Agile Product Management

Steve JobsAgile Product Management?  Product Management–when done well–is agile.  If you ask Steve Johnson, product management has always been agile.

What is product management?

Product Management in a revenue-producing product company is responsible for market success of one or more product or service offerings, from inception to end-of-life.

This starts with leading–or at least understanding–Go-To-Market Strategy.

Operating within that strategy, Product drives voice-of-customer efforts, to find market problems that are urgent in nature and experienced by a large enough segment of customers who will pay to solve it.

Market problems may or may not be worth pursuing; to decide, you’ll need to conduct an opportunity assessment.  Once you’ve determined there’s a potential for profit, the idea moves to the next stage of analysis.  This includes identifying the relevant personas, and continues through the product lifecycle: inception, initial development, market release, through (hopefully) market adoption through maturity, and finally sunsetting.  This demands full life-cycle product thinkingrather than timeboxed project thinking, which has many implications on how a product company operates.

There are certainly many opinions about what product management is.

Given that the scope is inception to end-of-life, product management isn’t just new product development!  The job requires a generalist with skills spanning finance, marketing, stakeholder management, product marketing, sales, user experience designproject management and more!  Many product professionals think of Steve Jobs, despite his flaws, as one of history’s great product managers.

The profession isn’t mature yet, but it certainly is ambitious!

Immaturity is why product management certification and training are difficult to evaluate, and even to offer!  The role is really too complex for any one program to teach everything, and really because so much of it relies upon organizational structure, relationships and influence.

The Need for Agile

Product managers have a wide spanning job.  Over time, engineering teams felt starved of the attention of the one person whose vision was being built.

Big-up-front-requirements (BUFR) documents were an attempt to specify everything up front, but as a paradigm, failed to deliver results. One of the many reasons for failure was cost over-runs because of changed specifications.  Product managers were changing their minds about requirements months into a development project–because the world had changed.   Requirements may not be the best mindset to have.  The market demands a development approach that can adjust to a changing marketplace.

Product management was acting in an agile fashion, but the waterfall process prevented engineering from delivering.  As I put it in March of 2012, the business needs us to be agile, too.  I also recommend a post by Roger Cauvin from 2009, in which he deftly asserted that “Agile is Not Just a Development Methodology.”

As agility has matured, we’ve seen the rise of dual-track agile as a way to address short-term direction refinement within the context of long term product vision.

Startups and Growth

In this second phase of the internet land rush, startups have changed their focus to growth. Startups, growth companies and enterprise product companies with immature products are all trying to maximize growth. This means product management has to return to its roots in whole product thinking.

Side note: I believe, in a sense, the term “growth hacking” refers to what product managers should already be doing. Even if they aren’t coding the landing pages, they should be designing experiments to capture validated learning.

Some of the discrepancy corresponds to what product managers no longer do, due to their recent morphing into agile product owners.  As product owners, they’re focused on defining the product in (excruciating) detail on an ongoing basis, and being available for clarification at all times.

Over time, this leaves little time to think big picture, or to properly understand the market.  A single person who understands the whole picture is ideal to deliver the first version of a product to market.  Once a product is delivered to live customers, however, the product ownership and product management responsibilities need to be split sooner rather than later.

One of the key challenges in agile product ownership is managing commitments.  To avoid making commitments you can’t keep–or pushing developers to predict the unknown and thereby forcing them to leave–you’ll want to work towards a roadmap that de-emphasizes dates.  At the same time, you want to build a culture of delivery and encourage velocity.  Not an easy job!

Market Facing Product Management

The product manager has immense responsibilities across the business in a commercial product company.

The product manager must understand the market, not just single buyers.  This may result in new product inception or enhancement ideas / feature requests, to drive revenue on his/her product through the ongoing effort of prioritization.  They write opportunity assessments to obtain needed resources.   They have to sell the vision.

That vision must paint the picture of a product that solves problems for a target group of customers, and in order to avoid competing on price and features, it should be positioned in such a way as to occupy a unique place in the mind of the prospect.

To understand the marketplace and identify a unique position within it, product managers must engage in competitive analysis.  The positioning can drive the prioritization of features so that the product is most compelling to the identified market segments.

Product managers have to balance the iron triangle, consisting of cost vs. time-to-market vs. feature set, to deliver quality.  They try to avoid the risk of releasing a minimum sellable product–pushing not just for “minimum viable product,” but going further, to a minimally robust product.

They set the vision for the product or portfolio of products, as tangibly as possible, and manage efforts to sell the vision of the products to come as well as the product that already exists.  They participate in demos and sales calls and work with sales engineering extensively to ensure value proposition is portrayed, prospect insights are captured, and the proper prospect and client expectations are set.

Internal Facing Product Management

Product managers manage executives and their expectations.  They may manage a team of product managers, product owners and/or business analysts, and user experience designers in the context of an agile enterprise.  They balance the short term vs. long term, including defect fixes, implementation gaps, and features the sales team feels pressured to promise in order to deliver more sales.  They pay special attention to implementation gaps because those often impact revenue recognition.

They keep internal teams coordinated, in particular the sales team with regards to the intermediate term roadmap, and the implementations teams with regard to recently released features and features about to be released.  They solicit input from prospects, directly from current clients, and indirectly from implementations teams.

Product managers consider risks: business risks, technical risks and cost/schedule risks.  Product managers own and manage roadmaps and drive towards a product vision that may be best captured in a prototype that can be used to tell the story of what life will be like when this idea is made tangible, and sell that future state to prospects.

They may need to drive marketing and positioning that cuts across individual products in a portfolio to deliver targeted solutions composed of bits of several.  John Mansour of Proficientz speaks frequently about “Product Silos” and encourages companies to think more holistically.  The folks at Innovation Games advocate the “Whole Product Game” which may help think beyond Mansour’s silos.  The key objective is to ensure a company doesn’t simply sell widgets, but sells the solution to the problem the widget addresses.

The Experts

Occasionally, I share wisdom from some of the most accomplished of product managers.  For example, in late 2012 I shared a 45-minute talk by Marty Cagan, “Making Products Customers Love” at Mind The Product 2012.  I had the honor of sitting on a panel with Marty and 2 other individuals at the Georgia PDMA Summit in 2011.  You can see me in that video, looking away from Marty as another panelist speaks.  I diligently read and tweet his posts shared by email on the SVPG email list and frequently revisit his book Inspired for, well, inspiration.

Also late in 2011, I conducted an audio interview of Rich Mironov.  Though this is the only audio interview I’ve conducted to date, I fully intend to conduct more….someday. 😉  Rich’s Product Bytes is a regular source of inspiration and guidance, and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him in person during a visit to the Bay Area.  Listen to the interview for some interesting insights!


TL;DR: There’s nothing to it! 😉


Photo credit: Flickr

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