Should the product manager be product owner for new product development in Scrum?
In an earlier post, I wrote that the model of having a strategic product manager partner with a tactical scrum-team-immersed product owner delivers business value best under limited conditions. As this will be one of the most controversial topics during my talk tomorrow on #ProdMgmtTalk, I want to reiterate my rationale here in a more verbose form.
The two conditions I listed are:
1) The product is marketed to a segment of customers, not just one.
2) The product is already released to market, and is thus beyond v1.0.
Delivering business value in this context means developing a product that meets the needs of the market, and fulfills the product vision that capitalizes on market opportunity. In the stage-gate days, product managers would “capture” that vision in MRDs and PRDs and toss them over the wall, and then be frustrated that the product which came out the other end did not deliver. By providing periodic visibility of work product, Agile processes are often implemented to address this long-observed waterfall limitation.
The Product Manager Should Team With a Product Owner On Mature Mass-Market Products
I suggested that in other conditions–specifically mass market products during intitial development–companies may wish to consider having the product manager serve as product owner, in order that the person with the best knowledge of the market and problem space is guiding the product’s development. This blog is an attempt to clarify some of the arguments supporting this position.
My suggestion generates much contention among ISV product management purists. In agile development in general–and scrum, specifically–heavy demands are placed on the product owner. Chief among these demands is the regular management of the backlog by breaking down high priority user stories, and the need for consistent availability by the development team. Product owner availability ensures the development team has the resource necessary to explain the rationale for features, and to work with team to validate the best way to implement each user story.
Product managers are members of the business, not of the technology team. They are responsible for identifying market problems that people will pay to solve, which can most effectively be done by spending time with customer representatives and studying the market rather than by spending time in the scrum room. Product managers must interface with the rest of the business in order to coordinate the surrounding roles: creating training guides, helping marketing with positioning and messaging, sales support, etc. Product managers are often responsible for more than one product, leading their focus to be strategic rather than tactical.
Clearly, these two roles cannot be the same person! Or can they? I believe there’s a case for these two roles being occupied by the same person during the initial development of a product.
The Product Manager Should be The Product Owner during New Product Development of Mass Market Products
When companies implement scrum, common guidance states that product management needs to staff up by adding a product owner to the ranks to support the product manager. I believe in some company cultures, this remains the best option. I believe, however, that an alternative model should be considered: While release 1 of a brand new product is under construction, the product manager works only on that product and serves as product owner on the scrum team personally.
This proposal implies a redistribution of responsibility among the product management team — someone else must manage the product manager’s other products to allow the product manager singular focus on the new development. Many teams won’t be able or willing to make this sacrifice, for one or more of many reasons including (1) there aren’t market experts to replace the product manager on the other products, or (2) the cost of bringing in a product owner on the new product is lower. However, there is a primary disadvantage to keeping the product manager on multiple products including the release-1 effort: Lack of Focus.
A Product Owner is often brought in to partner with product management as part of the “product owner team” or “product discovery team“. This arrangement usually involves the Product Owner meeting regularly to ensure day-to-day execution of the product manager’s vision, while the product manager meets with customers, develops pricing, champions the product, and manages the other products in the product manager’s portfolio. Conversely, the Product Owner may not have the luxury of all the customer visits, market research and competitive research the Product Manager used to develop the business plan and the product vision.
Focus is Required for New Product Development
The Product Owner is encouraged to be in the scrum room during a majority of his time, to help with all the day-to-day decisions that go into building the right product. In this arrangement, this means that the person with the deepest direct knowledge of the market and the problems the product is intended to solve…isn’t. When called upon to explain rationale and help with interaction design, or any of the other elements about which the product owner is asked to participate, the product owner must rely upon limited customer interaction and second-hand understanding obtained through others. This leads to weaker positions in discussions with developers, and may have unintended consequences that manifest in the design of the app. These consequences may not be related to something the product owner says–in fact, it may be because of something the product owner doesn’t say.
My proposal shifts over time, potentially offending both Agile purists and Product Management purists:
- The product manager builds out market justification and designs the solution (with the lead designer) before starting construction.
- The product manager allocates a majority of time during construction to development team support.
- During buildout, the product manager strategically allocates mid-sprint time to customer visits and product reviews. This time after working through the current sprint user stories and before the race to capture points at the end, is often a quiet time for the product owner. Note in a two week sprint, this may be roughly 4-5 days of a 10 day sprint.
- Once released, the product manager shifts to spending a higher percentage of time in the market.
This sequence illustrates why this requires allocation of the product manager to the new product exclusively during its initial development — there isn’t leftover time in this model to work on other products. When exclusivity is not an option, the product manager works with the product owner to ensure the solution addresses the market problems. As I’ve mentioned, this separation is risky.
Over time, the product manager spends more time in the market. Why? With the initial framework in place, there’s a known entity to build upon. The design team can handle iterative feature design with less input from product management. And most importantly, the product manager needs to know where the market is going, what problems need to be solved next, what problems the product solves well, and what new product opportunities are being revealed. Those needs cannot be filled if the product manager is in the scrum room.
What are the other options?
One way to counter the risk is to bring the product manager in when anything important comes up, however, it’s very difficult to determine which instance of the “butterfly effect” may require the presence of the product manager. Often the product manager is unavailable, and delaying an answer to arrange a conversation may interfere with the team’s velocity.
Another option is to have the product owner conduct the competitive research and customer interviews to ensure they are market experts as well. But then, isn’t that blurring the lines and having the product owner serve as product manager? And if they’re showing prototypes of the product to customers throughout the construction process, are they as available as the development team needs them to be? Perhaps teaming with a product marketing manager can offload some of the outbound marketing and sales responsibilities, but there will still need to be someone with product and market knowledge guiding the sales of the product and its positioning in the market. And the product owner in this case will be doing a lot of the inbound marketing that is the core of product management.
Are there other approaches? Can these challenges be resolved by having another member of the design team–the user experience specialist–available to the team as well?
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