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Checklist: Survive and prosper with Agile

journal-sm-agileIf you’re a product manager wondering how to get the most from Agile and Scrum we’ve compiled this list of 5 key areas to help you understand what you should be focusing on.

1. Product manager vs product owner?

One of the key aspects of Agile is working very closely with someone who understands what the customers want for the product. The role is critical to drive what is developed. In Scrum this role is called the product owner and involves prioritising the backlog of features, answering day-to-day questions, providing sign-offs and feedback. Done properly it takes a large commitment of effort and time.

Product management is set up by companies in different ways. However a fundamental part of the role is gathering customer requirements and defining the products that the company sells. So product managers are ideally placed to be product owners. The challenge is that most product managers have a range of other responsibilities that keep them very busy, e.g. in-life product management, product marketing, supporting sales.

In our view, as a product manager you must not give up control of what is being developed for your roadmap and must find a way of taking on the product owner role.

Industry comment

“I think the Scrum term product owner is a misnomer and worry at the ‘scope creep’ that seems to be promoted by some Scrum advocates that gives more and more product responsibilities to this project-based role, e.g. budget, strategy. To my mind, the product manager owns the product and I much prefer the term backlog manager for the Scrum role.”

Saeed Khan, Industry expert and founder of Transformation Labs

One way is to have one or more backlog managers. These may be business analysts or team leaders who take on the product owner role for the duration of the project. The key is that they have at least a dotted line reporting into you so you’re involved in the prioritisation and sign-off of work.

Another option is to split the product management role so that one person take on the inbound activities of working with the Agile team to define and deliver the product and someone else takes on the outbound role of helping the business market the product.

Whatever happens you need to avoid taking on the full product owner role without first getting your job definition and resourcing sorted out.

Industry comment

“Should you assume the product owner role as a product manager? It’s a great question. Although as a product manager you often have the knowledge, experience and leadership skills – you probably don’t have the time! However the alternative can be someone too junior (who needs lots of hand-holding), or someone from development who has little understanding of your customers and an undoubted conflict of interest.”

Derek Britton, Independent Product Management professional and Agile commentator

2. Manage your stakeholders

Development may be releasing new versions of the software every 4 weeks but marketing won’t want to launch a new product each month and most customers won’t want to receive and deploy it.

In product management we have roadmaps for good reasons. When selling to businesses the sales process can take a long time so it’s important to start discussions early about when products or features will become available. Another reason is that we often need to plan in advance to meet specific launch windows such as the Christmas rush or a major industry event. And finally our organisations, suppliers and customers all need to be able to plan ahead to work efficiently. So as product managers we like to plan the future and be in control…. smooth releases with a full set of features, delivered on time to an expectant market.

With the iterative and evolutionary nature of Agile you might ask “How can I market a product when I have only a limited view of what will be in it or when it will be available?”

The trick is the careful management of what’s being delivered and communicated to your organisation and customers. You need to control what is released, when to release it and when to talk about it. Setting the right expectations and ongoing stakeholder management are critical.

3. Find customers to work with

The beauty of Agile is how changes in product development direction can be easily accommodated by re-prioritising the product backlog for the next iteration. If at all possible you should be setting up an early-adopter programme to recruit customers who are keen to get their hands on new features in return for providing feedback.

It can be a challenge finding customers to work with so be careful to make sure the customers you choose are representative of the market as a whole.

Industry comment

“Agile gives product managers great opportunities to offer early-adopter versions to customers and get good, instant feedback – prototyping and user validation help make great products.”

Derek Britton, Independent Product Management professional and Agile commentator

4. Build credibility with development

Whether you’re in daily contact with the development teams as the product owner or working with a backlog manager you need to build your credibility with development. Development needs to have faith that you understand the market, have thought through the product direction and can lead the prioritisation of requirements otherwise, they might just go off and do their own thing.

You can do this by making sure you’ve clearly communicated your vision for the product, responding to questions in a timely fashion and by making yourself aware of the main development issues and any potential impacts.

5. Embrace Agile to get the benefits

Agile does bring huge benefits to software development and as a product manager you can reap the benefits of an Agile approach if you strive to make it work. Remember, that as a product manager who is also a product owner, Agile holds you to account! You have the freedom to direct the development teams, respond to changing markets and customer requirements – there is no excuse for launching with a product the market doesn’t want.

However for Agile to be successful the whole organisation needs to embrace it. This takes training, process development and ongoing support. So, as a product manager, don’t be afraid to ask for some Agile training.

Industry comment

“In my experience, one of the biggest challenges implementing Agile is the cultural change. It’s not that hard to change processes, tools or even skills – but changing hearts and minds can be a huge challenge.”

Derek Britton, Independent Product Management professional and Agile commentator

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