel at both the tactical and the strategic aspects, consider having them split their time across features instead of the strategic/tactical line. For example, an individual takes on both product owner and product manager role for one set of features, while another individual takes on both roles for another set of features. In that scenario, the two individuals need to make time to stay on the same page and share a common vision and roadmap for the product.

Get much closer to your customers

Know the customer value to deliver. The primary focus of agile is to deliver customer value and eliminate wasteful activities, so you’ve got to find a way to get closer to your customers in whatever that works for you. There are many technologies and practices that lend themselves to customer engagement, below are three of my favorites:

Invest in social networks. The advent of social networks provides an effective mechanism for product managers to engage with customers without crisscrossing the globe. It also provides a Darwinian effect for feature prioritization where users self-promote or demote suggested features. The dialog can be incredibly fruitful. Just be cognizant of the relative number of users with whom you are actively engaged. Unless all your users are participants (rare so far), social networks present the risk of allowing a subset of users to drive your roadmap. To learn more about the use of social networks for product manager, follow the work Tom Grant from Forrester has done recently.

Leverage others in your organizations, especially those who communicate daily with customers – sales, sales engineers, support engineers, and consultants. If your organization effectively uses a company-wide customer relationship management (CRM) system, such as, you can leverage this technology to funnel customer input to you. CRM systems, when used to capture customer profiles and revenue potentials, can be a gold mine to product managers looking to assess the importance of a feature request across their customer base, as well as to quickly identify which customers to validate specific features. The more a customer cares about a feature, the more likely you get real feedback quickly. Read about what a CRM system can do for product managers in this Forrester article.

Invest in a product council. If you cannot adopt the 2 technologies above, you still need to hear from those who talk to customers. One time-saving way to do this is to establish a product council with cross-functional representation. Monthly you get to hear from all facets of your business and collect everyone’s input to the roadmap. Read more on this blog post about Using a Product Council to Steer Your Development.

Hone your product management skills to meet agile needs

Frequently update your product roadmaps to make them an effective communication tool rather than a contractual weight - at a minimum once a quarter, but I prefer monthly. Include a clear “subject to change based on customer feedback” disclaimer to reinforce your openness to change and clarify the fact that agile product roadmaps represent an intent, not a commitment, and that your commitment is to deliver value, not specific features, as those change as fast as customer needs.

Learn to chunk roadmap features into sprint stories. A study by The Standish Group found that 45% of features were never used and only 20% of features were used often or always. The goal is to focus on the 20% must-have features and let go of the rest. Too often we build over-kill features just to realize that few customers use them, or that they add complexity to your product. Focus on delivering the absolute must-have stories for a feature, and let users tell you when they need more. With short release cycles, you now have the luxury to put out minimal marketable features and respond quickly to user needs in your next release. And if your customers cannot digest releases more than a couple times a year, you can still demonstrate the incremental delivery to get their feedback and get them excited about next year’s release. Identifying the 20% to focus on means chunking features into small yet valuable stories that are delivered incrementally at the end of each sprint. Mastering this chunking technique is one of the most important skills to hone. Read the “20 ways to cut stories” article to see ways to chunk while still delivering value.

Get your stories (and their acceptance criteria) straight. The stories at the top of your product backlog should be researched enough to be presented without ambiguity to your team at the sprint planning meeting. As mentioned earlier, do not skimp on acceptance criteria, or be ready to pay the price of rework. Collaborate with testers to finalize the acceptance criteria list for each story. I find the best time to research stories and interview customers is at the start of a sprint when developers have enough to work on, and tend to have fewer questions.


Agile adoption does not mean the end of product managers as we know them. The biggest transition you will face is embedding someone with product management experience into the development team. Adequately staffing and fulfilling the new product owner role, while not losing site of the strategic role of product management, is the key to changing product management to enable the agile enterprise.

Organizations that try to make do with their current product managers without reassessing the new product management role in light of agile needs won’t fully reap the benefits of scaling agile to the enterprise. Those leveraging the practical guidelines will put themselves in the envious situation of delivering competitive solutions to their markets.

I truly hope this article will help you avoid some of the common pitfalls I have experienced in my personal transition to agile product management and that the tips I shared with you will help facilitate this much needed transition to scale agile in their enterprise. For more information, download the slides presented at the Agile2009 conference on the focus of this article.

About Catherine Connor

Catherine Connor is currently a product owner at Rally Software, where she is responsible for driving Rally's agile portfolio management solution. Prior to this role, Catherine brought to market an innovative product management solution integrating agile project management with customer relationship systems to bridge the gap between customers, sales and development. Prior to Rally, Catherine worked at Borland Software where she started applying Agile methods and a requirements management evangelist for IBM Rational software products. Her experience makes her a perfect candidate to document the best practices and pitfalls to transition from traditional to agile product management. Catherine has more than 20 years of experience in programming and supporting software customers in implementing software solutions.

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