The Role of the Product Manager in an Agile World

If you’re a Product Manager, Agile software development is probably not a new concept. Nowadays, it is one of the most common ways to develop software products and has evolved ever since the concept first emerged around the turn of the century.

In my role here at Tiempo as a Product Manager, however, I’ve discovered there are certain aspects of Agile that require you to adapt to a changing environment. This concept, which I will refer to as Agile Product Management, is basically the ability to create a product strategy and the derived roadmaps to enable an ever-evolving Agile environment.

This requires an adaptive approach to how you conduct product planning and the actual implementation of those plans. Only then can your organization quickly respond to what your customers are saying. And this makes it possible to create products they love and are willing to pay for!

Main Differences for Product Managers in an Agile World

So you’re a Product Manager looking to enter the Agile world. It’s time to get comfortable with constant change!

Here’s a sampling of what you can expect:

  • Adjusting to frequent product plan changes: The Agile approach allows a Product Manager to constantly adapt and make changes to the product strategy and the roadmaps derived from what customers say about the product and their needs.
  • Collaborating directly with engineering teams: An Agile Product Manager plays an active role in interacting with engineering at all moments during the product lifecycle. This helps to ensure the engineering team produces the correct features.
  • Delivering incremental value: Agile development delivers value to customers in short iterations. This allows the Product Manager to evaluate and gather feedback from customers to keep the product plan relevant and aligned with what customers are looking for.

As each of these attributes of Agile suggests, you will need to experiment on a regular basis. You will also need to adapt your plans to respond to what your markets tell you. This is not as hard with the number of tools out there that you can use to keep track of your product requirements, such as user story maps. The tools make it easier to keep things updated and at the same time give great visibility to the product teams and stakeholders.

Product Manager Versus Product Owner

In an Agile environment, specifically in SCRUM scenarios, there is sometimes confusion between the roles of the Product Manager and Product Owner. The Product Owner basically focuses on working with the engineering team to ensure the correct product is built.

In many cases, the Product Manager is also the Product Owner as they handle all the Product Owner responsibilities. The Product Manager also covers outward-facing responsibilities such as looking after the market and customer needs.

Some organizations split the responsibilities into two roles, typically based on the outward/inward facing responsibilities. In this scenario, both roles need to align to ensure the end-product is successful.

Key Agile Concepts for Product Managers

As you might see, being an Agile Product Manager requires multi-tasking and keeping an eye on several tasks at the same time. However, there are several concepts to follow that that will make your job easier:

  • Be part of the team—Working closely with an engineering team requires a Product Manager to establish clear communication channels, strong relationships, and partnerships. This ensures the team understands and builds the product you have in mind. This also means considering yourself as part of the development team and not an external entity that lives outside of that group. To achieve this objective, explain your vision and answer any questions they have. Also participate in planning meetings, check up on the status of tasks, and review what the team creates. Don’t limit yourself to just writing user stories and organizing the product backlog.
  • Enlighten the engineering team—Keeping the team informed as much as possible about the product strategy, the roadmap, and why they are building the product features is key. This enables them to understand their purpose and how the life of the customer will improve if they deliver a specific product feature. Any domain knowledge you permeate to the engineering team serves as a great way to help them to understand what you (and the market) are asking for. An effective way to do this is by organizing your product backlog in a Business Outcomes structure.
  • Experiment and quickly adapt—Being Agile is all about change. To survive, learn from your customer base and make the necessary changes to the original product plan to ensure your end-product will satisfy the needs of your target market. A three-step process of <Release>, <Measure> and <Adapt> is crucial to maintain a relevant product.
  • Deliver customer experiences—Make sure that every time your team releases a product to your customers, you’re delivering entire experiences. This requires you to work together not only with engineering, but also with all organizational areas such as business development, marketing, and customer support.

And don’t forget to measure product success. In an Agile environment, product success is measured by how customers interact with your product and the impact on customer acquisition, retention and growth. Determine the KPIs you need to measure each of these areas.

An Opportunity to Evolve Your Career

Fulfilling the role of a Product Manager in an Agile world represents a great opportunity to evolve your career and to create a more mature and modern approach for how your company makes products. The key is to not forget that to create great products, you need to know what your customers want. You also need to translate those wants into an actionable workstream that an engineering group can construct in a timely manner so you can advance your product vision.

If you have any comments about Product Management, I welcome the opportunity to hear about your experiences. I’m also glad to answer any questions you have about how to implement a successful Product Management practice within an Agile environment. Feel free to contact me at mcampuzano@tiempodevelopment.com.